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Empire Ballroom: '80s Sun Hasn't Set

August 04, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | Rose Apodaca Jones is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. and

The Empire Ballroom is among the more attractive nightclubs in the region. And it's definitely among the best designs by Rick McCormick of Hatch Design, whose credits also include the Shark Club in Costa Mesa and Metropolis in Irvine.

But as a club choice among the county's hot spots, it's a moldy one. Six months after a flashy opening, the Costa Mesa nightclub is in need of a promoter with a clue. Its designed slickness, combined with its even slicker crowd, makes an evening here like a return to the tawdry '80s.

Three words describe this glorified Red Onion crowd: pumps, perms and pecs. Beepers are optional. The scene comes right out of the film "Less Than Zero." On a couple of recent evenings, there was a constant urge among at least five visitors to search out Robert Downey Jr., Judd Nelson or some other brat packer.

Even the bar seems right out of the previous decade with its pricey drinks. Domestic draft beer, bottled water and sodas are safe bets at $2. Even bottled imports and domestics are OK at $3. But value eludes everything else: cocktails (weak, watered down or too sweet every time) are $4 to $6; a glass of wine is $4. And orders of Newcastle, Guinness or Bass for $3 barely fill up a half-pint glass.

The scam patrol is working overtime here. It seems everyone is looking for someone, and they are tireless in their prowl. Roses are bought and passed out like business cards. Don't be surprised at the frequency with which the same lines are tossed out (are they written on the bathroom walls?). Regulars take reaching out and touching someone literally. It's difficult for anyone--male or female--to squeeze through the crowd and not get handled.

And if that's not enough touchy behavior for you, try the loft. No other VIP room can boast such "efficient" security. The tough guy at the top of the stairs brings literal meaning to the word pushy, evidently believing actions speak louder than courtesy.

No matter. Business at the Empire Ballroom, limited to three nights a week, isn't hurting. Management says the club draws an average of about 800 patrons each weekend night, and this seems true most of the time. The dance floor and its surrounding area is thick with revelers, and the bartenders rarely get a moment to rest. The red velvet couches stay warm with dancers sitting one out and couples making out.

Despite the lower cover charge, Fridays have been less consistent than Saturdays. That could change with the recent installation of Johnny's Joint, hosted by promoter Johnny Drummond (of Mocambo fame, which floated around Costa Mesa and Newport Beach a few years ago). Johnny's Joint will alternate between the Empire Ballroom and John Dominis in Newport Beach every other week, beginning the first Friday of the month at Empire. You'll know it's there because of the banners that go up over the Empire signs.

At the turntable on Drummond's nights is deejay Priest, who rotates a diverse musical menu including selections by Dr. Dre, AC/DC, the Pointer Sisters, Van Morrison, Culture Club and Elvis. It's a formula copied from deejay Gary, who held a highly successful club night at Night Moves in Huntington Beach (now Club 5902) in the late '80s. Apparently the format peaked back then, because Priest can't drive the crowds to the dance floor like Gary used to.

Deejay Tony Largo sits in on Friday nights when Johnny's Joint is not in the house, offering a danceable selection of hip-hop and disco. Ditto the grooves on Saturdays with deejay Gio.

Largo delivers straight '70s hits on Wednesdays with Dance Fever, as the night is called. While Thursdays have unofficially become the disco night at most county nightclubs, Empire is apparently trying to catch those who can't wait another day for their dose of Donna Summer.

The front entrance is closed that night, so patrons must use the side door, which leads directly to the dance floor. A partition shuts off the foyer and one of the small bars near the five pool tables, keeping things cozy for the fewer than 300 folks in attendance.

Every night, "appropriate club attire" is the dress code. That means no tattered jeans, no grunge or gang-type attire. White undershirts are apparently OK as long as they hug a fine physique.

Valet parking is $3, or hit the self parking in the Standard Brands parking lot next door and pay only $2.

* Empire Ballroom

* 640 17th St., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 722-6100.

* Open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday only, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

* Cover: $5 Wednesday, $5 or $8 Friday, $10 Saturday.

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