We'll Always Have Short Vine...

Bogart’s, the Midwest’s premier showcase music club, celebrates 40 years by moving into the future and reconnecting with its storied past

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Walk the Moon

F

orty is an interesting age. If you’ve played your cards right, you’re in pretty good physical shape, you’re young enough to still dream and old enough to benefit from a little wisdom based on the calendars you’ve accumulated.

This year, Bogart’s, the venerable Corryville nightclub, turns this interesting age. Some will say anniversaries are different than birthdays, and they’re right. People don’t get makeovers and reinvent themselves when they’re 7. Still, Bogart’s has experienced a life as real, as colorful, as downcast in despair and as jubilant in triumph as any living, breathing human being. Bogart’s is a tangible entity, with a personality as integral to the shows it has hosted as any of the thousands of luminaries that have graced its stage over the past four decades.

The club’s entertainment history stretches back to 1903, when the building housed the Nordland Plaza, which ultimately hosted a vaudeville theater and then a cinema. By the ’60s, brothers Pete and Bill Georgeton purchased the property and transformed it into a popular venue called the Inner Circle.

There is an almost unbelievable level of chance, irony and coincidence in 2621 Vine Street’s transition into Bogart’s. First, the club would never have existed if Lorain, Ohio native Al Porkolab hadn’t attended the University of Cincinnati in the mid-’60s. Porkolab also worked at Reflections, another popular nightspot, as a doorman, bartender, server and promotion/advertising guy.

After graduation, Porkolab relocated to the East Coast, where he worked on the staff of eventual New York City mayor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller. As a result, Porkolab spent time in Washington D.C. and met some of the era’s highest-profile politicians, including future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“I met him three or four times; he was dating Nancy McGuinness, who he then married,” Porkolab recently recalled from his Cleveland home. “Nice gentleman. I was always in awe of him and Nancy; they were both brilliant beyond your wildest imagination. I felt I had the IQ of a frog after we talked.” 

Porkolab returned to UC for graduate classes in the early ’70s. During his second tenure at Reflections, he began thinking about his longstanding club dream.

“Since I was in high school, I had this idea — and I remember the drawing I did — for this nightclub which I called the Chateau,” Porkolab says. “Why I called it the Chateau, I have no clue. I know I never would have called it the Chateau, but I called it the Chateau. So I said, ‘I want to try and do

something.’ ”

Around then, Henry Kissinger was feted at a dinner at the Cincinnati Country Club, to which Porkolab scored a personal invitation from Kissinger. He, his roommate and one of his professors went to the dinner looking very much like campus radicals. They couldn’t have seemed more out of place.

“Everybody was there; the gentleman who showed me around said, ‘You see the gentleman with the cane? That’s Mr. Gamble,’ And I go, ‘As in (Procter & Gamble)?,’ ” Porkolab says. “He introduced me around as a friend of Dr. Kissinger’s and everyone was cordial, but (more like), ‘Yeah, sure, OK.’ (Kissinger) walks in about 30 feet from me, and he’s talking to all the power brokers — Bob Taft, Gene Ruehlmann. He saw me, excused himself and walked over to me. He takes my hand and says, ‘Alan, how are you?’ After dinner, everyone is giving me their business cards”

In 1974, Porkolab knew the Georgetons’ wanted to sell Inner Circle, and he lined up partners to buy it, but found himself short. On a chance, he called Central Trust Bank president Oliver Birckhead, whose card he’d received at the Kissinger dinner.

“We made small talk and I said, ‘You told me if I ever needed anything to call you,’ and he said, ‘Sure, what do you need?’ I said, ‘I need $75,000,’ ” Porkolab says. “He says, ‘No problem, talk to this guy and we’ll take care of it.’ So really, Henry Kissinger is responsible for Bogart’s.”

***

With funding secure, Porkolab and his investors purchased the Inner Circle and began renovations. Porkolab, a rabid fan of the Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca, had a specific idea for rebranding the new nightclub.

