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Rhythm Cafe May Close Soon


SANTA ANA — Less than five months after it opened with high hopes of becoming a major player in the Orange County pop concert market, the Rhythm Cafe's future schedule of bookings is in collapse, and concert industry sources say they have heard the club will close after Sunday's concert by the Marshall Tucker Band.

The venue's three partners, Curt Olson, Michael Feder and Rich Meaney, could not be reached Thursday. A worker at the club said she had not heard of any plans to close.

Gary Folgner, owner of the rival Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, said he called Olson on Thursday after hearing that Ticketmaster had stopped selling tickets for future Rhythm Cafe shows. Olson "confirmed the fact he is closing it on Sunday," Folgner said. "Basically, he told me the dollar situation wasn't where he wanted it to be. He didn't elaborate too much.

"They had to lose a lot of money in there," Folgner added. "The economy we were in when he started was not a good one."

John Harrington, a booking agent for Variety Artists in Los Angeles, said Thursday that two of his clients will play as scheduled this weekend at the Rhythm Cafe, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd: the Pleasure Barons tonight (see story, F1) and the Tucker band on Sunday.

But Harrington said that Jeff Gaulton, a concert booker for the Rhythm Cafe, told him on Tuesday that the owners plan to close the club after this weekend.

"Jeff said he was told by the owners that they just weren't making enough money to continue," Harrington said. "He called to tell me the club was definitely closing as of Sunday, and they weren't honoring any future" bookings.

Kevin Morrow, a partner in the San Diego-based Falk & Morrow booking agency, said he also heard recently from Gaulton that the club is closing. One of Morrow's clients, Bad Manners, was to have played the Cafe on April 3. Morrow said the show will take place at Club 5902 in Huntington Beach instead.

Paul LaMonica of Associated Booking in New York said he has been trying unsuccessfully over the past few days to contact Rhythm Cafe management to find out the fate of upcoming shows by two of his clients, Jonathan Butler and Black Uhuru.

"I have left a number of messages and have heard virtually nothing back from them. I have reason to believe (the word of the club's imminent closing) is real, otherwise I wouldn't be hearing it from so many other people" in the concert booking business, LaMonica said.

Until now, LaMonica added, "I didn't have any problems with them at all. Dr. John and B.B. King, who we represent, played there. When I told Dr. John's manager (about the apparent closing), she said, 'What a shame. It's a lovely room and we enjoyed playing there.' "

The Rhythm Cafe opened on Halloween night with ambitious plans. A San Diego sister club opened at the same time as the upscale, lavishly appointed Santa Ana venue, and partners outlined plans to expand the operation into a national chain, with the 550-capacity Santa Ana cafe as its flagship.

Olson, a Newport Beach developer who provided most of the financial backing, estimated at the time that the partnership would spend $2.5 million to open the Santa Ana and San Diego clubs as well as a third venue that, as it turned out, never opened. The San Diego cafe closed on Feb. 21.

The closing of the Rhythm Cafe would mark another in a series of unsuccessful challenges to the Coach House. Since 1986, the Coach House has been the only club in Orange County that regularly books a full range of touring rock, pop and jazz talent.

In December, 1989, a club called Hamptons opened on the same site as the Rhythm Cafe; it went out of business after about six months. Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach and Peppers Golden Bear in Huntington Beach also tried to compete with the Coach House. Postnuclear wound up scaling back to a dance-club operation; Peppers succumbed in 1991 because it created too much noise for a cinema directly above it in the Pierside Pavilion.

The Rhythm Cafe had appeared well-girded to compete: Olson, the financial partner, is a successful businessman who appeared to give the operation a firm fiscal footing, unlike the poorly capitalized Hamptons. Meaney, who previously worked for the Nederlander Organization, and Gaulton, who had overseen shows at the Bacchanal in San Diego, are both experienced talent buyers and concert promoters.

Ken Phebus, who books concerts for the Coach House, said Thursday that the competition between the clubs led to bidding wars for talent, which increased the ticket prices for some acts playing Orange County. But Phebus said the advent of the Rhythm Cafe also prompted him to be more aggressive and innovative in booking the Coach House.

"This (competitive) situation made me a better talent buyer 10 times over. I've never been more motivated to prove my ability," Phebus said.

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