HOW SWELL IT IS
Two faux-tiger-skin coats, one beehive hairdo and ten pairs of uncomfortable pumps have already passed beneath the giant cat-face sign and tiki torches of the Kit Kat Club. "We told them to please look nice," says Darryl Stubbs. "Well, and they do look nice. But I'm all nerves. There should be a rush by now."
Stubbs takes a few steps out into the alley between Market and Larimer streets. Just north, on 21st Street, a drunken denizen of the neighborhood does a brief double take, as if unused to the sight of a young man in a black-and-gold silk bathrobe and tuxedo slacks holding a pipe. And what's a Jaguar doing in this alley? Meanwhile, a vintage Plymouth pulls up and disgorges two men in their early twenties sporting Butch-Waxed pompadours and the sharkskin sport coats of a bygone age. Stubbs collects two dollars from each of them.
"Nice look, Darryl," one says.
"I'm trying to be Hefneresque," Stubbs explains. "I carry this pipe around, but I don't light it."
"I think it's pretentious," says a young Dorothy Parker look-alike with a sleek black shingle. From time to time she performs a sweeping gesture with her cigarette holder.
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"And the jacket's not? Pretentious is the whole point."
"Oh," says Dorothy Parker. "Right, right."
She heads back into the Kit Kat Club for her second martini of the night, brushing past a confused couple in their fifties.
"Last time I came here, the lights were red, it was called Herb's Hideout and you entered through the front," the man tells the woman. "Now the lights are blue and you enter through the back."
Where the sign says "Kit Kat Club"--but only on Thursday nights. Then, and only then, Darryl Stubbs, self-styled promoter for the early-twenties set, takes over the place and makes it his own. Stubbs is known for his gimmicks--mariachi bands in hardcore clubs, theme birthday parties and cheesy Las Vegas nights--but even for him, the Kit Kat concept is on the edge. Here like-minded and -aged people can partake of such revolutionary activities as listening to the classics as played by a live pianist, getting lit enough to sing a Sinatra song or two, dressing in the grownup clothing of any pre-hippie decade and engaging in polite conversation. Tonight is Stubbs's seventh Kit Kat Club and, though his advertising efforts consisted of nothing more than a few fliers, the room is filling up.
"Either you know about it or you don't," Stubbs says. "I came because I was bored with the usual nightclubs. I figured, if I'm bored, anyone else would be, too. I loved Herb's the minute I saw it, and I thought, Why not turn it into, you know, a swingin' lounge?"
Inside the lounge Stubbs hopes will soon begin to swing, pianist John Pike--who also plays here Friday and Saturday nights for a clientele twice as old and half as psyched--styles lazily. From 9:30 to 10 p.m., the only straight standard he plays is the Carpenters' "Close to You." Recognizing it, an elderly woman dressed for the office begins to sing into her drink.
The seats around her are occupied by two more business types in business suits; a blond, crew-cutted woman all in black leather, who munches her Chee-tos on the downbeat; and James Sharp, who is 24 and snaps his fingers Dean Martin-ly.
Being suave is of supreme importance to Sharp, but his facial expression is all wrong tonight. Too excited. Too smiley. This, however, could be because his 21-year-old sister, Julie, is making her debut as the Kit Kat cigarette girl. She's struck the exact right note, Sharp thinks: little kitty ears on her head, thigh-high stockings and a demure, slightly self-conscious look on her face. Already, she's doing a brisk business in unfiltered cigarettes.
"You can see that these kids are trying to flash back to the Thirties and Forties," says Larry Wright, who did some flashing back himself when he and a partner bought Herb's almost two years ago. The bar had been open for business four decades by then, and the new owners took what Wright charitably refers to as "your basic blue-collar, working-class place" and turned it into a minimalist piano bar. In February, Stubbs stopped by. "He asked if he could spruce up one of my slow nights," Wright recalls. "He said he wanted to make it kind of a fancy affair for 21- to 28-year-olds, make it more like a speakeasy."
