Columbia nightclub returning to spotlight

Ex-owner hopes return can revive Silver Shadows

Small business

March 10, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The nightclub was going to be a platform to help former radio personality Kole Porter and partner R. Aaron Warren promote performers and eventually buy a radio station.

Instead, Silver Shadows nearly ran aground in the 18 months the two had it, and now, former owner Marcia Weider is back trying to revive the club.

For Weider, her return is a calling of sorts that she cannot seem to escape -- she first got into the business 15 years ago to save her son from going under.

For faithful customers, the return brings a sigh of relief and hope that their mellow gathering spot, which has come to fill a void of after-hours locales in Columbia for African-American professionals, won't be lost.

"It's the only place in Columbia for us," said Brenda Zeigler-Riley. "It's like Cheers. When one of us is missing, we miss one another."

There's a tough time ahead for Weider. In her absence, the club lost about 75 percent of its revenue, she said.

Perhaps worse, the club also lost its contracts with local radio stations to broadcast their weekend sets live from the club -- a punishing blow because those broadcasts are often what bring partygoers to the establishment. Those stations have set up new contracts to broadcast from other clubs, and that may make wooing them back difficult.

But Weider said she has brought back some radio personalities and a lot of the clientele. Revenue also is up about 60 percent, she said, but the club is still operating at a loss. The rest will come in time, she says.

"I went back in at a very bad time," she said. "You've got the holidays, and the weather's been terrible. I have the feeling when the weather breaks, it's going to be right back where I had it."

She plans the club's hours Thursday for ladies night, and she will open Sunday for poetry readings.

According to Michael Harrelson, editor of Nightclub & Bar, one of the nation's largest industry magazines, running a nightclub is something many people dream of but few can do.

"It takes a lot of skill, it takes more than a desire," he said. "You have to know how to run a business [and have] an ability to promote. In some cases, it takes many years to establish a relationship with spirits, beer and wine [suppliers] ... [who] know the promotions that will help draw patrons to your clubs. There are all these relationships that work, and if you don't have them, if you're outside the loop, it's more difficult to be able to turn a profit."

Harrelson said the business also is difficult because it is highly competitive and patrons are drinking less. But clubs are trying new twists to draw patrons in, such as making clubs into restaurants by day, sending e-mails to regular patrons or changing the music every few hours on weekends to draw different types of patrons.

"Every era has its own unique aspects," he said. "You have to try something different."

Over the years, Silver Shadows has been a popular nightclub and the darling of three radio stations that broadcast from the club every weekend. Baltimore radio station WERQ-FM has held its "Famous Q-Party" at the club every Friday night for five years.

At its height, Silver Shadows, in a Columbia office complex, drew patrons from the Washington area, Baltimore and Western Maryland for drinks, dancing and socializing.

The club has maintained a distinctive and mature feel, with friendly crowds and a regular cast of characters at the bar.

It opened in 1980, and Weider took over in 1990. For her, the club was a part-time gig that kept her late into the evening most weeknights and on her feet every weekend. By day, Weider is an insurance collections manager at Laurel Hospital. She sold to Porter, holding the mortgage herself, because she said she was burned out.

"No one taught me, I just did it," Weider said. "I made mistakes. You learn from your mistakes. A lot of people supported me. Now it's even more support."

Porter and Warren's business demise appears to have come through a series of neophyte troubles: not enough capital to continue the club's radio advertising schedule or its live broadcasts to keep it in the public eye, and investing in new services and yanking them away if they were not immediately popular, both of which had an effect on programs that were successful.

Add to that a string of hurdles typical in business -- a poor economy, tougher competition from other clubs and increases in business expenses -- and it is a cocktail for struggle.

"You may make change, and it causes you to increase business. The part we couldn't afford was change that causes a decrease," Warren said. "If you get out of the public's eye and you're a nightclub, you're a failure."

Porter said insufficient capital for advertising affected their efforts to make changes at the club.

"We were enhancing the clientele by broadening the scope a bit, but that goes back to advertising," Porter said. "We did newspaper advertising and the Internet ... but you really need to spend your money on radio. The core people that come are used to hearing [about the club] on the radio, and once they don't hear you all the time, they assume you're closed."

Regulars said they were faithful in supporting the club because it is needed in Columbia. But they said they are glad it is back under its original management, and they hope that will help the club regain stability.

"We're really glad to see it back, and we all want to make sure it works," said Bridgeforth Newbern of Columbia, who has been a patron for five years.

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