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Black Cat rocks 20 years: Revives neighborhood, scene

Saturday - 6/15/2013, 10:09am  ET

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Hand-lettered sign from September 1993 when Black Cat first opened (Neal Augenstein/WTOP)
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Black Cat turns 20

Neal Augenstein, WTOP

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WASHINGTON - When Dante Ferrando decided it was time to shift his concentration from drumming in local punk bands to dipping his toe into business, he went where the competition wasn't.

Dante's Restaurant opened in early 1990 on 14th Street near Church Street in Northwest D.C. At the time, the only legal businesses nearby were car dealerships, paint stores and The Studio and Source theaters.

"When I first opened Dante's Restaurant, it was the first table service restaurant in the neighborhood," Ferrando says, sitting on the carpeted lip of the stage. "There really wasn't much going on down here except for the theaters, and a lot of drugs and prostitution."

Two decades later, with successful businesses including furniture stores, restaurants and animal hospitals, Ferrando's nightclub, the Black Cat, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with two shows Sept. 13 and 14.

"When he started his restaurant down the block, people were saying, ‘This will never work, there's been nothing here since 1968,'" remembers musician and artist Alec MacKaye, who will DJ at the Sept. 13 event.

"It was such a bold move," MacKaye says. "I just didn't think it could happen. He made it happen, and it really developed that block."

Within a few years, Ferrando made an equally bold decision - to open a nightclub that would compete with the 9:30 Club.

9:30 Club was owned by Seth Hurwitz and Rich Heinecke, who also owned I.M.P Productions, which now produces major concerts at venues, including Merriweather Post Pavillion.

By the late 1980s, 9:30 Club and the tiny spot called d.c. space were the main clubs booking alternative acts, to counter the more mainstream shows at The Bayou.

By 1990, despite its reputation and ability to draw bands, 9:30 - located in the lobby and basement of the Atlantic Building - was rat-infested and cramped.

"9:30 Club wasn't the only game in town, but it was the primary spot, and I think got comfortable with that," recalls MacKaye, who was one of the founding members of D.C.'s hardcore punk scene with bands like The Untouchables and Ignition.

MacKaye and Ferrando believed Hurwitz, who had introduced all-ages matinee shows featuring local bands, was becoming more focused on luring national acts than providing opportunities for locals.

"You don't get to be as big as I.M.P. Productions without being a little more mercenary about who could fill the place out," says MacKaye. "So he might not book a lot of bands that Dante took a chance on."

The Black Cat opened its doors on 14th Street NW near the intersection of Swann Street in September 1993.

In its first weeks, the club hosted bands like The Fall and Rancid.

"The Fall was a great score to help put the club on the map," says Ferrando.

Ferrando acknowledges it was challenging vying for bands against Hurwitz, who was on his way to becoming one of the nation's top promoters.

"Seth was a tough competitor at that point," says Ferrando. "I think he was used to being the only game in town, so the first few years was a bit of butting heads.

Hurwitz says Ferrando wasn't far off.

"At the old 9:30, we had the market cornered, as far as coolness goes," says Hurwitz. "When Dante opened the Black Cat, there was another cool place."

"His place was a little nicer. It didn't smell like ours did. It was a bigger stage, bigger dressing rooms, and more importantly a bigger club, which meant a bigger gross, which meant more income for the bands," Hurwitz says.

Bands Hurwitz had been booking for years noticed there was a new club in town.

"A lot of those bands left for the money," he says.

Hurwitz says Ferrando's competition made him realize he needed a better venue than the decrepit 9:30.

"We set out to design, hopefully, the greatest club ever," says Hurwitz.

"If it weren't for the Black Cat, there wouldn't be the current 9:30 Club," says Hurwitz. "That was pretty much designed as the competitive answer to the Black Cat."

The old 9:30 Club on F Street closed its doors on Dec. 31, 1995.

Its latest incarnation in the remodeled former WUST Radio Music Hall at 815 V St. NW opened Jan. 5, 1996.

Booking primarily larger acts, the new 9:30 has been awarded "Nightclub of the Year" several times by Pollstar, the concert industry trade journal.

Ferrando says the days of direct competition with 9:30 are largely behind him.

"We compete over a few shows here and there, around the edges, but really some stuff makes more sense here, some stuff makes more sense there," says Ferrando.

"We feel like a small show," says Ferrando, "Where you're right in front of the band, you're right in the middle of it."

MacKaye recalls his first time playing Black Cat in 1995.

"First time setting foot on the stage was with The Warmers. I think the only three songs we had written at that point," says MacKaye.

"I had been offstage for a long time, so it was nerve-wracking, but the club was great," says MacKaye.

Nine years after it opened, Black Cat moved a few doors down 14th Street to its current location at 1811 14th St.

In the three-day span between closing the old club and opening the new venue, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 took place.

"People were freaked out. There was definitely a lot of paranoia that first year," says Ferrando.

"I remember a few cancellations due to the sniper thing," says Ferrando, referring to the local sniper rampage of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, in October 2002.

Ferrando says the local music scene now has more clubs than in recent years.

Black Cat features a large main stage on the second floor, and a smaller stage on the street level for shows with a capacity of a couple hundred people.

"Having so many clubs going at the same time makes it very tempting for bands to grab every show they can," says Ferrando.

"If you play every month, you don't build up to the really big show," says Ferrando. "You just have people coming out to whatever show's closest to them or whichever venue they like the most."

Ferrando, whose band Gray Matter will perform during the anniversary shows, has earned the respect of Hurwitz.

"The Black Cat is super important to helping bands develop an audience here in Washington, D.C. and has played an important part in a lot of bands' growth and nurturing an audience, which helps us all," says Hurwitz.

MacKaye marvels at the passage of time, between the hatching of Ferrando's idea and the celebration of two decades with Black Cat.

"It is amazing," says MacKaye, "Twenty years. It can go quick when you're not thinking about it too much."

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