Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Backstage Diplomat - He Removes the Brown M&Ms, plus Local Website Review: Karaoke Kings
HE REMOVES THE BROWN M&MS – BACKSTAGE DIPLOMAT
Brian Lewis didn’t hire the entertainment while serving as venue manager for Humphrey’s bar and concert showcase on Shelter Island. However, he feels the experience he gained there from 1990 to 1992 prepared him for booking and marketing jobs at several pivotal San Diego venues, including Mission Beach’s Catamaran resort hotel where he ran their Cannibal Bar.
“Humphrey’s was doing about fifty concerts a year, sometimes two shows on the same night. My job was making sure the performers were satisfied when they got there, setting up the backstage catering and fulfilling all the requirements passed on by the production manager. Or [I worked] from a list written into the ‘rider,’ [which is] part of the performer’s contract.”
Early on, he worried about being starstruck, but working closely with the venue’s famous guests wasn’t as intimidating – or as disillusioning – as he’d feared. “The type of acts at Humphrey’s aren’t usually known for bad behavior. Most…found the place so comfortable, they’d just relax and be regular people, their everyday selves. I didn’t recognize him at first [but] Huey Lewis was talking to me in the hospitality suite while we watched Clinton lying through his teeth on TV. Dana Carvey would come into the inside stage and just chat with everybody. George Benson will hang out at the pool bar and drink Mai Tais and then come inside and say ‘hi’ to people.”
He feels that most performers, especially A-list draws with the most to lose, don’t want any trouble due to the media’s willingness to tear them apart. “It’s usually in the audience where you find people with the biggest problems. The funny thing is we can have Michael McDonald and everyone’s dancing in the aisles and drinking like fish and nothing happens. Then Tony Bennett comes in…and we had trouble with this older woman acting up.” He says the woman was drunk and shouting, upsetting nearby patrons. “We had to kick her out and put her into a cab, and she was fighting the whole way.”
Growing up in Point Loma, the diverse tastes of his six older siblings exposed him to a wide array of songs and performers, but Lewis’ early career goals had little to do with musicians, nightclubs and Bennett-crazed inebriates. “I studied business in college, worked for the Spagetti Factory chain and at one point I was taking maitre de jobs and planning a career in food service.”
Twenty-seven years old in 1985, Lewis replied to a want ad by mailing his resume to a blank PO box. “I thought I was applying for a fine dining job…it turned out to be Diego’s on Garnet (Avenue, in Pacific Beach). I’d been there maybe once or twice with a friend but Diego’s liked me, liked my ideas and they said they wanted to hire me for a management position, with a generous salary.”
The offer caught him by surprise. “I think [I was hired] because I was creative and artistic, and that helps in designing ads and promotions. I was always interested in how things were sold. [I] even studied magazine ads, billboards and TV commercials.”
His new career allowed him to put his flair for design into new menus, a kitchen layout, newspaper advertisements and event promotions. “The weekends would be so busy that we’d need the weekdays to lick our wounds and recover in time for the next weekend. We did about five mil[lion dollars] that year…the dollar margaritas special was going on and we’d have lines around the building.” Diego’s and other nightclubs hoping to attract new patrons operated “in the spirit of friendly competition, whereas today it’s more of a battlefield.”
“There was Wrangler’s Roost in El Cajon for country [and] contemporary rock at Park Place, which is now a bowling alley. Our only real competition was Confetti’s in Mission Valley. They had a thing called Club Piranha, adult alternative music…I did a parody of [their] event and called ours ‘Club Mean Fish.’ The ads had a giant big mouth bass swallowing a piranha.” Asked about his proudest accomplishment during the two years he worked at Diego’s, he replies “I guess [it was] making the place busy every night. I brought in KGB on Sundays, on Mondays we had $1.50 Name That Drink, 91x had their own night…the crowds came by having radio stations sponsoring [events].”
A partnership in a Mexican restaurant drew him briefly to Washington state, but he soon returned to San Diego to take a job as marketing and promotions director for a new club then dubbed Belmont At The Beach (later the Hop, then Chillers and currently ‘Cane’s). “I went head to head with my former employers at Diego’s. Their biggest thing was the Tuesday Dollar Margarita night and so on the same night I had 91X at Belmont with ninety-one cent drinks. Bikini contests had started there and I brought that over to Belmont…we just kind of buried them.”
However, Belmont never developed as he’d planned. “There were so many operational problems. We opened without a liquor license while we waited on it from the ABC so it was hard to compete with other bars. Plus, the dynamics of the beach area are low priced meals and we were serving expensive dinners. And from the get-go, there were protests about the whole Belmont Park development, on the liquor license, on the roller coaster being rebuilt…they [the residents] didn’t want the noise, didn’t want the traffic, didn’t want the natural things that happen when you develop and improve [an area]. The biggest problem was that the place was owned by a limited partnership of forty people. I put in a lot of blood and sweat but it didn’t end up working out.” He quit in early 1990 and the club was closed by summer.
