Cover Story

Staging a Comeback

by Nathan Stubbs

After its last manager failed to move Grant Street Dancehall off its namesake street and gutted its autographed dressing room walls, new owners are reviving the legendary live music venue.

Don Kight stands with his hands in the pockets of his grey suit pants, intently surveying the mosaic of graffiti surrounding him.

For the past 25 years, Grant Street Dancehall's backstage walls have reflected the building's historic past. Ink, stickers, photographs and autographs from Leon Russell and Lil' Buck Sinegal to Asleep at the Wheel and 311 tell part of the Grant Street story, along with humorous messages like a top 10 list of things overheard backstage at Grant Street. (No. 1 is, "What do you mean our beer?")

After Kight took over the business three years ago, the stout baldheaded amateur bluesman was a fixture in the club's dressing room. "I got lots of memories here," he says, stroking his thumb over his red goatee. "Some of the most hilarious stories you've ever heard in your life."

He helped himself to some pieces of the wall as mementos ' a process he started when he cut out legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan's signature on his second night as club owner.

Kight is having a hard time letting go of Grant Street. With his finances running dry and his lease set to expire, he is facing the reality of letting a lifelong dream and a Lafayette cultural institution slip through his fingers. When he first announced plans two months ago to pack up the floundering business at 113 Grant Street in search of greener pastures, media reports that followed, most sourcing only Kight, told of a cultural landmark sounding its last, teary note and portrayed Kight as an innocent victim. One KATC-TV news report even announced that the Grant Street building was going to be razed into a parking lot by its owners.

It was a masterful public relations campaign by Kight, whose trials sounded like a blues song. He claimed a greedy landlord forced him from the building, attorney's fees overwhelmed him, and downtown sprawl gobbled up the club's parking lot. He also cited the decline of the music industry and even said high gas prices in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita were a contributing factor in the failure of his business.

The reality is that under Kight's management, Grant Street became a shell of its former self.

Last week, the beloved old red-brick music club by the Jefferson Street underpass was still a wreck following Kight's recent departure. The dressing room walls were checkered with patches of missing sheet rock, exposing blocks of plywood. More than a half-dozen of the desktop-size missing pieces were stacked up like tiles in a corner with another stack packed in a cardboard box. Some contained the signatures of noted Grant Street performers such as Robin Trower and the late Greg Futch, and one read "Zach Attack," a reference to Zachary Richard.

Elsewhere in the building, garbage and random articles of clothing were strewn about. The bar area was littered with empty bottles and loose cables. Kight's landlord, Tim Mahoney, a representative of Garden Properties LLC, was stunned when he saw the condition of the building. Not only was Kight in clear violation of his lease, but he now also faces possible criminal charges for destruction of property.

"Things that are movables, and that would include speakers and that kind of stuff, that clearly belongs to [Kight]," says Mahoney. "But walls, you don't tamper with the walls. And you don't take out plumbing. That's the least of the problems. It also could be considered worse than that."

"It's horrendous what they did," Mahoney continues. "I just didn't see the purpose ' not just cutting holes in the wall but trashing the building. It's a childish act and it says, 'Hey, you wanna start something?' I don't want any more trouble. I just want the new tenant to get into the building and start doing some of the things he has planned. And us to normalize relationships with a normal tenant."

The new "normal" tenants appear to be a new breed for Grant Street.

Grant Street Dancehall will soon be in the hands of Wide Eyes Entertainment, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, whose principals have strong ties to Lafayette and deep pockets made from innovative Internet start-up companies.

Wide Eyes' managing partner is Richard Rosenblatt, CEO of Intermix Media, the parent company of MySpace, which just sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for $580 million. In 1994, he co-founded iMall ' a company that sold five years later for $565 million.

Lafayette native Dave Maraist has signed a 4-year lease with an agreement to purchase the Grant Street Dancehall building by mid-March. Maraist is now finalizing a partnership with Wide Eyes, who will become the majority owner of Grant Street Dancehall. Over the next three to four months, the company plans about $500,000 worth of renovations to the 80-year-old building. And as of last Thursday, the group had reached a verbal agreement with Kight and his partners to buy the rights to use the Grant Street Dancehall name, in addition to all of its memorabilia ' including pieces Kight took from the building. As a part of the deal, Wide Eyes would assume the responsibility of repairing any damaged walls, and Mahoney would not report to the police that the building had been vandalized.

Wide Eyes President Paulo Emanuele is a 42-year-old LSU graduate who plans to restore a youthful energy to Grant Street. Speaking on his cell phone from the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world's largest electronics trade show, Emanuele describes Wide Eyes Entertainment's office, which occupies a hangar at the Santa Monica airport, as a "very alive environment."