Wright had nothing to lose. Although the revamped Herb's was crowded on weekends, few people ventured down to this part of Larimer Street on weeknights. He wasn't averse to attacting a new clientele, and he knew Stubbs had enjoyed some success putting on parties at other clubs. "So we gave it a try, and it was a kick," Wright recalls. "My regulars were skeptical in the beginning, but here's what they tell me now: It looks good, it feels good and these kids are even singing some of the right songs."
"I thought about the name for a long time," Stubbs remembers. "Then I remembered a cartoon where Jack Benny is a mouse and he takes his mouse girlfriend to a Kit Kat Club, and it's where all the hip mice hang out. They wear little mouse ears, and there's a cigarette girl and a floor show. And that's what I wanted."
He cleaned up the alley entry, ordered the Kit Kat sign and briefed pianist Pike on how Thursday nights were about to change. He even gave him some Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins charts, just in case.
Pike had already seen it all, having begun his career at what was probably Denver's penultimate swingin' lounge, the Tropics. "I was only a teenager, and I ran the house band there," he says. "There were strippers like Lili St. Cyr, and this incredible six-piece band. Those were the days of the clubs."
Pike played his way through a University of Colorado music degree, then moved to Southern California, where he worked scoring movies for thirty years. When he returned to Denver in 1990, he immediately gravitated to the piano-bar circuit. "I worked Simms Landing, H. Brinker's, the Manhattan Cafe--and then Larry Wright asked me to work at Herb's," Pike says. "I went to see it, and I didn't like the looks of it. All the winos. My wife and I argued about it. She said, `I think you oughta go inside.' Yeah, I said, and I'll have to fight my way in. But it turned out to be your affluent-type people."
The Kit Kat nights came as an equally welcome surprise. "The kids all tell me the music of today is not worth listening to," Pike says. "So they're reverting back to their grandparents' music, which is good for me, good for Mel Torme and great for Tony Bennett. My theory is: You stay with your own era, and it will come back."
Pike, for example, has always focused on the Forties and Fifties. "The Sixties were the Dark Ages," he recalls. "There were these rock bands like the Grateful Dead and--what was that other group--The Who? I was into bebop then. Now I do a lot of Sinatra stuff. The kids call 'em Frank tunes. Do some Frank tunes, they'll say."
"Do some Frank tunes!" shouts Sharp, unable to contain himself any longer. Pike swings into "The Way You Look Tonight," and Sharp begins to sing--louder than anyone else has all night. He sounds like a world-weary traveling salesman. His peers are impressed. A waitress in a fuzzy black kitten outfit appears with a tray full of martinis and Manhattans. The back door opens, and in comes the crush of people Stubbs has been hoping for. Genteel conversation gives way to the intimate ear-screaming that is the hallmark of a successful evening--with this crowd, anyway. The lounge is officially swingin'. The atmosphere is fabulous. No, swell.
"We all want to be purists," James Sharp pronounces. "We want the essence of elegance, of good taste, of having a swell time. I prefer to say swell. Swell has a little bit of heart."
It is 11 a.m. in the basement offices of Comedysports, the improv group for which Sharp works as a telephone reservationist. It is a swell job for him, as it allows him to sleep late and do what he wants when the phone isn't ringing.
What he wants to do more than anything else is expound on the Lounge Life. His next-favorite activity is living it. He doesn't care that the Lounge movement has already peaked on both coasts and is regarded by some music lovers as nothing more than the province of posers. "To give you an idea," he says, "I was born in Las Vegas. What says Lounge louder than that?"
Although Sharp engaged in brief flirtations with new wave, death rock and gothic music, he's serious about Lounge. "Lounge has stood the test of time," he explains. "It's so presumptuous to assume that people my age are the only ones who know how to party. I see these Thirties and Forties movies, and everybody's at some kind of elegant dinner with cocktails and a floor show--I mean, The Thin Man movies, I love that stuff. And a floor show--how wonderful! I wonder, could we ever pull it off? One of my plans is to meet some of these old people who used to work in the dinner clubs and talk to them and ask them how it really was."
