Life is a Cabaret

The challenge of opening a downtown club.

For years, Noël Chester tended bar at renowned downtown haunts such as Club Congress and the late, lamented Plaza Pub. But as she approached middle age (if mid-30s count as middle age), she started thinking about the future.

She knew that her tips wouldn't pay the cost of sending her daughter to college. But she also wasn't ready to fully abandon the downtown club scene she loved.

So she decided to open her own club.

The story was much the same for Alex Skelton, who served as club manager at Club Congress for more than a decade before deciding to open his own establishment. A couple of years ago, after a stint tending bar at the downtown nightclub Metro, he had attempted to take over the building it housed (which most recently was home to Tiki Bob's Cantina) to open a live music venue. Unfortunately, those plans fell through.

The timing seemed like kismet when Chester and Skelton, who had known each other for about 12 years, suddenly realized they were pursuing the same dream: to operate a fully functioning downtown nightclub where they could do whatever the hell they wanted and still put the kid through college.

Today, Chester is owner, operator and talent booker of Vaudeville Cabaret, a 1,500-foot nightclub at 110 E. Congress St. Skelton serves as the club's manager. Their dream has become reality, though the pair has endured some nightmarish episodes to get there.

Vaudeville Cabaret opened in October 2001 as exactly what its name suggests: a venue for anything and everything--jugglers, tableside magicians, belly dancers, genre-spanning musical acts and more. But those types of acts didn't exactly drawing big crowds, so the club has become a more traditional music venue (though Chester still tries to support slightly more offbeat acts as such as drag shows and improv comedy groups). As Skelton says, "You try something, it doesn't work, you move onto something else. That's the nature of this business."

To that end, Chester has also experimented with closing on the club's slower nights, in an effort to gauge cost-effectiveness. For now, its doors are open from Wednesday through Sunday.

And she's also taken advantage of free listings in various publications to keep the public apprised of what's going on at Vaudeville each week, though she's also managed to afford some selective advertising, including print ads in this publication and billboards.

In the beginning, though, Chester attempted creative ways of getting people to take notice of the club, to little or no avail.

"I did the whole thing," she says. "I invited concierges from resorts, other restaurant and bar managers, and really tried to interface to get people to know we were here." But, citing the somewhat insular nature of the area, she says, "They didn't want to come downtown."

Though she briefly toyed with the idea of opening Vaudeville on Fourth Avenue, Chester says that area was especially risky due to restrictive liquor license options, the need for parking variances and, most of all, higher rent. Plus, she and Skelton simply felt more comfortable opening in downtown proper, since both were veterans of the district.

"We've become attached to the downtown area," explains Skelton. "I thought it was just an automatic; you know the clientele and the area. It only makes sense to be where, what you're familiar with."

Still, they've encountered some problems along the way that are downtown-specific, including building codes.

"It is not reasonable to expect a 100-year-old building to meet the codes and standards--and the safety issues are not the same as a new slab for a mini-mall on freshly cleared ground," says Chester. "And so, if Development Services is an entity that will fight you--and it will--I mean, I had an architect, and I couldn't get under the line on anything ... so we did everything by the book.

"And it was not an easy task to deal with the city. My architect thought it was absurd what was asked of us, and we changed the design as a result of that ...We're talking about two bathrooms, a mop sink, two bar sinks, and a front and back door, and I've put in $100,000 in tenant improvements here," though some of the money was also used to purchase a new air conditioning/heating unit and a new electrical system.

"When the buildings are this old, you're looking at a lot of unknowns," she says. "You'd think you were building a pyramid."

Chester was also frustrated by the denial of a Downtown Back to Basics grant, which would have been used for a marquee-style sign on the club's exterior. Though only $1.6 million was awarded in grants, compared to the $3.5 million sought in 82 applications, she feels that those who rent property are less likely to get grant money than those who own it. "I don't think tenants are very, uh, eligible candidates for those kinds of grants, and at the same time, who better?" she says.

And while she acknowledges that a business could fold--intentionally or not--and its owner could take the grant money and run, Chester also points out that, having sunk six digits worth of improvements into her space, she's not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.

Chester also complains about her dealings with safety inspectors, saying they often nitpicked at certain problems while failing to recognize other, more imminent concerns.

At the time she took over the space, the interior flooring was the original wooden sub-floor, which she didn't realize was a safety concern until, a month-and-a-half after it opened, two patrons put their feet through it in two different areas.

"We went through many, many inspections," she says. "Never, during those inspections, was there ever an acknowledgement of the safety of the floor, or of the condition overall ... I don't think anyone ever looked at the floors." Because the problem was a structural one, Chester's landlord picked up the tab for the installation of a new floor, though the club was forced to close its doors for 10 costly days while the floor was put in.

There was a time when Chester wasn't sure she had the means to persevere. "I had no real idea of the risk," she explains. "I didn't believe that you needed a year's worth of financial resources to keep in business. You do, and I didn't have those things."

In order to keep the business solvent, she was forced to take on a silent partner: "Fortunately, he was looking for an investment, and thank God, because he's got my back. And he's got a lot of faith in this place. There have been months where I was not certain how the hell I was going to survive."

And it wasn't for lack of trying. During Vaudeville's first year, Chester spent a good portion of her time bartending, in order to keep costs down, because business wasn't as strong as she had anticipated.

"That first year was tough," she says. "First there was 9/11, then there was the holiday, then you had your two months [of good business], but then there was the summer."

For the first time, Chester is now beginning to see the fruits of her labor. "It's been in this season that we've started to open up a little bit, and it's been a godsend.

"The numbers aren't big numbers, but the growth is happening, and I'm grateful for that. The growth isn't going to be a rocket experience. We're not going to blast into some other realm. We're just going to be here, be tenacious, and try to have as much integrity as we possibly can."

Chester says the impending Rio Nuevo project had no impact on her decision to open the club downtown, though she's excited about the possibilities it represents. "It'll be great, a terrific bonus. It would be nice to be around for all of that, if all of that is 'all of that'," she says.

In the meantime, though, the battle is still uphill.

"If Vaudeville were open up on River Road, or out on 'restaurant row,' and there was maybe a TV or two in here, [business] would be smokin'," she says. "Location, location, location."

She doesn't regret opening downtown.

"But I'm not in denial about it, either," she says. "I did this to put my kid through college and stuff like that. Now I'm thinking she'll do just fine over at the university. She'll live through the student loans just like the rest of us. But I don't regret it. No way. The best thing about being here, and the worst thing about being here, is that it's mine, and that I created it. So it's my responsibility."

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