"We operate a really tight ship," he adds. "We're very conscious of the customer. I would have never made the decision to move down there, move our interest down there, if I didn't understand the dynamics of Lafayette and what is still missing. I really do think that there's a group of people out there that will be excited to see Grant Street come back alive."

The group is planning a complete tune-up of the business, from establishing an innovative Web site and more frequent bookings to significantly renovating and expanding the club.

With the purchase of the building, Wide Eyes instantly obtains approximately 1,750 square feet of space that sits behind Grant Street's stage. The room now serves as a storage facility for the building's owners and has never before been used by Grant Street Dancehall's previous operators.

"The idea is to go in there and logistically remap where that stage needs to go," Emanuele says, "and open up some areas and create a much more musician-friendly green room with facilities so a musician can feel comfortable."

Other remodeling will include sanding and polishing the wood floors, bringing in a new bar, and renovating the restrooms. Wide Eyes is also working with the Seattle-based Mackie company on installing a state-of-the-art optical sound system at Grant Street. "They're really excited," he says. "This is going to be one of the firsts of what they call 'roadhouse projects.'"

To complement the system, a strong, diverse booking strategy is essential, says Emanuele.

"We're going to try and keep it as traditional as it was before, with roots rock," he says. "But I wouldn't mind stretching a little bit and saying that we would like to have a little more eclectic talent coming in from other places. We have some really great strong bonds with musicians [in California], and we'd like to push that down there."

Grant Street will become the fourth club owned by Wide Eyes. Its first foray into the live music club scene was in 1993 with downtown San Diego's Green Circle Bar ' an urban hipster lounge that helped launch the likes of funk/jazz band The Greyboy Allstars, hip-hop titans The Roots and pop/folk singer Jewel.

Emanuele says Lafayette is ripe for a mid-size, high quality music venue. "There's a huge void out there of people providing quality live music. We wouldn't be branching out from California and coming back home had we not seen a surge in people going out and experiencing live music.

"That's why House Of Blues is on the up and up as well," he notes. "They're expanding and going into these medium size markets offering quality venues with high-end sound systems," which he says Lafayette has never had.

The club's booking will be anchored in Lafayette by Maraist, Grant Street's director of entertainment, who secured the building's lease through his business, DMar Ventures. The UL graduate moved back to town last summer from California. His uncle is prominent Lafayette businessman Mike Maraist, who is a partner in Garden Properties, the company that is selling the Grant Street building, but the elder Maraist has no business interest in the new venture.

Emanuele also has roots in Lafayette. His parents, Anna Fournet and Peter Emanuele, still live here. The group's chief operating officer, Gary John, is from Houma. For the partners hailing from south Louisiana, Grant Street holds special meaning. Both Maraist and Emanuele remember growing up during Grant Street's glory days ' a scene they are eager to restore.

"It was a ritual to come down to Grant Street in the '80s," Emanuele says. "We want to restore Grant Street to the way I remember it in the '80s. We're going to go in there and renovate, bring back the floors, bring back the walls, and bring back as much of the memorabilia as we can get our hands on."

From Don Kight's perspective, he has done more to keep Grant Street Dancehall's heritage intact in recent years than anyone else. He and his partners bought the business with the intention of preserving it. And he says all of his subsequent actions ' including cutting musicians' signatures out of the wall and pushing to move Grant Street to a new location ' reflect that commitment.

"It's been important to me personally," says Kight. "It's been important as a business strategy. You had a place that people had forgotten what value it had." Kight had always dreamed of "a little blues bar where my friends could come and set up and play for a crowd. We'd have live blues around the clock. It was going to be a little corner bar. That was the concept."

Kight and his three partners, all from the medical community, formed an LLC named Southside Production. The partners include Stephen Jolissaint, a Lafayette doctor who has since moved to Texas, a New Iberia doctor who has remained a silent partner and Scott Hoover, who works at a New Iberia orthopedics clinic. Kight, who has a full-time day job analyzing hospital regulations, served as the business' managing partner. (Jolissaint and Hoover did not return calls for this story.)

Southside Production bought Grant Street in 2002 for $75,000, according to sources close to the deal. The bar's previous owners, attorney Warren Ashy and Jim Panos, gave it up after discovering it took a lot of hard work, late nights, and a keen sense of the music scene ' just to break even.

"Grant Street, so everyone knows, has never been a real big moneymaking operation," says landlord Mahoney. He noticed the business first go into a slump after former owner Mike Roach left in the mid-90s.

Under Kight's tenure, Grant Street attracted few national touring acts, suffered from poor promotion and began losing some of its most tried and true acts to other competing venues.

