Celebranded Bars

In Oakland, many bar owners started out as local celebrities.

In many cities, running a club is just like helming any other business — generally, you stay behind the scenes, and nobody knows you exist. But in Oakland, being a club owner is a near-guarantor of social capital, for those who want it. That could be the result of geography: Oakland is big enough to have a nightlife scene, but small enough that the scene still seems pretty insular. It could be the result of development — our “entertainment district” is just beginning to blossom, and we’re still protective of it. Or, it could simply have stemmed from a local trend that sprang up a few years ago, around the time that rapper Prozack Turner and painter Tim Martinez opened The Layover: that of local artists and scenesters parlaying their celebrity cachet into a business opportunity.

“Celebranding” has become a veritable trope in Oakland nightlife. In most cases, it’s probably not intentional. When East Bay Rats motorcycle club leader Trevor Latham bought shares in Radio and the Ruby Room, he didn’t necessarily intend for his name to be prominently associated with the business — it just sort of happened that way. Same goes for Latham’s partner Tim Tolle, who moonlights as a body piercer at Zebra and has a vast sphere of influence in Oakland nightlife as co-owner of four venues (Radio, Ruby Room, Easy Lounge, and Disco Volante). Damon Gallagher, who is part of the ownership team at Disco Volante and the newly launched club Vitus, started out as a local bandleader — his group, Damon & the Heathens, still gigs around town. Uptown nightclub owner Larry Trujillo made his name as a magazine editor and show presenter, before moving behind the counter.

Most bar owners avoid broadcasting their artist credentials, even if they’re already pretty well known. But in some cases, it’s unavoidable.

And Trujillo had to admit that he often relishes the attention. “As far as name recognition, last year I showed up at Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas, and I knew everybody,” he boasted. Trujillo first dreamed of fame when he started playing guitar at age ten, but he had to switch paths a few years later after playing a high school dance and discovering he had stage fright. “I decided to go behind the scenes,” Trujillo recalled. “It was the smartest move of my life.” He subsequently got into photography and rock criticism, began publishing Zero Magazine, started booking a few rock venues, and eventually bought two of his own — The Blank Club in San Jose, and The Uptown in Oakland, which he shares with two friends (though Trujillo is the club’s main public face). He said that opening a club is a terrific way for any player in the rock scene to diversify his portfolio. “In the entertainment industry there’s a lot of parallel moves,” Trujillo explained. “You never know when that door will be opened.”

For Latham, that door opened six years ago, when he joined friends Tolle and Alfredo Botello to become a co-owner of two popular downtown bars: Radio and Ruby Room. Although Latham maintains that he’s still better known for running the Rats’ motorcycle club — through which he also throws smoker-style boxing matches and leads boor hunting expeditions — the nightlife business has become a sizeable part of his life. And if it hasn’t augmented his fame, then it’s at least filled his social calendar: Latham tried to multi-task last Wednesday by doing this interview by text-message.

“The bar business suits me,” he wrote, in a paragraph-length text. “I always loved throwing parties and never thought it was a good thing until I started making money at it. Also sometimes I have trouble sleeping, and it’s at night.”

In other words, people who are already in the party scene, or who consider themselves nocturnal creatures, have skills that easily transfer to running a bar. In Latham’s case, it works out perfectly since his two co-owners have complementary personalities. Botello is more of a pragmatist and an early riser, so he can handle a lot of the nuts and bolts of operating a small business.

“I’m the one who makes sure the rent gets paid on time and the mail gets answered,” Botello said, indicating that he works by day as a screenwriter. That allows Tolle to be the resident partier and id of the operation. Latham, who likes to play cop, gets to spend most nights working the door at Ruby Room.

Granted, there are many ways of getting into the bar business in Oakland, just as there are many ways to generate a personal cult of celebrity. Fraggle, who co-owns Beer Revolution with his wife, Rebecca Boyles, was an outlier on both counts. He spent most of his adult life running punk houses and underground music venues throughout the East Bay, and also did stints at 924 Gilman, Annie’s Social Club, and a mail-order collectibles business; played in several abortive bands; and worked other odd gigs. After a few decades, he became a well-known fixture in the punk scene, mostly for sitting at a door and taking people’s money. Beer Revolution marked his first venture behind the counter.

According to Fraggle, the beer world is different enough from the punk world that notoriety in one doesn’t guarantee stature in the other. He added, moreover, that being a prominent member of a certain scene doesn’t necessarily prepare you to work in the entertainment industry. In his case, the punk rock and underground music worlds imparted a lot of important managerial skills: confidence, directness, the ability to enforce rules. One thing they didn’t teach Fraggle was “customer service,” in the conventional sense. He explained: “When you’re working the door at a show, you’ll always get those kids who walk up holding half a 40-ounce, asking, ‘Can I still get in?’ And you just say, ‘No.'” He paused, as though recalling a moment of particular frustration. “In the bar business, people ask ridiculous questions all day long, and you have to be nice to them.”

Apparently, there’s a bit of a learning curve.


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