“The real name of Bogart’s is Bogart’s Cafe Americain,” Porkolab says. “I wanted to call it Rick’s Cafe Americain, because in the movie, when the major’s looking for Victor Laszlo, the inspector says, ‘He’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.’ And I thought, ‘What a great tagline.’ I was sitting with a friend at (nearby restaurant) InCahoots and he went, ‘That’s way too sophisticated. No one will get that.’ I wasn’t trying to be sophisticated, I just thought it was neat.”

The “cafe” part of the name was not incidental. Porkolab intended the nightclub to offer an incredibly accomplished menu (“We had Tournedos Rossini,” he notes) in addition to the best local, regional, national and international entertainment.

“It was a really ambitious, sophisticated menu, and it didn’t work,” 

Porkolab says. “We even had palm trees. Every dollar we made cost us $1.30. It’s very difficult to mix music and food in that way. We started to scale back to a more burgers/sandwich place. That didn’t work, either. It really made more sense to have the seating. We opened it up and went from 250 (capacity) to I think 450 before the expansion.”

Early on, the band dressing room was above the kitchen at the front of the building, and the riser-height stage was in front of the current proscenium stage, which had been walled off. The artists came through the kitchen and then walked to the stage through the crowd, a unique setup to say the least.

In the first seven years of the club’s history, a parade of Hall-of-Fame artists appeared on the Bogart’s stage. U2, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, Elvis Costello, The Police, Prince and hundreds of others played the club at the dawn of their careers. Elektra/Asylum even paid to have Don Henley’s birthday party at Bogart’s. It was an amazing period in Cincinnati’s musical history.

Just as amazing was how quickly Porkolab became acclimated to the high-stakes game of working with agents to secure talent. Porkolab brought no experiential learning to Bogart’s, instead teaching himself by sheer will and constant repetition.

“When I first started calling agencies, I had to legitimize who I was,” Porkolab says. “They don’t want to put artists in venues that were not where they needed to be. I called agencies in New York and L.A. and said, ‘This is Al Porkolab from Bogart’s in Cincinnati,’ and the person would invariably say, ‘Al who?’ As time went on, I would just say, ‘It’s Al Who calling,’ and they knew right away. As the reputation grew, I didn’t have to give them a litany of all the artists who appeared here.”

Porkolab bought out his partners to become the club’s sole owner, but debt piled up faster than revenue. Porkolab’s father Alfred, who passed away last fall just short of his 100th birthday, stepped in to help — his friend Stan Aronoff helped establish a payment schedule for his debtors — but also offered some cautionary advice.

“My girlfriend Jamie and I lived on Hamburger Helper Rice Oriental, literally. There were a lot of sleepless nights,” Porkolab recalls. “My father bailed me out and told me, ‘Your mother and I now have a sizable investment in this and we believe in you, but I expect you to pay me back with interest and run this business at a profit, and if you don’t, I’ll find someone that will.’ Without him, there would be no Bogart’s.”

At one point, Porkolab realized that Ohio was going to adopt the 21-year-old drinking age and understood that underage drinkers would go underground and not frequent the club.

“I realized if we went to 21 (and over), it would be difficult to book those artists and get a crowd to come to Bogart’s,” Porkolab says. “And no one was as tough as we were in our control policy. We threw 1,200 people a year out of Bogart’s, confiscated 300 fake IDs; we kept a record with incidence reports. So we went to all ages, and I think we were one of the first showcase clubs in America to go all ages. It would have been difficult to survive had we not done that.”

In the late ’70s, Porkolab partnered with Steve Liberatore, a promoter in Columbus. Together, the pair formed an in-house production company for Bogart’s, and, once again, Porkolab’s Bogart fixation steered the naming convention — Casablanca Productions was born.

By 1981, Porkolab realized if Bogart’s was going to attract bigger names and enjoy bigger paydays, it would have to be physically bigger. Plans took shape to expand the club to its current capacity, a project that took four months. With the remodeling, Bogart’s capacity rose to 1,500, and the club’s calendar exploded with an amazing array of talent. Stray Cats reopened Bogart’s in April 1982, and the anticipated bigger, better parade commenced, James Brown, Psychedelic Furs, The English Beat, Iggy Pop and Peter Tosh among them.

