In September 1999, local hip-hop promoter Wendy Barr invited more than a hundred of her closest friends into a not-quite-finished space on Market Street, a portion of LoDo known for its sports bars, trendy restaurants and even trendier people. It was the grand opening of Liquid, a dance club that sought to exorcise the ghosts of those that came before it. Most recently, there had been Tonik, before that Modeans, and going further into pre-ballpark history, others that had come and gone like so much cheap cocaine snorted off of linoleum bathroom counters. At the time of the opening, Liquid had a homemade, shoestring feel: There was a futon sitting squarely in the middle of an upstairs room; a DJ made jerky, awkward scratches on retro dance records. Few seemed to care, however. Come 10 p.m., the dance floor was full, the crowd was juiced, and Liquid was launched. Barr went home exhausted. And happy, as in the perpetual state of a person who has decided to go for it -- to risk money, time, embarrassment, reputation and loss in the pursuit of some small-business dream.
Independent business ventures weren't new to Barr. In 1998 she had officially formed Lock Jaw Productions, a company that would go on to successfully manage local artists and promote hip-hop events in Denver. Lock Jaw initiated regular hip-hop and DJ nights at the now-closed Soapy Smith's that same year, then at the F-Stop and Lucky Star in 1999. At the same time that she formed Lock Jaw, Barr incorporated Co2 Packaging, a company that created promotional materials for clubs, artists and individuals. So when she got word that local realtor Larry Wright, president of the 1410 Corporation and owner of the property at 1410 Market Street, was looking to sell or lease the empty space, Barr decided to add "club owner" to her roster of responsibilities. She approached Wright with a proposal: She would lease an office inside Wright's building to run both Co2 and Lock Jaw, and she would open the larger space as a nightclub with a hip-hop emphasis, something to bring a little more culture, diversity -- something modern -- to lower downtown. Wright would hold the club's liquor license in the beginning. If Liquid took off after a trial period, Wright would sell the business and the property to her. Wright agreed, papers were signed, hands were shaken, employees were hired. (Liquid boasted about twelve staffers, while Co2 had seven or eight.) Furniture was brought in (the futon was from Barr's home) and invitations to the opening eventually mailed. People came on opening night, then gradually started to come back. Barr admits that the first four months were mercilessly slow. Small-business owners suffer the agony of a flailing venture acutely; like most, Barr struggled with the question of whether her club would catch on. But in December, Barr got her answer. "The club started to hit," she says. "We started doing great. I worked so hard to keep my head above water, and then it was like, boom -- there's a crowd. It's all different, all races -- it's a scene."
And then, she says, "it was like we had the rug completely pulled out from under us." The rug-pulling came quickly after countless newspaper articles following the murder of Emily Johnson, the elementary-school teacher who was beaten to death on New Year's Day. Barr's club became the focus of publicity because her employee and unofficial partner in Lock Jaw was Robert Davis -- the man who was seen at Liquid with Johnson, his girlfriend, seven hours prior to her death, and who was later arrested on suspicion of her murder. Though Davis was cleared in the homicide investigation, his arrest dredged up some ugly truths about his past and present.
Davis is a convicted felon, serving two concurrent community corrections sentences for drug-related offenses in Arapahoe and Denver counties -- the first for sixteen years, the second for five. Statements Davis made while he was in police custody revealed that he had violated the terms of his sentence: He had been at Liquid at night, and he had consumed alcohol. After that, he had driven a car (Johnson's) and spent the night at Johnson's home. Davis and his lawyer, the high-profile defense attorney Gary Lozow, are still waiting to see how the violations will affect his life in the long term. Lozow contends his client should be allowed to participate in a private community corrections program (the Arapahoe County program, which rejected Davis after his arrest in January, is unwilling to reaccept him), while prosecutors want him in prison. (At press time, Arapahoe County District Judge Robert Russell had yet to rule on Davis's sentence, and Davis was awaiting that decision from the Arapahoe County jail; a Denver County judge's ruling to send him to jail for five years has been stayed until a hearing on February 24.)
Robert Davis didn't murder anyone, but his affiliation with Liquid put that club six feet under.
Larry Wright was not at all amused to learn that Davis, a person whom he had come to know as an integral part of Barr's operations with both Co2 and Lock Jaw, harbored a few secrets: an involved criminal record, a history of substance abuse, an obligation to pee in a cup on a regular basis for the Arapahoe County Residential Center. But even though his job placed him in direct and frequent proximity to alcohol, one of Davis's vices of choice, he was apparently not violating his sentence by working at Liquid. Davis's caseworker at ACRC and Sandra Caldwell, a probation officer with the 18th Judicial District, had jointly approved Davis's employment at Liquid and Co2, as long as he worked only during daytime hours and didn't handle alcohol.
"Basically, because of all of the media and publicity about Robert, Larry just kind of freaked," Barr says now. "He didn't know about Robert's past. But the past is the past. I didn't talk about mine -- my divorce or anything like that -- when we made the deal. But Larry felt like he wasn't aware and should have been told. He said, 'I don't associate with felons,' and that was that. Case closed."
Soon afterward, the club -- and the Co2 Packaging office -- closed as well. In early January, Wright terminated the deal, booted Barr and put the Liquid building up for sale. The future of the space is as uncertain as Davis's, though Michigan import Kris Slocum, who owns a successful Michigan-themed bar in Chicago, has filed a letter of intent to buy the establishment and turn it into a "regular bar with a comfortable, Midwestern vibe," as well as an occasional venue for local bands.
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But Barr, who remains loyal to her troubled friend, insists the show could -- and would -- have gone on without him. (Recent publications, including the February issue of 5280, have referred to Davis as a co-owner of Liquid; Barr claims they were co-owners of the Liquid concept, not the bar.)
"We did well with the space, and [Wright] didn't need to panic. Robert is my partner. I will never have another one, and that's that. But I could have run the club by myself. I mean, what's the life span of a club? I had an investment in Liquid -- not just of myself and my finances, but to my employees. I had blood, sweat and tears in that place. And now it's like, because drinking some champagne on New Year's with your girlfriend justifies sending a man to prison, I've lost my club, too." Wright, a longtime entrepenuer of the Denver scene (think the late Manhattan Café on Market Street, and the first attempt to turn Herb's Hideout into a hipster's hangout), did not return repeated phone calls from Backwash.
For now, Barr is struggling to maintain daily operations of Co2 and Lock Jaw. She's also considering ways in which Lock Jaw might re-enter the entertainment realm and initiate outreach programs for troubled youth. "After what happened to Emily [Johnson], I've realized that a lot of youth are crying out for help."
Pundits, sociologists, Oprah -- perhaps even Robert Davis himself -- would venture that such outreach might have helped deter Davis from crime and drugs, might have helped keep him away from a universe shared by lawyers, judges, cops, pee tests, handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. Unfortunately for his partner Wendy Barr, Liquid's sentence has already been passed down, and the case, as Wright decided, is closed.