“I ended up taking a position at Humphrey’s, in charge of entertainment and management for the inside bar and venue management for the outdoor theater.” The outdoor theater presented noise problems, though not from the music being too loud. “At some of the quieter and more intimate shows, we’d have people in the audience talking too loud, drowning out the music. We’d try talking to them about it at first and if they continued to cause a problem we’d have to remove them.”
He inked the next credit on his resume in 1992, when he took a marketing position at the Barefoot Bar, in the Princess Resort on Mission Bay. “Every Saturday and Sunday, we had a band called Doctor Chico’s Island Sounds…then their lead singer got arrested and went to jail for being a PB rapist! The group had gotten really popular and only one of the seven guys was a criminal so I met with them and talked them into staying together.” Lewis came up with a new name, the Banana Republicans, and the band remained a staple at the club for several more years.
He feels his marketing strategies for the club made it very profitable. “We did things like making footwear optional and you could even wear a bikini in the bar. There’d be a line for two hours to get in and we got to a business level where we did a hundred thousand dollars in one day. The previous year before I came in, I think they did less than a half million dollars in business. By the end of my first year there, we were doing two million."
As to whether he received percentages or bonuses from the increased profits, Lewis replies “Let’s just say I quit in 1994.”
After taking some time off to try his hand at consulting work and fatherhood, he accepted an offer to work for Humphrey’s once again. “When the Rolling Stones played the stadium, we did a promotion called ‘Gimme Shelter Island.’ We rented three double-decker buses and had two hundred and twenty tickets for the show. [We] offered a package deal for $150.00 that included a commemorative T-shirt, a three course dinner, beverages and a tribute band called Sticky Fingers played a three hour show in the [Humphrey’s] bar. Then we put everyone on the bus and all of us went to see the Stones with Carlos Santana.”
In early 1999, the General Manager of Paradise Point, which had formerly been The Princess Resort, made what Lewis calls an offer he couldn’t refuse, if he’d return to work at the Barefoot Bar, a position he accepted and kept for nearly two years. “We almost doubled our previous numbers for the best day [income]. But at the same time, they were changing format and going through an entire renovation. The [marketing] I worked at didn’t match what the new owners wanted. They were catering to people willing to pay top dollar for the rooms. They didn’t want music festivals or theme nights, which is fine, that was their decision, but it kind of eliminates what I do for a living.” He walked away from Barefoot in August 2000.
Lewis’ next position was booking the Cannibal Bar in PB, bringing in top-flight acts like former Animals leader Eric Burdon and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, as well as Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Mason and The Psychedelic Furs.
“There’s a lot more competition nowadays,” says Lewis. “You have the Indian casinos, there’s Cox Arena. Humphrey’s ties up eighty-five to a hundred performers a year. Viejas is up and coming...when all the other clubs are bidding against each other to pull in a touring act that can only do one night and one venue in San Diego, I have to get pretty creative to come out on top. But I like being creative. And I definitely like being on top.”
LOCAL WEBSITE REVIEW
“Everybody’s in showbiz, everybody’s a star,” joked Ray Davies back in the Stone’s Age. That lyrical whimsy has become a reality, as Karaoke sprouts all over the local club scene like kudzu.<p>Sandiegoscene.com posts a list of venues hosting sing-a-long events, as well as a show calendar (not updated in some time), booking contacts, and writeups spotlighting local KJs (Karaoke jockeys) and performers.
“History” is revealed on a page tracing Karaoke’s name to the Japanese phrases "kara, or "karappo," meaning empty, and "oke," short for "okesutura," or orchestra.
“Karaoke Likes And Gripes” allows empty orchestra aficionados to bitch about each other. Singers’ top gripe about other singers? “People who you know have been singing on the circuit for years and still do the same five songs every time.”
KJs top grip about singers? “People who come every week and ask if you have anything new...then sing the same old songs anyway.”
Singers VS KJs: “Hosts who do the same jokes night after night.”
KJs VS KJs: “Other KJs stealing my books to copy my song inventory.”
Club owners get the final bitch slap with “All those slow songs bring down the party atmosphere of my place.”
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford
More like this:
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- Painting Rock Stars, plus Behind the Scenes: Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors — May 8, 2008
- 25 Local Musicians Reveal “My Favorite Twilight Zone,” plus Local-Produced Zone Comic Books — April 3, 2008
- This Guy Mooches Meals Backstage, That Guy Removes the Brown M&Ms — April 2, 2008
- Secrets of Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors, Mojo & Zappa Comix, [Paint]Brushes With Fame — April 2, 2008