***

At this juncture, I’m obliged to Lester Bangs myself into the story. I moved to Cincinnati in January 1982, and about a month later found myself outside of Bogart’s on a Sunday afternoon as the cacophony of circular saws and hammered nails erupted from the club’s open doors. As I looked into the darkness beyond the front hallway, I thought to myself, “This is going to be an important place for me. I’m going to be involved here somehow.”

In late March, I took a full-time job as a typesetter/production artist with Clifton Graphics. Within weeks, I met Porkolab, who had done his pre-remodel printing with the company and was returning for posters and flyers to publicize the reopening. My soon-to-be girlfriend told Porkolab that the print shop had just hired a guy with design experience and called me over to meet the owner of Bogart’s. I did a variety of projects for the club for more than a year, until their promotion/publicity manager returned to Cleveland after her husband’s job transfer. I interviewed for the job and was hired in May 1983. I left that position six months later to join the newspaper The Entertainer as a layout artist but continued to work with the club as a freelance designer, doing posters, flyers and newspaper/magazine ads.

Throughout the ’80s, Bogart’s — already established as a logical tour stop for artists en route to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland or Columbus — became one of the Midwest’s premiere music showcases. Dan Reed, a onetime DJ for Oxford, Ohio’s 97X and now music director/on-air personality for WXPN in Philadelphia and talent coordinator for David Dye’s syndicated World Cafe program, met Porkolab when he tried to get him to make good on his offer to pay local band The Libertines $100 for an opening gig after reducing it to $50 because of slow ticket sales.

“I’d quit WOXY and came back from Europe with literally a dime in my pocket,” Reed says. “Al listened to me bitch, then he said, ‘You used to be at 97X,’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘If you can come in here and help me book shows, I’ll put you on the payroll.’ Al gave me a job when I didn’t have one, and with no experience at all I learned the ropes the best I could; before long I was booking the club. I loved it. He trusted me and let me do what I wanted to do. I had fun because God knows I wasn’t getting rich, but my street smarts came from Al.”

In addition to assembling a great crew (including janitor Handsome Clem Carpenter, who was the longtime voice of the club’s concert line), Reed broke musical ground at Bogart’s.

“We brought in all that crossover Metal stuff — Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer, Anthrax,” Reed says. “That was the first time that was done on a consistent basis. And the local Metal, too. How many times did (Cincinnati Metal band) Chastain play there? Millions. That was a goldmine in those days. What I liked best was we could have The Guess Who one night, Slayer the next night and Ronnie and Debra Laws the night after that. I saw a ton of music; Jerry Lee Lewis was one of my highlights. I brought in the (Columbus, Ohio Punk Funk band) Royal Crescent Mob; I think they did eight or nine years in a row on New Year’s Eve. I gave The Afghan Whigs their first big shows.”

By Porkolab’s own admission, he was a music fan, but far from comprehensively knowledgeable. He relied on suggestions from all corners, particularly the staff, when it came to booking talent, with one name in particular taking prominence.

“You remember Mike Reilly?” Porkolab asks. “Mike used to work at Bogart’s, and he was phenomenal. I’d say, ‘Mike, who should we bring in?’ and he’d say, ‘Echo and the Bunnymen.’ I’d go, ‘What?’ He’d give me all these names, and I’d go, ‘Really? OK.’ I think we were on the cutting edge of Alternative music.”

Just as importantly, Bogart’s became a locally scaled representation of the big time, particularly for area bands who were routinely offered opening slots for national acts. When a hot but untested band was booked at Bogart’s, the standard marketing tactic was to book a local opener with a strong fan base to help nudge ticket sales along. As a result, local and regional bands in every genre hoped to include a Bogart’s opening stint as a bullet-point in their press kits. My personal philosophy was, “Bring in a fan of one band, send home a fan of two bands.”

“It was a chance for them to hear themselves on stage, and we told them they’d get $100 and a case of beer,” Reed says. “I liked that we were able to pay them what we told them we were going to and nobody played for free, for the most part. It was a bigger, nicer experience than what most people were used to.”

The post-remodel era was not without its controversies. The teen dances that were hugely popular in 1985 were a point of serious contention that year, as Corryville residents claimed the young patrons’ disruptive behavior after the dances’ 4 a.m. finish was detrimental to the neighborhood. Mayor Charlie Luken personally requested Porkolab end them, which he eventually did. Later, a fight outside the King Diamond show in 1986 resulted in a stabbing death. But Bogart’s weathered every storm and tried to placate and answer every critic.

