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The VIP room

No, it’s not for VIPs, although they’re allowed. {if they can find it.}
Saturday, April 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:35 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good luck getting into Quinton’s Bar & Deli. It’s 11 p.m., and the Friday night lineup has already begun, as hopeful party animals queue for a chance to get into the packed establishment. One might not recognize him with his slight frame and bookish spectacles, but that’s Quinton’s manager John Pizzitola darting out the buzzing bar’s front entrance. He hits the Ninth Street sidewalk, heading north with a fleet-footed sense of purpose. Pizzitola passes the darkened entrance to Tonic, the club he also manages, giving a nod to a haggard old gentleman on a nearby bench as he goes. His stride carries him past the blaring sound of John Henry & the Engine’s set at the Blue Fugue and through the mingling crowds accumulated outside the venue. His brisk march doesn’t slacken. He’s got somewhere he needs to be.

But once beyond the venerable Tiger Barber Shop, he veers unexpectedly to the right, into one of the ominous alleys that connect Ninth and Tenth streets. These are uniformly bleak thoroughfares, decorated by local anarchist spray paint and lined with rusted dumpsters. Pizzitola must be taking a shortcut to his destination. But suddenly, another ludicrous detour: He pulls open a door on the right side of the alley, entering what looks like a strange crossbreed between a foyer and a storage room. Now he’s standing in an architectural no man’s land. He can still hear John Henry & the Engine chugging away through the locked door to his right. But there is a competing pulse coming from the portal on his left: an upbeat, dance-oriented rhythm. Pizzitola pulls open the left door and crosses the threshold of Columbia’s most curious and secretive weekend hideaway: the Tonic Lounge.

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In a separate room with a separate entrance, the Lounge serves as Tonic’s de facto VIP area. But there are no velvet ropes to cross here, no rich playboys engaged in rounds of high-stakes roulette, no waiters distributing hors d’oeuvres. It’s just a crazy little dance party tucked behind the brick alley walls. Know the right door to knock on, and you’re in.

One might mistake the Lounge for an urban mirage, the sort of venue one stumbles upon once by sheer coincidence, only to find it barred and deserted the next night. Generally, that’s how the Lounge operates. On Friday nights after 10 p.m., it opens its alley doors to revelers and keeps them entertained with music and drinks until about 1 a.m. For the rest of the week, however, it’s closed to the public, catering to private parties.

“It’s intended to be a little obscure,” says Tonic owner Mike McClung — the proprietor of Deja Vu Comedy Club as well as Quinton’s. “It’s a place you have to know how to find. It’s not shoved in front of you.”

The venue’s publicity leaks out in whispers among friends and acquaintances. Somewhere along this citywide game of telephone, the Tonic Lounge became unofficially known as “the Alley Bar,” because of its unconventional manner of entrance. Many of the people who flock here on this night are curious first-timers, looking to see if the legends are indeed true.

Their search brings them to what looks like a decrepit warehouse spruced up with all the trappings of a modern dance club. The paint peels on the walls, exposed vents and girders hang overhead, and the red and orange candles placed along ledges behind the bar give the party chamber a vaguely gothic feel.

“It’s kind of like a dungeon,” notes patron Rob Hayward, who at 30 classifies himself as an “old fogey” in this scene. He swore off Tonic a good five years ago in favor of more laid-back beer and TV sports establishments, but has returned at the behest of his girlfriend. Hard for him to argue, there.

“The Lounge’s VIP room is kind of top secret,” he adds.

Not surprisingly, the alley bar has developed a peculiar identity crisis. Its posse of bouncers, laser light show and secluded location give it an air of elite exclusivity, but in truth it’s the most inclusive VIP scene imaginable. There’s no cover charged at the door, and except for a vaguely defined dress code – no hoodies or sweatshirts, for example – everyone from royalty to rabble can gain admittance. Glamorous, experienced partygoers mingle freely with the nerdy types who wear Pac-Man characters on their T-shirts. It makes for a bizarre assembly of social delegations, all stuffed into the Lounge’s tight confines.

Regardless of their standing in the club caste system, all patrons seem locked in wallflower syndrome on this particular Friday night. They flock to the loveseats, footrests and café tables that eat away at the fringes of the small dance floor area. Working to break down their inhibitions is the hunched figure of Karl “DJ Gizmo” Giddens, located halfway up the staircase at the far end of the bar. A nine-year veteran of deejaying, Gizmo takes a pragmatic approach to his craft.