This is just one of Sharp's many Lounge-related goals. He thought of interning at radio station KEZW--"such spirit they have, such swingin' tunes"--but when he found out KOSI was housed in the same building, it gave him pause. "KOSI bows to the altar of the playlist," he says. "They play Barry Manilow, which is atrocious. Low-brow pop."
Which assumes the existence of high-brow pop, one of the infinite Lounge distinctions that might be invisible to the average barfly. "High-brow pop is--Neil Diamond? No, no, no," Sharp opines. "High-brow pop is Burt Bacharach. Burt is an incredible songwriter who sounds as fresh today as when he came out. And he was married to Angie Dickinson."
Angie Dickinson cool? To Sharp, she single-handedly saved the Seventies. (Well, Angie and the Partridge Family.) "The Seventies were a dark time for the Lounge," he says. "It wasn't pure. Lounges that have stayed true are hard to find."
Not that Sharp himself is a complete purist. From the waist down, he is dressed in Fred Astaire's rehearsal outfit from Royal Wedding--but his shirt is all weird American polyester, circa 1974. And he is wearing his trademark matching gold earrings, which are more Grace Kelly than Shirley Bassey.
"I am in constant thrifting competition with my friends," Sharp says, which reminds him that he's planning to write a thrifting column the minute he gets the time. In fact, he will write it for the Lounge magazine he plans to start any day now. "It's going to be called Mint, because mint is a swell word," he says. "After-dinner mint. The Mint Lounge in Las Vegas. A mint is always refreshing."
Mint's first issue, set to appear either this summer or maybe this fall, or possibly even this winter, will be entirely devoted to James Bond--including recipes for seven James Bond-themed cocktails "served, maybe, in a hollowed-out pineapple. Mint is going to be a very alcohol-friendly publication," Sharp says. "James Bond was always drinking martinis, and he's so dapper and suave and smooth with the ladies--the essence of Lounge. I will publish a list of all the James Bond theme songs.
"Not one of them," he adds reverently, "is without appeal."
The phone rings--the first of many reconnaissance calls from Sharp's friends. Like him, they are inextricably caught up in the world of Lounge, burned out by the club circuit yet determined to have a social life.
"We like to hobnob," Sharp explains. "We like martinis and Manhattans. We like to discuss current events."
Until the Kit Kat Club, life was simply too loud for all that. Then Stubbs came to the rescue. He and Sharp had known each other for several years--but then, everyone of a certain age who operates after dark knows Stubbs. It was not until the Kit Kat's debut that the relationship blossomed into mutual admiration. Stubbs appreciates Sharp's ability to stand around the club looking swell, chatting and snapping his fingers to the music. And Sharp is convinced that Stubbs is a genius. The club, he says, is proof.
"It is so stylish, as opposed to whatever else is offered," Sharp says. "It brought socializing to a higher level. Men in ties. Girls in dresses. The Kit Kat Club reeks of style."
By the time John Pike launches into "Come Fly With Me," the crowd is three-deep around the piano. No one remembers many of the actual lyrics--"But hey," Pike says, "some of these kids do an excellent job of singing, anyway. These kids--and they're kids to me--have a lot of class in their own way. I have a theory: A piano bar is a strange thing. People are basically paying to entertain themselves."
"Except we change it up," Stubbs adds. "We include the old standards, but we do modern stuff, too."
"All they have to do is bring in the music if they want to do the music of today, Eagles or whatever," Pike says. "I don't make it a practice to remember the names of these terrible songs, but `Purple Rain' is one of them."
"Most popular songs are fairly easy," Stubbs continues. "Sometimes, after midnight, I'll sit down at the piano and do `Benny and the Jets' or `Spinning Wheel.'"
Or "Luck Be a Lady." Or "Town Without Pity." But not yet. Stubbs is too busy studying the crowd. Yes, the rush has arrived, but now he must observe it for signs of incipient disinterest. Some Thursday soon, he fears, the Kit Kat will hit a plateau and Stubbs will have to get out, fast. This is a skill he learned during a year and a half spent working promotions at Rock Island, and more recently at AD, the downtown club where he still runs a popular Tuesday-night party known as Havashag. Depending on who you talk to, Havashag is either a hip-hop, acid-jazz or skater theme night.
