It’s time for a Sweet’s Ballroom blitz. After lumbering along for years — even leaving the place closed ‘n’ dusty for over fifteen — the powers that be are mobilizing to put this Art Deco Lindy Hop shop back on Broadway.
Technically, Sweet’s (which originally opened in ’24) was in working order after 1997, when Creation Spiritualist and excommunicated priest Matthew Fox bought it. But rumors of mismanagement — not on Fox’s watch, but on the part of self-proclaimed “cultural activist” Linda Lowrance, who ran the place — seemed to insure that the once-grand meeting place would never again host Billie Holiday. (Well, that and the fact that Billie hecka dead.)
To be fair, Oakland cops seem to swoop in on any new club in mid-revelry and demand all licenses and permits. During one big event at Sweet’s in ’99 (a Burning Man afterparty, in fact), the OPD showed up and ordered more than 1,500 people to go home when Lowrance didn’t produce the proper papers.
That said, Sweet’s is now being run by new people, with a change both in the decor and the marketing — Saturday night, Pete Escovedo helped the place throw its official grand reopening bash. It’s still under Matthew Fox’s “ownership” (he has a 35-year lease on the place), but the new brass has dumped over a million dollars into the joint’s renovation, so hopes are running high.
Walk inside, and you can understand where the money went. Paint alone must’ve demanded a huge chunk of change, because the place is massive. The dancefloor itself is a small country, with pretty hardwood floors spring-loaded for lots of give. The ballroom was designed without support beams for anyone to twirl into, and instead has flying buttresses along the perimeter of the ceiling holding everything up. Smack-dab in the middle of that ceiling is an immense decoration/conversation piece, reminiscent of a giant sunburst macaroon with a maraschino cherry squished into the middle.
“This place is going to be like the Fillmore was back in its heyday,” raved operations manager Craig Krstolic, “with people dropping in and out. Sure, Janis might be playing, but Jimi shows up, and Jefferson Airplane …”
Wrong decade, Craig. But actually he’s not far off the mark, because most of the acts that have appeared at Sweet’s so far have been jam bands. The ballroom is evidently not interested in hard rock or hip-hop, and that’s a shame. The place holds nine hundred, making it the perfect midsize venue — in the East Bay, no less — that we’ve all been hoping for.
Considering that the Ramp in Berkeley — a year-old DIY venue that dabbled liberally in hip-hop and indie-rock shows — got shut down just before this past weekend, the vacuum Sweet’s could fill just got even larger. The chance to catch big-shot touring rock shows without rumbling over the Bay Bridge or braving BART is almost too euphoric to even contemplate.
Planet Clair tried to convince Craig to rethink his plan.
“Well, we’re not against hard rock per se,” he said, pointing out that if Santana wanted to play, that would be great. (Right. We’ll give him a call.) But Krstolic and Fox, understandably, don’t want Sweet’s to be destroyed. The floors alone were a real effort to refurbish.
If this place is going to survive, though, the ballroom’s gotta pack ’em in at least once a week, and the only way to do that is to host mid-level bands, and not just blues, jazz, or swing. Rock ‘n’ roll, people. Get Grandaddy. Get the Postal Service. Throw the Coup’s record release party there. Do it. Live a little, and just have the paperwork ready when the fuzz barges in. After all, city life is risky.