Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Upscale Freakism"

Beale Street's Club 152 draws the late-night crowd and a drug bust.

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Say this for Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich: She doesn't pull her punches. Or telegraph them.

After a seven-month investigation and a quick heads-up to the news media, the DA and Tennessee drug agents hit Beale Street where and when it hurts last week. They closed the highest-grossing club with the highest-profile owner in the middle of the Memphis In May barbecue contest and a week before the Grizzlies play San Antonio in the NBA Playoffs next door at FedExForum.

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"It was like closing Macy's two weeks before Christmas," said attorney Ted Hansom, who represents Club 152 owners Charlie Ryan, Bud Chittom, and Kevin Kane, the head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Club 152 is near the western gateway to the Beale Street Entertainment District, but unlike most properties it is not owned by the city. It doesn't show up on the Shelby County Assessor's website. Kane, who coaches one of Weirich's children in youth sports, said he and his partners bought the club and the real estate in 2009 "as a pure real estate play" because it is next door to Blues City Cafe, which they also own. They bought it with Rusty Hyneman, but bought him out after a year.

"I'm one of the owners, but I don't run the place," Kane said. "We didn't know drug sales were going on for six months. We fire people every week, trying to get rid of bad employees. I'm outraged. I want Beale Street to be a positive, safe environment for everyone."

According to Nightclub & Bar magazine, Club 152 grosses $5 million to $10 million a year, which makes it one of the trade journal's "Top 100" for the last three years running. No other club in Memphis, and only two in the whole Southeastern United States, has made the list, which is dominated by clubs in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. Club 152 touts "three floors of fun" serving up food, drinks, and deejays. A fourth floor is the stuff of urban legend but not on the website. It describes the after-midnight weekend offerings on the upper floors as "upscale freakism" but adds coyly, "You will have to be the judge of that."

Actually, Environmental Court judge Larry Potter will be the judge of that. A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in his court to decide if and when the club will reopen. The investigation by undercover agents documented the sale and use of marijuana, cocaine, Xanax, and Percocet at the club and a year-long history of more than 130 police calls, including more than 20 fights and 37 arrests.

Weirich may have been holding back some information for Tuesday's court hearing. If not, given Beale Street's history, it is tempting to say, "Is that all you got in seven months?" Back in 1917, W.C. Handy wrote these lines in the "Beale Street Blues."

"If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk, married men would have to take their beds and walk.

"You'll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled. You'll find that business never ceases 'til somebody gets killed."

Kane said he visits Club 152 about five times a year but not much after midnight. He predicted the club would open within a week.

"It draws a diverse crowd," he said. "It is not some rogue, dark, seedy, terrible environment. We'll deal with it."

On Monday, he wrote a letter to his board members saying his role in the club has been overstated in the media but giving no details of his financial stake.

Hansom questioned the timing of the bust and the magnitude of the problem, if it was allowed to go on for seven months.

"The club has been under investigation since last November," he said. "What occurred in the last two weeks that didn't occur two months ago, or what was happening that they couldn't have waited until June 1st?"

The bust comes as the city is looking for new management for the Beale Street Historic District, and the Grizzlies' new ownership is closely following what's happening in their neighborhood. Beale Street has defied the best efforts of accountants and attorneys to document its financial history ever since former Mayor Willie Herenton commissioned an audit 20 years ago that netted little, other than a $600,000 legal bill.

It's Beale Street — unique, rowdy, and inscrutable, where opportunity knocks and the players know nothing and know everything at the same time.

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