"In England, shag means `fuck,'" Stubbs says helpfully, "but `Havashag' doesn't necessarily translate. It means whatever you want it to mean."
"Let me explain it," offers Christine Schubert, a young Tattered Cover worker in a nose ring and sleek Marlene Dietrich pants. "Darryl always knows what will be amusing, and as soon as something wears out, he knows when to stop. He always has these new developments for the crowd. We all go to Havashag, but it was getting really loud--we have to go outside the club to talk to each other. The Kit Kat Club is an opportunity to wear lovely gowns and smoke unfiltered cigarettes. It's like this: Tuesdays are for dancing and being stupid. On Thursdays, we talk."
"Do you know who that is?" Stubbs asks Schubert, indicating a freckle-faced young man sitting moodily at the piano bar wearing Franz Kafka glasses, drinking a Manhattan and smoking a cigar. "It's the Teledeutsch guy--from cable. He actually sits there, on TV, speaking German for about six hours a day. I can't believe he came to my club!"
"Actually, I speak German for three hours a day, with a ten-minute rest period and a break for lunch," clarifies Clark Nelson, who is indeed the Teledeutsch guy. "I don't know a single word to any of these songs, but I love the Kit Kat Club."
Nelson is just one of the luminaries visiting the club this night. Across the piano bar, Steve Cruz, editor of Fag Mag and a former professional cabaret singer, finishes up a torchy version of "Mean Old Man's World."
"A couple martinis and anyone can sing," Cruz says modestly. A good decade older than most of the Kit Kat crowd, he is firmly established as a regular nonetheless. "Because this is a corps of men and women who are not subliminal brutes," he explains. "Girls have always bought beautiful dresses only to have beer spilled on them on the dance floor. Here you can wear incredible shoes that kill your feet and have them appreciated. You can have a conversation. One-liners are out. Conversations are in."
"Music is coming back instead of garbage," agrees 72-year-old David Gavin, who does a rousing version of "San Francisco." "I follow John Pike around," he explains. "We have fun tormenting each other. For instance, he teases me and tells me I seem to have a bunch of young female groupies on Thursday nights."
There is some truth to this. Whenever Gavin sidles up to the piano, the crowd quiets down a notch or two and a few women in their twenties gather round to hear him sing. "I must have convinced them that it pays to do business with an old, reliable firm," Gavin laughs.
"There's the head brewer from the Wynkoop," Stubbs says. "He's got a couple of Aveda stylists with him. There's the lead singer for Wretched Refuse, Brian Hagman."
"I don't know, maybe I'll sing `My Way,'" says Hagman, who is un-Loungely decked out in jeans and hair grease and swilling beer instead of hard liquor. Hagman's band plays regularly and loudly at Cricket on the Hill and Seven South, but he likes to take the occasional side trip into mellow. His cabaret singing, he admits, is still in its formative stages. "My dad was a square and my mom went to nun school, so I didn't have any proper guidance," Hagman complains. "And I try to sing all the lyrics correctly, but by the time I have the guts to get up there, I've had a few drinks and I forget the words. Luckily, I listen to the Frank Sinatra Reprise collection. It may save me."
Not all Frank tunes have that redemptive power. Someone has just hollered for "New York, New York," and Pike actually seems ready to play it. Sharp must do something fast to keep the Lounge swingin'. And so he lurches into Cole Porter's "Night and Day"--a bit of a desperate move, since he barely knows the words.
On the stool next to Sharp, a dapper young espresso worker named Marcel Galang suppresses a smile. "I thought of this as my song," he confesses, "but I didn't make my move."
Galang is holding the obligatory martini and wearing the appropriate draped suit. He wishes every night were Lounge night. "My father was a cat in his day," he says. "I can dig that I was born in the wrong generation. No. Put this: I'm a music lover and I appreciate a good melody."
"That should be, `In the roaring traffic's boom/In the silence of my lonely room,'" Marcel sighs, "but, oh, well. It used to be my song. It's his song now."
It was swell while it lasted.
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