Deep in the dead of the first winter weathered by The Dame, then-manager Cole Skinner concocted a promotion to attract patrons on weeknights when no live music was booked. He called it “Kung Fu Motorcycle Monkey.”
The idea was for a guy in a gorilla suit to serve as a deejay for the evening after making an especially flashy entrance. When the event made its debut in February 2004, Skinner, most of his staff and a handful of bewildered patrons were peering out the Dame windows awaiting the arrival of “the monkey.” Then, roaring down Upper St. came one of the oddest sights you will ever hope to discover downtown – a man wearing a gorilla suit underneath full karate regalia riding a motorcycle. Skinner opened the doors and in rode the monkey, cycle and all, to the middle of the club’s dance floor.
Another night at The Dame was underway.
Here’s another snapshot. When a Saturday night performance in 2005 by Austin, Tx.’s Asylum Street Spankers concluded at the ripe evening hour of 9 p.m., the band moved its fans, and the ensuing party they had created, out onto Main St. No, the liquor was not brought outdoors. But the piano was. So any curious motorists driving downtown that night were treated by another fantastic image: a Texan playing ragtime on an upright piano on a Main St. sidewalk.
Admittedly, monkey suits and pianos aren’t what longtime fans of the downtown music club will have on their minds when The Hot Club of Cowtown winds up the last evening of operation for The Dame on Sunday. But they do reflect just a few of the celebratory occasions that gave the club its character.
For many, The Dame meant an astonishing performance lineup of national acts that included X, Alejandro Escovedo, Man Man, The Rev. Horton Heat, North Mississippi All-Stars, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and literally hundreds of others. To some, it’s where local music was nurtured and fanbases were built. But above all, The Dame has been a neighbor. Now part of a decimated downtown entertainment corner and with relocation plans still uncertain, Sunday will officially mark last call for one of Lexington’s most heralded nightspots.
“As far as music goes, I think The Dame has put Lexington on the same level as Louisville and Cincinnati,” said Nick Sprouse, The Dame’s general manager and primary talent buyer. “Even though we have a much smaller population, we have gotten a lot of the same acts to play here.
“Granted, there has been a lot of amazing stuff that has gone on in Lexington over the years at UK, Rupp Arena, the shows Michael Johnathon has brought in and especially Lynagh’s (Music Club). But I think over the last few years, everything has really come together at The Dame.”
Lexington guitarist Willie Eames, who has played The Dame countless times with several local bands – including The Tall Boys and Club Dub – as well as a solo performer, sees the passing of The Dame as unfortunate but somewhat inevitable.
“It’s sad,” he said. “There’s just not that many places to play in Lexington for people who want something different, people who are into a scene other than, say, going to Applebee’s. But I’ve been playing long enough now that I’ve seen several clubs come and go. That’s part of the scene, too. These things are bound to happen. A club can’t go on forever. But it’s still sad when one comes to an end.”
Robby Cosenza, another multi-tasking local musician (he is a member of, among other bands, The Scourge of the Sea and The Apparitions), has also played regularly at The Dame as well as the Main St. club’s previous incarnations as The Blue Max and Millennium.
“But those places never compared to how it’s been with The Dame,” Cosenza said. “I’ve played in a lot of different cities, as well, and there just aren’t a lot of venues like it – places that have the same capacity or the same really open minded, cool staff. It’s been great to have The Dame here.”
Of course, what is making news this summer isn’t so much the actuality that The Dame is closing, but rather how it’s closing. Most clubs that shut down are simply failed businesses. The Dame had its lease bought out as part of the controversial CentrePointe project which, if approved and funded, will level all buildings on the block The Dame now stands on for construction of a 40 story hotel and condominium tower.
Formal plans for CentrePointe were announced in March. But rumors have been flying, literally, for years that the buildings where The Dame and adjacent businesses like Buster’s (which closes tonight) and Mia’s (which has already relocated) resided would close to make way for some kind of downtown redevelopment. And that speculation has weighed heavy on Sprouse.
“For the last two years, it’s been really tough,” he said. “It’s been tough on business, for one thing. Customers say The Dame is going out of business, but so many things they heard weren’t true. The customers wound up not knowing whether we were open or not. Even after the 700th time we were asked if we were closing, no one really knew what was going on – including us.”
CentrePointe’s formal announcement didn’t clear the air much, either. Sure, plans for the project were officially on the table. But The Dame’s relocation was – and still is – up in the air.
“I’ve had to turn down so many bands that wanted to play here in August, September and October because we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”
One thing is certain, though. Even if The Dame finds a new home and signs a lease today, it could be months before a new venue would be renovated and equipped enough for the club to resume business.
“I could use a little bit of a vacation,” Sprouse said. “It would be nice to get over to Al’s Bar and other spots to see what else has been going on in town. I haven’t been able to see shows as a customer for years.
“But honestly, I’m kind of numb to it all right now. This has been going on for two years. I’ve been talking about it for so long that I’m out of words to even explain myself.”
For everyone else, though, the squeeze of not having a live music venue in town on the level of The Dame, will be swiftly felt. Audiences haven’t experienced that kind of pinch since Lynagh’s Music Club closed in 2002.
“I think it’s going to hurt for awhile,” Cosenza said. “The big loss will be that the national touring bands will have nowhere to come to that’s smaller than Rupp Arena. The locals will find places to play. They always do. But for everyone, it’s going to hurt.”
“A nice sense of community has grown around The Dame over the years,” Sprouse said. “For a lot of people, going out, seeing music and even playing meant The Dame. Now all of that’s gone. It’s like a family member has died and we don’t know what to do.”
at top: The Dame on the night of the sold-out CD release party of local hip-hop stylists CunninLynguists. The date: June 22, 2007 – exactly one night before The Dame’s final night of downtown business. photo by Herald-Leader staff photographer David Stephenson… above, left: Vice Mayor Jim Gray outside The Dame last spring before walking the site of the proposed CentrePointe project