***

In 1988, I returned to the Bogart’s family to helm a publication we christened Ink Wire. It was a six-month experiment that didn’t pan out. I stayed on for another year doing design work for Bogart’s and Casablanca until they were forced to lay me off in 1989.

Prior to my departure, Michael Walter, a young man from Louisville, Ky., who was then living in Cleveland, called looking for a job at Bogart’s. Porkolab hired him to manage the club, which he did for two years, after which Walter left town for a succession of radio jobs.

“I figured I’d seen almost 900 bands in two years,” Walter says. “I learned the rules of mosh pit, the best way to have security handle people, the worst way to have security handle people. It’s a whole different ballgame. Back then, you did the show, handed all the paperwork to Janis (Liberatore), she performed some magic trick and you closed it up and did it again the next day.”

In the ’90s, Bogart’s began booking a fairly solid and wildly popular calendar of Metal shows, which were punctuated by a few Hip Hop, Punk and Alternative Rock acts. In 1994, Aaron Gizara was hired to do load-in and load-out on a per-night basis and wound up being added to the payroll within a few weeks. He’s been there ever since, now serving as the club’s production manager — he might hold the record for longest-tenured employee in Bogart’s history, neck and neck with longtime maintenance man and the second hardest-working man in show business, the late, great Lou Birri.

“The saddest thing that still happens is the bands look forward to Cincinnati because they think (Sudsy Malone’s, the now-closed Laundromat/bar/club across the street) is still there,” Gizara says. “I’ll see them come across the street with a bag full of gear and a big smile because they think they’re getting a beer and clean clothes. And I’ll be like, ‘Guys, I got some bad news’ ”

Gizara has been on hand for some of the club’s major benchmarks over the past two decades; as Walter notes, nine out of 10 tour managers know Gizara, and the 10th will know him soon enough. One of his favorite experiences was seeing Beck perform at Bogart’s, then head over to Sudsy Malone’s to play an impromptu late set there (Gizara and his crew helped the band load in to Sudsy’s after loading them out of Bogart’s). But one of the most unexpected experiences was Bob Dylan’s show at Bogart’s in 1999.

“I expected to see a corpse walk up, but I met him at the back door and his bodyguard came in and Dylan said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ “ Gizara recalls. “And I was like, ‘Holy crap, that’s Bob Dylan.’ That night, I was running spotlight, and he was dancing around and I thought he was going to break a hip. He was doing Elvis twists, and at one point he did a kick that looked like he didn’t land right. But it was a two-and-a-half hour show and I was watching in amazement, and I’m not a big Dylan fan.”

By 1997, Porkolab’s marriage had ended and he was a single father. He realized that his need was greater at home than at the club, so he contacted the large Nederlander agency, which had previously made him an offer on Bogart’s, and moved out of the day-to-day activities (he still owns the building and leases the space to Live Nation, which bought Nederlander’s stake in Bogart’s in 1999).

“Live Nation does a phenomenal job,” Porkolab says. “I don’t think the club has ever looked as good, even when we opened it up. And they do a phenomenal job in the operation of the venue, which is near and dear to my heart. I can’t say enough good things about them.”

For its part, Live Nation understands the value in the history of Bogart’s and is looking for ways to get back to the diversity of programming that was the club’s hallmark in the beginning.

“To be successful, you have to reach out to a variety of demographics of people who live in the community, and to serve the community you have to diversify your content to reflect the people in your community,” says Michael Grozier, Live Nation’s EVP of clubs and theaters, who says the company views Bogart’s as a Top 10 club venue. “We have to reach out to all sectors of the community. We want to be a community asset. It’s a club we’ve invested a lot in over the years because we believe in the club, but also in the market and the neighborhood. We see the neighborhood ascending, and Bogart’s has always been a vital part of the story there.”

