Cheetah Clubbed

The Washington Avenue nightclub loses its spot

After an entertaining whirlwind run, the Cheetah Club, at 1224 Washington Ave., has closed -- which probably isn't all that surprising: It was born under a bad sign, and though it drew impressive crowds in the year following its 1998 opening, those tapered off dramatically in recent times. The quasiredesign that was to occur earlier in the year proved to be less than impressive, and the semiridiculous attempt at rejuvenating the business with a basement gay bar failed to bring in the desired numbers (though the loinclothed servers were a nice touch).

But the club's run sure was fun to watch from the sidelines: all the drama; the lawsuits; the rumors; the uptight, fist-happy bouncers; the ridiculous 'tude; those loincloths. All made for good fodder and gossip, and we'll miss having such a huge target on Washington Avenue.

It was designed to attract the young and the beautiful, and it did, in addition to bringing in some of the world's best DJs, courtesy of then-Cheetah booking agent Keith Ketcham, who, more than anyone else, made the club into a house, trance and techno mecca. When he left the club earlier this year (Ketcham says he quit, the Cheetah says he was fired), the quality DJ bookings tapered off dramatically.

But the music was only part of the fun of keeping track of the Cheetah; more entertaining were the lurid rumors, lawsuits and behind-the-scenes scrambling. After Ketcham left the picture, what was left was a struggling club owned by swinging bachelor William Stallings Jr., who was more concerned with real-estate investments (he helped broker the Chase Park Plaza redevelopment deal and owns a number of downtown buildings) and fighting bank-fraud charges (he lost, having pleaded guilty in January to defrauding Southwest Bank out of more than $435,000) than running nightclubs. In fact, toward the end of the Cheetah's run, Stallings Jr. didn't even own the club; he sold it in April of this year to his father, William Stallings, for $100.

So why's the Cheetah closing? According to Stallings Jr., the Cheetah's closing was caused by a number of factors. "The reason we closed the Cheetah," he said in a voice-mail message (follow-up calls went unanswered), "was, first of all, there was a water-main break that happened right outside of the Cheetah that flooded our basement and messed up our foundation, which is going to take about three, four, five weeks to be repaired. At the same time, coincidentally, we sold it. We're in the real-estate business, not the nightclub business, and we had an offer that was more than fair, and we accepted it. There's not a whole lot more to it than that." Given the club's track record, questions inevitably arise as to whether there is more to it than that.

No word on the new owners, but here's hoping they bring back the good DJs; as it stands now, Washington Avenue's left with only one club that consistently brings top turntable talent, and that's Velvet. Downtown needs some competition.

LOCKED DOOR: Even more devastating to the local music scene, though, is the closing of another club, the Side Door. Just as the dust had settled on constant rumors of musical reshuffling and a shift toward a more "palatable" booking policy, whammo, the humble workhorse of the indie-rock community was shuttered; the club canceled its remaining gigs, put a handful of folks out of work and left homeless an entire contingent of local musicians who regularly gigged there. "There wasn't any 'OK, this is going to be our last show,'" says Side Door manager Lisa Turallo of the club's sudden demise. "The decision was made for everyone. It wasn't like anyone decided to close last night. We couldn't reopen."

In hindsight, that isn't surprising. Seldom these days was the Side Door packed, usually only occupied by the diehards; occasionally a big show would arrive to pack the place, but these were few in the general scheme. "If this club was in Chicago, I think it'd be fine," says Turallo. "Money-wise, just the nature of what it is, it's not going to thrive in this town."

These sentiments are almost a carbon copy of those uttered by former Karma owner Shawn Collins, who struggled to bring in national rock and hip-hop acts and ultimately failed, which leads to the big question: Is there a market in St. Louis for a venue that books small-scale touring rock bands? Or are the few hundred people in tune to indie rock just too small an audience to make any club successful? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes, at least at this moment in this music climate, in which the twentysomething crowd is more in tune with dancing than rocking.

The club's closing will particularly hurt local bands searching for a quality stage, a decent sound system (read: any sound system that has a soundman behind a mixing board) and ears open to interesting guitar-based music, all of which the Side Door and Turallo had. One could always count on a perfectly matched double bill of national and local talent, and she seemed to be constantly attempting to help fledgling bands. Still, Turallo says, she was frustrated with many bands' attitude: "The funny thing is, I tried to do an open-mic night, do a sort of community service. You wouldn't believe the attitude I would get when I'd call up some of these bands, who are nobody bands, and say, 'Hey, we have an opening. Do you want to play?' And they're like, 'Well ... I don't know if we want that.' All this crazy stuff. And I don't need that."

It's too early to predict whether anyone will pick up where the Side Door left off; chances are, many tours will skip St. Louis altogether (most notably, many of the rock bands on Chicago's Touch & Go label, which were mainstays at the club) until someone steps in -- or doesn't.

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