In the past year, the bottom dropped out on the business. (Kight says attendance was down an average of 40 guests per show in 2005.) Even Grant Street traditions such as the Festival International closing night jam and the Please Come Home for Christmas show bailed on Grant Street, opting for Blue Moon Saloon and NiteTown, respectively.

On top of that, the roof began leaking. Kight and his partners had signed a triple net lease ' meaning that it was responsible for all repairs to the building. Landlord Mahoney offered to pay half of the $50,000 roof bill, and Southside still balked at paying the $25,000 difference. Kight says he sought legal assistance during the dispute, and his bills began to stack up.

In addition to the roof dispute, when the group went four months past the deadline to notify Garden Properties about an option to renew its lease for another three years, Mahoney suspected that the Southside Production partnership was splintering.

"The conversations I was having with [partners Hoover and Kight] were completely different in nature," Mahoney says.

Though his lease clearly says he needs prior written consent from the landlord to make any improvements or modifications to the property, Kight never bothered informing Garden Properties about the signatures he took out of the wall ' something Mahoney only recently discovered.

While he never infromed his landlord, Kight wasn't shy about showing off his handiwork to guests at Grant Street.

During a walk around the building last month, he pulled back the dressing room refrigerator to reveal his first cutout in the drywall. The gap marks the fabled spot where blues guitar icon Stevie Ray Vaughan autographed the dressing room wall during one of his visits to the club in the 1980s. Years later, following Stevie's death in a helicopter crash, his older brother Jimmie, a renowned bluesman in his own right, signed the wall underneath his brother's autograph.

"A lot of people have asked about that," Kight says, pushing the refrigerator back into place. "Everybody knew it was here, but with the refrigerator in place nobody knew where to look for it." Kight found it and sawed the signatures out of the wall on his second night running the club.

Asked if he had the right as club owner to take out pieces of the wall, Kight says they were more tied to the business than the building.

"I'm not trying to do damage," he says. "I'm trying to preserve. I have a responsibility of repairing the building. I'm repairing this. This [is grafitti], so I'm fixing it." Prior to the Dec. 31 expiration of his lease, Kight pledged that the walls would be patched up before he left. He didn't keep his word.

Kight's master plan for the autographed wall pieces was to cover them in plexiglass and mount them into a giant display that he could transfer to another club.

"I said when I first got in here," Kight notes, "[that] I just don't want Grant Street to close on my watch. And then through events that I felt like I had no control over at all, it was closing on my watch. This location was going to be no more. So I began scrambling for some alternative of, 'Where could I move it? What would work?'"

On Nov. 15, after never hearing back from Southside Productions' on renewing the lease, Mahoney signed a letter of intent with Wide Eyes Entertainment to lease and subsequently purchase the building.

At around the same time, Kight announced he was actively seeking new sites to relocate Grant Street. Soon after the word got out, Kight felt the backlash from the community in the form of hate mail and disturbing phone calls.

"They believed that it was just a malicious move," Kight recalls. "They said, 'You don't realize what you're doing. It can never be Grant Street any place else. You're taking that away from Lafayette.' You know, it was that kind of stuff, with lots of obscenities."

Meanwhile, Wide Eyes had already begun negotiating with Kight and his partners over obtaining the rights to the Grant Street name. Kight was resistant to selling, hoping to move the name elsewhere and find new partners. But his old partners wanted to recoup some of their losses, and renewing Southside's lease wasn't an option.

Citing irreconcilable differences with his landlord, Kight began circulating the story that after 25 historic years, Grant Street Dancehall was shutting down. News of the club's closing ran in the Houston Chronicle and the L.A. Times.

For his last act, Kight scheduled and heavily publicized a "Farewell to Grant Street" concert on Christmas night ' and was the final performer on the stage that night. After the show, he even scrawled a "Thank You Lafayette ' Grant Street 1980-2005 ' 25 Years" message on the front of the building.

"I think it's a bit selfish [for him] to think that it's all over there and that any one person would be the end of that place," says guitarist and Grant Street regular C.C. Adcock.

Only recently has Kight begun to sound like he's accepting the end of his Grant Street tenure. "I've had a lot of time to reflect, and this is the time of year you do those sort of things," he says in a recent phone interview. "As I look back it was a financial disaster for my partners, but for me, it was a personal success." Kight is exploring other options for a future nightclub, but for now, he's taking some time off.

Landlord Mahoney is just glad the ordeal appears to be over.

"I was pleased at the amount of interest there was in Grant Street," Mahoney says. "I was disappointed about some of the reporting, but I figured that it was all going to come out eventually because people were going to find out that it wasn't going to close and that it was going to be a venue like it had been in the past. That would speak for itself."