“I’ve been doing it for so long, I know what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I play the kind of stuff I would like to hear if I went to a club.”

He talks about deejaying as a collaborative project ­­— gauging his audience’s response to each number, striving to give the dance mob what it wants as he steadily works it up into a riotous state. Given the diverse nature of his clientele at the Alley Bar, Gizmo’s playlist for the evening leans heavily on proven favorites: ’80s pop demigods Michael Jackson and Madonna, classic rock titans Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and perhaps a few modern hitmakers. These are universal anthems, the songs today’s college-aged generation grew up with. No one needs hipster credentials to recognize these immortal riffs and rhythms.

It’s curious to watch how the club’s dance floor gradually blooms from a few hesitant hip-shakers to a sort of collective gyration that overtakes everyone within range. The preliminary rhythmic twitches start on EMF’s one-hit wonder and enduring club classic “Unbelievable.” A surprising mash-up of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Outkast’s “Roses” then prompts a circle of dancers to do their thing. The infection has begun to spread. No one’s a particularly showstopping dancer. There’s an abundance of straight jumping posing as dance, but it works. There’s no prerequisite on dancing ability tonight, and thank God for that — some of the more manic pogoers would have been immediately escorted out of more swanky establishments for not fitting in with the chic surroundings.

As if recognizing the boost in the crowd’s excitement level, the club’s overhead light system kicks into effect. The multicolored lights lurch into activity, swiveling about and flashing in hyperactive strobe fashion, as if trying to focus on everything inside the Lounge at once. Rainbow flashes glint off the metal walls that cover the venue’s eastern half – holdovers from the Lounge’s previous incarnations as a kitchen for G&D Steakhouse and later as a Chinese restaurant.

The jacked-up club ambience, the selections of DJ Gizmo, and — oh yes — lots of alcohol soon have the crowd in a state of perpetual ecstasy. They slur the words of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” into their beer bottle microphones, snap dozens of photos of each other on their camera phones and cram the bar’s oversized wineglass tip jar with dollar bills. The bass hits so hard the entire men’s restroom rattles, lending the impression that the bathroom is trapped inside the subwoofer itself. Finally, the venue feels like a genuine dance club.

But lost in the shadows of the festivities are tonight’s bouncers: Tony Strick and Quinn McAleenan. Both came into this evening as Lounge rookies — it’s Strick’s first night and McAleenan’s “first and a half” tour of duty. The pair posts up on opposite ends of the room, with McAleenan checking IDs at the club’s entrance and Strick vigilantly keeping watch on the stairs that lead up to an internal balcony overlooking the dance floor. Their black security T-shirts help them blend in unobtrusively with the walls. Occasionally, they commit little acts of drudgery, such as wading through the increasingly packed crowd to take empty glasses to the bar. They’re essentially here as figureheads of exclusive security. But these are not the blockheaded bouncers of popular myth.

Strick views this position as phase one of a broader career plan.

“It’s the way to get into a bartending spot,” he says, eyeing the square-shaped bar nestled near the Lounge’s entrance. “You work your way up the chain” — eventually, he hopes, to a job worthy of the MU hotel/restaurant degree he’s working for.

When closing time comes at 1 a.m., Gizmo gives the crowd fair notice by playing a remixed version of Frank Sinatra’s standard “New York, New York.” Lounge veterans know this signals the end of their night and begin announcing their long and varied goodbyes to their friends. Harsh, unsympathetic white lights snap on, shattering the club’s hedonistic spell. Strick, McAleenan and other members of the Tonic staff now march into the battle zone, trying to move the patrons so they can clean the floor.

“Let’s go! Bar’s closed!” they bellow, trying to get the point through to the dispersing crowd’s more inebriated members. Eventually the throng clears, and the staff can sweep up the night’s waste: soiled napkins, discarded straws, glass shards from a broken bottle of Smirnoff, dirt-speckled lemons and limes. Soon, they will bar the scrawled-upon metal door that leads from the alley to the Lounge.

Outside, the expelled flock of revelers continues to mingle. For unwitting passers-by, seeing this assortment of college-aged youth dressed in party finery gathered in a filthy alleyway would seem inexplicable. But for those in the know, this sight is just part of Columbia’s natural Friday night party cycle. The alley bar, whether people know of it or not, exerts its own quiet influence on the local entertainment scene, providing the weekly opportunity for anyone to receive the VIP treatment, without any VIP barriers.


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