Raising the bar

If a recent Saturday night on Orange Avenue offers any clue, Ashley McCammon, downtown's newest kid on the block, has some catching up to do.

Outside of Bar-BQ-Bar, a crowd spilled out onto a roped-off section of the sidewalk; nearby, folks also lined up at the twin entrances to the rooftop bar SKY60 and the rechristened music hall The Social. But crowds are not the problem for the 25-year-old McCammon, whose recent overtaking of all three -- especially the latter, formerly known as Sapphire and embraced as downtown's predominant live music venue -- instantly makes her a player.

Inside The Social in particular, ongoing renovations have left unfinished ceilings and exposed wiring. Foul-smelling water collected in a pool by the front door, while a stream of water ran from the men's rest room. And despite McCammon's assured manner with her staff, grumpiness reigned. A bartender bitched out the band because the DJ they had scheduled to open was "clearing the room." The band blamed the stench of sulphur. During their set, a guest vocalist sang into a dead mike for a half a minute: The sound guy was not at his post.

"I miss Jim Faherty already," said one band member, recalling the club's previous owner.

Can McCammon pull it all back together?

High-profile people believe she can. But the standard has been set, and McCammon has to prove she's up to meeting it. Gone are the glory days when former Sapphire owners Faherty and Shayni Howen were the toasts (and toast-makers) of the town. With style, taste and vision, the pair brought Orlando out of the Stone Age and into the here and now by attracting top-shelf music to our well-brand burg. But Howen left after a few years, leaving Faherty as keeper of the flame, which he extinguished late last year.

Downtown nightlife continues to evolve. David Siminou recently retooled the interior of his marquee dance club Icon and renamed it Red Velvet. (His aging dance hall Cairo and snooty Zinc bar can't be far behind.) Wall Street Plaza -- where the clubs once were ground zero for the indie-minded -- is healing from a more-corporate makeover. And don't forget the never ending story of Church Street Station: In recent years the tourist trap has been traded like a pack of cigarettes in prison. But that's about to change, thanks to new local owners who closed the ailing entertainment complex and promise shops and eateries targeting the hometown crowd. (The rest of Church Street is anxiously waiting to see what develops). With the downtown club and concert scene in undeniable flux, McCammon hopes her imprint is a lasting one.

Six months ago, she was merely a bit player as co-owner of Bar-BQ-Bar, a popular warts-and-all watering hole. Now, the soft-spoken but confident entrepreneur is the larger of two shareholders in a corporation that oversees Bar-BQ-Bar, SKY60, The Social and the yet-to-be-named back half of Barbarella, which is expected to open in a few months. That's four high-profile clubs on the main corridor in the heart of the entertainment district. And with the former Sapphire's reputation locally and nationally for hosting cutting-edge acts -- Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, Grandaddy, Goldie, Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, Megadeth, At the Drive In, Mike Watt, Jimmy Eat World, to name a few -- she is responsible for a roster of clubs that is as impressive as it is daunting.

"It was ... unexpected for us," says McCammon, who says "we" and "us" a lot, referring to Hurst Marshall -- her partner in the corporation called Bar-BQ-Bar Inc. -- and her close-knit staff. "We didn't go about saying, Ã?Hey the next thing we want to do is take over next door.' It was never our intention, and if you asked me six months ago, I'd have said that never in a million years would it happen."

Her entry into the bar business was a fluke, really. Rewind to a little less than four years ago: McCammon, an Orlando native, was a downtown regular, working as a marketing rep for Miller Brewing Co. Through her business dealings, she became acquainted with many of the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, including Faherty and Orange Avenue landlord Frank Hamby. Hamby, along with his wife Margaret Casscells, owns the prime chunk of property on Orange Avenue that extends from dance club Tabu north to Planet Pizza, and includes The Social, SKY60, Barbarella and Bar-BQ-Bar.