Over the next dozen or so years, things remained largely unchanged at Bogart’s, from the music programming to the condition of the bathrooms, which elicited responses typically reserved for outhouses. In 2011, Live Nation brought in Karen Foley to revitalize the club, which she did with a vengeance, retraining/revamping the staff, diversifying the bookings and overseeing the first substantial remodel since the 1982 expansion, which included new bathrooms, new/improved VIP areas, a fresh color scheme, better seating for patrons with disabilities and the interior installation of the Bogart’s script logo sign (designed by local cartoonist/illustrator Mike Streff just after the club’s reopening), which fronted the marquee until its replacement in the ’90s. Both Grozier and Porkolab agree that the lion’s share of the credit for the club’s resurrection is due to Foley’s heavy lifting, and yet she tosses it right back to Grozier’s vision, Porkolab’s dedication and her employees’ fortitude.

“I’m so lucky to have been the leader and to get a lot of the credit, but it really was everyone who worked there, and that energy went from inside the club to outside the club,” Foley recently said from her new home in Riverside, Calif. “When I saw the bathrooms, I went to the hotel and cried. But I pulled myself together and I said, ‘Somebody’s going to do it. Why not me?’“Mostly what I wanted to do was create a sense of pride among the employees by being a good leader and listening to them, because they had good ideas. When I left three years later, it was with a huge sense of pride.”

As Bogart’s speeds toward its golden anniversary, Live Nation is taking the long-view as far as future goals, but it is simultaneously mindful of the club’s incredible history.

“We want to keep evolving the space, whether it’s comedy or more local music or parties,” Grozier says. “We’re working with (neighboring restaurant) Hangover Easy to develop the land between us for outdoor events. I think it’s (about) finding ways to serve the university and to partner with the community to create big Short Vine events.”

After three years of steady improvement, Foley decided to approach new challenges and left her position as Bogart’s manager. Live Nation ultimately chose a familiar face to replace Foley, hiring former club manager Walter, known to local radio listeners as Fin, to pick up where his predecessor left off.

“When I knew I was leaving, he’s the first person I called and I joked, ‘Do you want to come back? I’ve got a venue for you,’ “ Foley says. “He called me the next day and said, ‘I couldn’t sleep all night. Tell me what’s going on.’ I knew he was perfect because he has that history, I knew he would take care of it, and I knew he could help celebrate the history of Bogart’s.”

Walter brings an interesting perspective as Bogart’s heads into its fifth decade. He managed the club in its admitted heyday, and he worked on promotions from the radio side, so he completely understands what both sides require to consider any particular event a success. More than that, Walter totally gets the position that Bogart’s occupies in the hearts and memories of its past and future patrons.

“Over the past 40 years, the way people consume music has radically changed,” Walter notes. “That experience is completely different — vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD and now MP3. But that doesn’t matter; the experience of people that come to Bogart’s hasn’t changed. The physical space is different, but the feeling they have after they’ve seen their favorite band is the same. The jolt that people felt when they saw The Hello People in 1975 is the same jolt they’ll feel when they see AWOLNATION tomorrow night, and that’s pretty cool. We want to make sure that’s how they’ll feel for the next 40 years.”

Bogart’s couldn’t have the next 40 years without the first 40, and Porkolab has never forgotten how the Midwest’s premier music club earned that esteemed title.

“Our first national recording artist was The Hello People, and we did two nights, four shows, so a thousand people,” he recalls. “(The band’s drummer) said, ‘You know, a lot of clubs have tried this in Cincinnati and none of them have succeeded. I hope you’ll support this club and help it to succeed.’ That’s why we were successful, because the people in Cincinnati and the Tri-state supported the club. We got in very good artists and people wanted to see them. And there was our great staff. I don’t think there was any magic to it.”

Some ultra-conservative calculations indicate that somewhere north of four million people have passed through Bogart’s doors, and it’s likely higher than that. Magic may not have brought them to Short Vine, but magic surely happened there, and the chance to experience it again has kept them coming back. However it’s classified, its pull and presence is undeniable.

Here’s looking at you, Bogart’s, magic and all.


For more BOGART'S 40TH ANNIVERSARY coverage, check out personal reflections from CityBeat's Brian Baker and Mike Breen, former Wizard Records owner John James, and sidebars about Prince's 1984 visit to the club and the infamous Heavy Metal Wheel of Sex.



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