Running a nightclub is a tough business. Just ask the owners of defunct establishments such as Kermit Ruffins' Jazz & Blues Hall, Levon Helm's Classic American Cafe, and Sweet Kathleen's Dixieland Jazz Club. Besides the day-to-day grind and brutal late hours, every club owner wrestles with the often-elusive quest of trying to create the right atmosphere (at the right location) to keep patrons coming back. Few venues have accomplished that feat in recent years with the success of the Shim Sham Club, the French Quarter outpost at 615 Toulouse St. that's made its mark with a combination of hipster decor, a killer jukebox, imaginative live music bookings, thumbed retro nights and, most improbably, theater and burlesque.
Which makes it hard to believe that the club is closing its doors after June 5. Owner and Los Angeles native Morgan Higby is apparently moving back to L.A., and the fate of the venue is up in the air. Higby declined comment for this column, but has confirmed the club's closing in posts to the Yahoo! message boards accessible through the Shim Sham Club's Web site -- in addition to fending off patrons inquiring about purchasing club icons such as the vintage Bourbon Burlesque Club Inc. sign. For the regular performers at the club, such as Shim Sham Revue bandleader Ronnie Magri, the decision to shutter the club is puzzling.
"It's just a shame," says Magri. "This past Sunday, we had 500 people at our show. The attendance has been great, and now the show's closing. After starting in '99, we now have a payroll and 26 people on stage each night. And it's a shame that the [Shim Sham Revue] might close down because of not having a home."
Those heady attendance numbers -- at a time when the inevitable summer decline is traditionally creeping in -- speak volumes about the Shim Sham Club's accomplishments. The club was named after the 1930s Bourbon Street club owned by Louis Prima's brother, the first indication of Higby's appreciation for New Orleans tradition and retro styles. But Shim Sham Club booking agent Deborah Toscano's adventurous bookings also became one of the club's hallmarks. In recent years, the Shim Sham presented acts such as X, Flogging Molly, the Cramps, the Melvins, and Tomahawk, not to mention cult figures such as Rudy Ray Moore. The club also had shows from the White Stripes and The Hives before both bands exploded on the national scene, and Counting Crows played a number of unannounced shows at the venue.
Cutting-edge theater also found a home at the Shim Sham, as local troupe Running with Scissors enjoyed a long run of its version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The success of the show -- and of other Running with Scissors efforts -- was in keeping with Higby's vision of the venue as a "variety arts center," as he once called it. "Art" might not be the best term for another of Shim Sham's unlikely successes: its retro theme nights. Celebrating such notoriously un-hip genres as '80s music and heavy metal, not to mention the karaoke phenomenon, seemed odd for a venue known for being hip, but it was a masterstroke of pop culture marketing. Evidence of the shows' popularity is evident on the Shim Sham's Web site, as fans of the theme nights are inquiring whether the shows will continue elsewhere. On the message board, Higby confirmed that will be the case, and for starters, "1984" will now move over to the 735 Club on Bourbon Street.
The Shim Sham Club's vibe wasn't just a hit with locals; the club garnered a slew of national press as well, with the burlesque Shim Sham Revue earning mentions in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, not to mention being prominently featured in an A&E documentary. Such attention has helped the Revue land some national bookings at events such as the New York Burlesque Festival. But for a homegrown phenomenon, finding another local venue might be difficult.
"When you start thinking about it, there's not a lot of other places to do it," says Magri. "It's 50/50 as far as locals and tourists, and if you do it Uptown, you're not going to get any tourists, and if you do it on Bourbon Street, you won't draw many locals. We're keeping our eyes and ears open. It's also wait and see what happens with the club itself as far as who takes it over."
That remains the great mystery, as Higby currently isn't talking about his plans. For now, the club's devotees are preparing for a few blowouts before the doors are closed for good. X returns to the Shim Sham Club for the final live-music show on June 4. And in one last brilliant twist of Shim Sham kitsch, the club that wasn't afraid to champion a heavy metal night is officially closing on June 6 at 6 a.m. -- i.e., 666.
- A June 4 performance by legendary punk band X will be the Shim Sham Club's last live-music show.