"`Frank and I` talked for a while about doing something in this space," says McCammon, sitting inside Bar-BQ-Bar. "I pitched him the idea for Bar-BQ-Bar. He loved it. He actually became an investor."

And what a great idea it was: The new place, next door to Sapphire, served food so that Sapphire regulars would have a place to eat and drink and escape the kids at the punk and ska shows. Faherty, who at the time was dating McCammon, lent his hand -- and his liquor license -- to the cause. (The couple split months after Bar-BQ-Bar opened.) Longtime pal Marshall was recruited to join the team.

"The downtown scene was super-cliquey; I didn't like it," says McCammon of her reasons for opening "the Bar-BQ." Like other Orange Avenue regulars, she wanted a place with "a super-casual atmosphere where anybody felt comfortable."

With its junky-but-fun interior, lack of silly dress codes, barbecue menu and full-liquor options, the cozy Bar-BQ was an instant hit. It didn't hurt that members of local music royalty such as Seven Mary Three's Jason Ross could be found bellying up to the bar and jawing with the friendly staffers (many of whom are also part of the music scene).

Folks enjoyed the vibe so much they didn't seem to care that the barbecue was eighty-sixed just six months after opening. Now, the lack of food service is simply a running joke; Marshall says a half-dozen lunchtime folks came calling as recently as a few weeks ago, looking for that "famous" barbecue.

No matter: The kitchen had to go anyway to make room for the elevator that eventually would lead to SKY60, an idea that was born during a McCammon-Faherty trip to L.A. A rooftop paradise above Sapphire and the Bar-BQ, one that would be accessible from both clubs, seemed a fine fit. Contractors were hired, plans were drawn up, construction was begun.

The soon-to-be empire was building up. And then it all came crashing down ... for Faherty, that is. And his fall was brutal. First to fold was his other club, the music room and Italian restaurant Dante's, which shuttered a year after debuting with great promise. Whispers on the street said McCammon was taking over the rooftop project and Faherty was on the ropes.

By the time it was officially announced that Sapphire was in trouble, the death blow had landed: Faherty was indicted as a bit player in the national McDonald's Monopoly game-piece fraud scandal. (Faherty has since pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in April.) Jaws dropped, hearts stopped, Hamburgler jokes were made. Without ceremony, the torch was passed to McCammon. She was now in charge of downtown's beloved nightclub jewel.

"We were really scared, especially with what is going on over on Wall Street `Plaza`, that it would turn into something like that," says McCammon, referring to the sale and overhaul of three popular Yab Yum Inc. venues -- Kit Kat Club, The Globe restaurant and Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar -- by neighbors who have succeeded by catering to a less bohemian demographic. The move left the counterculture crowd feeling pushed aside. "That's the last thing we wanted to happen. We felt like we didn't have any other choice but to step in and at least try to maintain what was there."

With help from Hamby and Casscells, McCammon pulled off a deal to rescue Sapphire from the clutches of the happy-hour and bucket-beer brigade. By Sept. 29, the old Sapphire corporation was dissolved and new ownership was installed. By December, the new name -- The Social -- was chosen.

Now that the deal is complete, McCammon -- who has remained just out of the spotlight -- spends her days and nights overseeing seemingly endless renovations and learning the ropes. Marshall, who has been the face of Bar-BQ-Bar since its debut, has seen his role expanded; the always-moving workaholic, who is a significant investor in the business, is now general manager of all the clubs and responsible for the day-to-day operations.

Hamby, who's also an investor and oversees the accounting, has great confidence that the pair can keep the doors open, the drinks flowing and the bands playing -- all while keeping the Sapphire spirit alive. "I always thought of her as being really enthusiastic and really hard-working. She's very creative," he says of McCammon. "If she says she's gonna do something, she's gonna do it. `And Marshall` is a good, hard worker."

With part one of a three-part remodeling effort under way, the goal is to improve the Sapphire concert experience -- wider walkways, more room to breathe, no more overflowing rest rooms -- and to bring the room up to code. "The idea was to make it more music-friendly," says McCammon, "and easier to get a drink."

