Last days of Bohemia

It hasn't been quite 10 years since a couple of enterprising twentysomethings opened an unpretentious coffee shop on a dead end street in downtown Orlando.

She was Barrie Freeman, an Orlando native who worked as a bartender and briefly as a city planner before returning to post-graduate work at the University of Georgia. He was William Waldren, a Madison, Wis., native passing through on his way back to Chicago.

Over Christmas break, 1991, Freeman agreed to join him in his quest to carve out a haven for young creative types who had nowhere to go.

They started their coffee shop with thrift store furniture and the name Yab Yum, which was borrowed from Jack Kerouac's novel "The Dharma Bums." Waldren was under the impression Yab Yum referred to a party; he soon found out it was a Tibetan yoga sexual position.

That wouldn't be the only surprise revealed as Yab Yum Coffee House expanded from modest beginnings (five employees) into the small empire it is today. Yab Yum Inc. is the umbrella corporation for The Globe restaurant, Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar and the Kit Kat club, a nightclub-cum-billiard hall. The three sit adjacent to each other at the end of the pedestrian-only Wall Street Plaza, across from the Orange County Regional History Center.

But on Aug. 31 the surprises will end. Freeman is selling her business to Joel Springman, who owns Wall Street Cantina, One-Eyed Jacks and The Loaded Hog at the opposite end of the plaza. (Waldren sold his interest in Yab Yum several years ago.) What he will do with the three sites is under speculation. The Globe will shut down for a few weeks and reopen as a restaurant. The other two spots will be renovated until November or December, according to Kelly Satterfield, the Cantina's general manager.

Freeman said she sold Yab Yum's inventory, leases and liquor license because it was time for her to become a full-time parent. When she first jumped into the business, she was single. Now she's 37, has two kids and a long commute from Volusia County. "Truly, for the first time, I'm making a lifestyle decision," she says. "I'm a completely different person than who I was when I started."

Freeman says she began thinking about getting out of the business around the first of the year. "My maternity leave was seven days for both my children," she says. "My honeymoon was a week. It's just a lot of work."

Her husband Tommy says simply, "She wanted to be a mommy."

The Freemans still have 137 kids they're worried about -- their employees. The tattooed and pierced group is a completely different crowd than those who are employed at Springman's bars. They don't always fit in the square holes society likes to place people in. When asked on their employment applications to share something about themselves, they'll write, "Artist-type chick. I get along with everybody. Cutely sarcastic." Or "Things could always be worse." Or "I like kitties."

These aren't the same people who mingle easily with the dance crowd or the beer-by-the-bucket frat boys who frequent downtown's other 50 bars. Yab Yum employees are beginning to find that the job market might be difficult for them. "That's already been a problem because I didn't have the Barbie-doll look," says Tania Bernard, who has worked with Freeman since Yab Yum opened. Bernard, whose hair is dyed red and whose left arm is tattooed in blue and red ink, has applied at several other bars. "Regardless of the 14 years I have in the business, it's all about style and who you know. Look is definitely a factor in downtown."

The looks of downtown when Freeman and Waldren started were much different than the crowds of partiers seen today. It was dumpy, with boarded-up buildings and a nightlife that barely registered a heartbeat. Tumbleweeds could have blown down Orange Avenue and not scratched a single BMW.

Waldren came up with his idea for a coffee shop because, he says, he wanted to hang out with creative types. "All of my ideas have been self-indulgent," he says. He first looked at the location that is now Gallery at Avalon Island, at Magnolia and Pine streets. Rent was too high so he settled on the Wall Street location, which had been vacant for years. And at first, Yab Yum was slow to build a clientele. But within months the coffee shop attracted different groups: Beatniks who liked the poetry readings, open mic nights and one-act plays; gutter punks who had nothing better to do; and judges and attorneys who grabbed a bagel before heading to the old courthouse.

The next year, 1993, Waldren wanted to open a neighborhood bar so he could serve micro-brews. The result was the Go Lounge, so famous that people still talk about it as the premier nightclub in Orlando. (The Kit Kat followed in 1995.)

