Party Down

Tangerine. Lo. The Chocolate Bar. All of them brought to you by the genius of Blake Brokaw. All of them dead. The king of St. Louis nightlife reveals his dark side.

Still, people do seem to be relocating to St. Louis' core. Nearly 2,000 residents moved into new condos, lofts and apartments downtown in the past three years, according to statistics from the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. Occupancy rates for those properties stand at 86 percent for new rentals and about 81 percent for new condos.

Tom Reeves, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Now! begs to differ with Brokaw and his naysaying ilk.

"The Washington Avenue redevelopment was certainly an inconvenience for a number of businesses down here, but that was over a year ago. I think most of the businesses have said that their business is tremendous today and are looking forward to very bright futures," Reeves says, pointing to successful new eateries such as Wasabi. "I think the market is very strong, and a number of operators are starting to come in. I don't see the street construction as an excuse today. I think that's pretty weak."

Jennifer Silverberg
Blake Brokaw living the "rock star lifestyle" on Washington Avenue in 1998.
Jennifer Silverberg
Blake Brokaw living the "rock star lifestyle" on Washington Avenue in 1998.

But Scott Gilmartin speculates that the city, along with tenants who have purchased lofts, would prefer to see the nightclubs off Washington Avenue altogether.

Not so, claims Reeves.

"I think the small operators and the clubs add the personality and the funk that really creates this district, and we need all the diversity, both from simple to complex, to make this whole thing work. I think that's why most of them chose to live down here. The streetscape improvements have really taken the activity level on Washington Avenue to a new level that is terrific.

"Smith & Slay's closed too, and that's not a reflection of the market in Clayton," Reeves concludes.

There's little reason to suggest that Brokaw didn't give it the old college try on Washington Avenue. Besides taking up residence there, he served as president of the Washington Entertainment District Association, a self-described "collective of restaurant, bar and nightclub venues dedicated to presenting and preserving urban culture and nightlife in downtown St. Louis" that has since disbanded.

"It was just frustrating. We just couldn't get a lot of people. Nobody would join the association," Brokaw says. "It was just a kind of 'take the money and run' thing. Nobody wanted to take any civic responsibility."

--anonymous graffiti,
Tangerine men's room

"We're gonna party like rock stars!" DJ John "The JB" Bauer hollers again and again from his lofted position above Tangerine's kitchen.

The restaurant's long, narrow main corridor, wedged between the bar and the wall, is jam packed. Brokaw warned earlier that he'd be hard-pressed to free up any time on Tangerine's last night -- he'd be too busy partying and picking up women. The women, for their part, seem unusually excitable. Back rubs are freely given, phone numbers generously distributed. The entire evening has had a night-before-the-apocalypse feel, and rather than fret about the end of life as they know it, the assembled free spirits aim to go out with a bang.

But for a while now Brokaw's been quietly, somberly nursing a Tsing Tao, reflecting on the impending premature death of his bar.

Behind the counter in a sailor's cap, Matt McMullin is focused on serving giant cocktails. On sale for five bucks a pop (1996 prices!) on this final night, his repertoire includes the Burroughs (Crown Royal and Chambord), the Ginsberg (a cosmo with Grey Goose Orange and blue Curaçao) and the Kerouac (a Maker's Mark manhattan), each of which comes with enough booze to fill a one-pint shaker and is served with a strainer.

As the night lurches on, the looting veers toward the outrageous. Bob Cassilly takes back loaned paintings, ripping them off the wall. Wine flutes and ornate martini glasses are repossessed by patrons, and former employees help themselves to free beer. By the end, nearly all the booze is gone.

At 3 a.m. a beautiful girl comes up and plants a big kiss on Brokaw's forlorn lips. He looks tired.

The evening ends with Frank Sinatra's "Tangerine," the Mercer/Schertzinger song for which the bar was named:

Tangerine, she is all they claim
With her eyes of night and lips as bright as flame
Tangerine, when she dances by, señoritas stare and caballeros sigh
And I've seen toasts to Tangerine
Raised in every bar across the Argentine
Yes, she has them all on the run, but her heart belongs to just one
Her heart belongs to Tangerine

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