Gone are many of Sapphire's familiar interior decorations -- like the mirrors behind the bar -- replaced by a cleaner, neater aesthetic, highlighted with cherry wood panels and shiny metallic fixtures. A new backdrop for the stage is on order, as are new curtains. The biggest change will occur in the back half of the club, which will have its own bar and be sectioned off by a soundproofed roll door. This will allow the club to handle two functions simultaneously. The venue's notoriously on-again, off-again sound system -- always a sore spot for bands and patrons -- is also being replaced.

McCammon's main challenge so far has been easing the transition, a delicate assignment considering the former club's legendary status and the many rumors making the rounds.

"You had things circulating in the press about what was going on with Jim, and ... with the club," says Michael McRaney of Figurehead, a record label and music-promotion company still owned by Faherty that booked most of Sapphire's shows. "There was a sort of ominous cloud over this whole block because no one knew what was going on."

Yet, as part of McCammon's commitment to continuity, McRaney still will book the bands, both through Figurehead and through his newly formed Foundation agency. "Michael has booked every show in that room for three and a half years," says McCammon. "I flat-out said that I wanted nothing to do with it unless Michael was there."

Indeed, McRaney points to a Sapphire-like list of upcoming rock, jazz, punk, electronic, hip-hop and DJ shows by the likes of Sam Rivers, Hank Williams III, The Radiators, Wesley Willis, Plaid, And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Greyboy and H2O. "Yes, we are still in business," he says. "The schedule's pretty much the same."

Like McRaney, all of Sapphire's staffers remain on board, including bar manager Mark Solli and bartenders Mark Morrison and April Eltonhead, making the ownership easier to digest for the club's many loyal patrons. Sure, the paperwork has changed, but the faces are all the same. Hamby sees that loyalty as a sign McCammon's the right person for the job. "She's been very fair with anybody who's ever worked for her or with her," he says, pointing out that both SKY60 and Bar-BQ-Bar have had basically the same staff since they opened. "She's just someone you can trust."

But the staff's attitudes at The Social would suggest that things aren't flowing as well as the water from the men's room. When Faherty was in charge, there was a let's-do-it-for-the-team vibe that kept things chugging along. But that can easily dissolve now that the leader is gone.

There is also the matter of turning a lemon into lemonade. It's no secret that Sapphire has lost money for years.

McCammon and Hamby hope the extensive remodeling will signal all is well -- and even better -- at the refurbished hot spot. Will regulars be comfortable with the subtle-yet-significant changes? Already complaints about the new look and sound are easily detected.

There's also competition around the corner. Back Booth, a small music club with a steady clientele across from the University of Central Florida, is set to open a downtown location on Saturday, Feb. 2. And while the new club is less than half the size of The Social, Back Booth has an earnest ownership group that counts many faithful followers in the music community.

Even after work at The Social is complete, McCammon and company still will have to finish the final piece of the puzzle: the back-half of Barbarella. McCam-mon and Marshall are taking over that space from Barbarella owner John Gardner, who is concentrating his club efforts in the front half of his property. Both halves will undergo extensive renovations over the coming weeks. McCam-mon won't offer a hint of what to expect.

Hamby, though, says nothing like it has been tried in Orlando. The outdoor stage area will be enclosed and a U-shaped bar will wrap around the courtyard. The entrance will be next to Planet Pizza. To keep the old-school Orlando feel, McCammon is bringing in designer William Waldron, who did the interiors for the Go Lounge, a charming hole-in-the-wall famous for its garage aesthetic that formerly occupied the site of The Globe. And while DJs may find a home there, it appears that live music is out.

Thus, McCammon and her loyal staff have their hands full in keeping the musical legacy of Sapphire going. "Everyone is expecting us to fail, for it to fall apart," she says. "And who knows, it might. We are doing everything in our power `to keep it going`."


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