The Go had a small room up front where 40 cramped people could entertain themselves by listening to music like Engelbert Humperdinck's "Quando, Quando, Quando." The back part of the building was an old bus depot. Building on that theme, Waldren and the Freemans bought a 1964 Blue Bird travel bus for $500. It had no engine or gas tank so had to be towed into the bar. Tommy Freeman, a carpenter, turned the bus into a small bar with little tables and benches. To create room for bands, the bus was pulled in and out of the bar with a wench.

With the bus out of the way, Go customers watched as any number of odd characters took the stage. "I once saw a hillbilly metal band there," says Sam Santos, a regular of Yab Yum, the Go and now the Kit Kat Club. "They had the mullets. They had everything going on. It was confusing at first. But then you got it and just started rocking on."

The bar was tiny, dark, dirty -- like hanging out in somebody's basement. And like a basement party, things quickly got out of control. Says (now defunct) Hate Bombs drummer Ken Chiodini: "Dave, our guitar player, used to climb up into the rafters and hang out the window."

That wasn't all that was hanging out. Nudity was often a common exhibit at the Go. Tina Zoom and members of the Nature Kids were known to go the Full Monty on a regular basis. Barrie Freeman walked in one night to see three regulars at the bar with nothing on but their socks and shoes. On another occasion, Santos caught a couple of bartenders in the same condition. "I saw more nudity than I wanted to see," says Joseph Martens, who had a long-running association with Yab Yum management, first as host of open-mike night, then as a performer. "I saw the kind of nudity no man should ever see." In fact, Yab Yum reveled in its nakedness, running ads in Orlando Weekly showing its employees in the buff. The tag line? "Come as you are."

Musicians loved the place because everybody had fun whether the music was good or not. "It was a great place to get seen without worrying about expectations," says Martens, who now fronts the Hindu Cowboys. "There was not a whole lot of pressure."

And of course there was the famous paddle, from which you could receive a spanking on your backside for a measly $1 -- though some people got a freebie just for being in the right place at the right time. That paddle was actually an indication of how beloved the Go Lounge was. Barrie Freeman says she bought it for $1 at a flea market; it sold for $180 at auction when the Go shut down.

Freeman says closing the club in August 1999 made sense because the city was remodeling the corner of Wall Street and Court Avenue. Since Wall Street would no longer be a dead end, she says it was a "no-brainer" to recreate the space as an urban cafe.

But to many people, replacing the Go with The Globe was the beginning of the end. The next step was when management removed a rectangular stage from the center of Kit Kat. The stage had made the Kit Kat into a kind of maze; when it was removed, the bar became "less mysterious," Santos says.

Now, with the Freemans' sale, the cycle is complete, leaving many people to wonder what's next for Orlando's fringe customers. Will Springman change the clubs very much? Will bands still find places to play? Is the city dangerously teetering on homogeneity and dullness?

Chiodini splits the difference. On the one hand, he predicts Yab Yum will become something generic. ("Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville," he jokes.) On the other hand, he expects his new band (which has no name and no base player yet) to find somewhere to play. "Somebody always fills the void," he says. "In reality, that's how things work. Somebody sees dollar signs and they go for it."

Waldren, who now works fulltime as an interior designer and marketing executive, expects that to happen on the edges of the city instead of downtown. High rent and liquor licenses (at $120,000) prevent new entrepreneurs from attempting a neo-Yab Yum revival. "Downtown is growing up," he says. "If the Go Lounge appeared today it would have to be on the fringe, miles from other parts of town. Dante's, Will's on Mills -- these types of places will be the counterculture."

Which means downtown loses even as its wins. "The folks at Wall Street Cantina are seizing the opportunity," Martens says. "I'm not sure what they're going to do but I'm expecting the lowest-common denominator -- top 40 music, cheap beer and nacho chips. I mean no offense at all. But I can see the difference between that kind of owner and someone like Jim Faherty `of the Sapphire Club`, who does things with his heart. If he likes a band, it doesn't matter if they fill the room or he loses money. If he likes the band, he'll book them."

And if the crowd feels at home, they'll fill the room, as was often the case with Yab Yum's clientele. But more than a sense of place, they felt a sense of belonging that will be missed more than anything else. As an epitaph scrawled in The Globe's bathroom says: "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. R.I.P. Yab Yum Inc. 8/01."

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