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NIGHT LIFE

The Viper Room has a new boss

June 26, 2008|Charlie Amter

FOR NEW Viper Room owner Harry Morton, the maxim "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is more of a guideline than a rule.

The son of Hard Rock Hotel founder Peter Morton purchased the venerable Sunset Strip club this year and is in the process of renovating it -- all the while trying to assure fans he is not taking the club in a "Hollywood" direction.

"I grew up above the Sunset Strip, and the Viper Room has just always been one of those places that had a real mystique -- it was that black building on the block," Morton says. "The goal is to maintain the integrity of the club. But the place smelled like a sewer -- and that's not rock 'n' roll, it's just bad."

So now Morton is walking a delicate line, gussying up the physically neglected club to meet standards demanded by next-generation clubbers while trying not to alienate the Viper Room faithful, who like the down-and-dirty aspects of the bi-level destination.

"We want to bring it back to life," Morton says.

But beyond a makeover, the 27-year-old founder of the Pink Taco restaurant chain and partner Arich Berghammer have bigger ambitions -- including ramping up the club's bookings and even taking its brand global, opening Viper Rooms in cities like London and New York (a la House of Blues, where Berghammer once served as director of operations).

Some say the Viper Room's glory days were more than a decade ago, when onetime co-owner Johnny Depp and his friends (including River Phoenix, who famously died outside the bar in 1993) frequented the bar, and its door was among the tightest in town. More recently, the bar has done well booking largely local bands as the Sunset Strip's larger clubs have laid claim to most of the "big gets."

How much the direction of the music offerings will change won't be known until at least August, after the club's new booking team gets to work. Morton wants to respect the room's rock roots.

"Van Halen is my favorite band of all time," he says, adding that his "roots are definitely in metal." (Not that Morton isn't up on what the cool kids are into these days: "Lately I'm into Spoon and MGMT," he says.)

His new team includes some heavy hitters.

"These are arena-level people," he says of new Viper staffers such as talent buyer Mike DuCharme, formerly of Clear Channel concerts.

Which raises the question: Why, exactly, does Morton need an arena-level booker for a venue with a capacity of just over 200?

"We're in talks with some of the neighbors right now," Morton says, hinting at a possible expansion of the club.

But any expansion probably wouldn't happen until 2010, if at all. (No permits have been issued, and Morton probably has his plate hands full just refurbishing the venue.)

Meanwhile, he has already started tweaking the bar (new sconces, a fresh coat of black paint, dark green snakeskin leather booths).

The new digs will get a close-up of sorts when the Viper Room hosts a couple of shows in conjunction with the Sunset Strip Music Festival.

"My goal is to restore this club to its former glory," he says, before launching into a list of upgrades still forthcoming (including a DJ booth downstairs, stadium-style stage lighting, a new green room for bands and sound system upgrades).

"I'm not building this to cater to the club crowd," Morton says. "This is a rock 'n' roll bar, and it's all about the Sunset Strip and what that lifestyle is about."

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-- Charlie.Amter@latimes.com

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VIPER ROOM

WHERE: 8852 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

WHEN: Friday (Juliette and the Licks) and Saturday (Louis XIV) as part of the Sunset Strip Music Festival

PRICE: $20

INFO: (310) 358-1880. www.sunsetstrip musicfestival.com or www.viperroom.com

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