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Town House memories

The Town House was just one of those bars. Once every couple of years they closed for a few months–according to the rumor mill, due to another ABC violation for selling to a minor. Once a year or two their “restaurant menu” reappeared for a week or so to satisfy the requirements of their “general eating place” liquor license (which requires that half the facility’s revenue comes from sale of food) and they would sell a few wings and sliders and nachos, then the kitchen would go dormant and the only food in the place was Maraschino cherries and lime chunks. The upstairs dance floor was notoriously creaky and unstable—the best sign to the DJ that the crowd was enjoying the set was terrifying vibrations set off by dancing feet that hinted the floor was about to give way and crush everyone downstairs.

And then there were the bathrooms. The best thing about living a few blocks from the Townhouse, other than being a short walk from some very interesting club nights, was being close enough that I could run home to answer nature’s call, and never had to actually touch any part of the inside of the Town House bathroom. For some reason, the best clubs in the world—CBGB, Gilman Street, the Trocadero—always have the filthiest bathrooms. But none of that mattered, because it was the kind of club where you could turn up any night of the week to see what the rest of Sacramento’s club world would be dancing to next year—if they heard of it at all. A little bathroom smell is easy to ignore after a few drinks, plus sound and lights contributing to sensory overload.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. When Frank Torres opened the Town House at 1517 21st Street in the late 1950s, with its eye-catching neon signage, it was a for-real restaurant, specializing in seafood and steaks. Once inside, the Modern exterior gave way to dark wood. Some who visited recalled the chef’s salad as the best thing on the menu. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of the older downtown Sacramento restaurants were falling to redevelopment, and new restaurants and jazz clubs appeared along Midtown business corridors like 21st Street. Most advertised free parking to attract visitors from the new suburbs, and the Town House had its own lot! In 1960, they were just half a block from “Dick & Eddie’s” Restaurant at 21st and P, today the home of the Press Club (if you ever wondered why the Press Club has a sign advertising banquet rooms, it’s a leftover from Dick & Eddie’s.) Farther down was the “Play Room” Restaurant at 1816 21st. In the other direction, the simply-named “Quick Lunch” was located at 1413 21st, and Club 21 (now the home of Midtown Barfly and Bacon & Butter) at 1120 21st. All were an easy walk from offices like the Sacramento Bee’s new headquarters at 21st and Q. Some present-day institutions, like Zelda’s Pizza, hadn’t even opened their doors yet.

According to Gretchen Steinberg, president of historic preservation nonprofit Sacramento Modern, the iconic "Town House" neon signs were manufactured by local Sacramento firm Pacific Neon between 1955 and 1958. The cartoony yellow letters, blade sign and martini glass survived until the club’s last days, although the array of lightbulbs and horizontal neon tubes just above the door were removed long ago.

In the 1970s, downtown Sacramento reached its lowest point of population, fine dining was easier to find in the suburbs, and previously elegant restaurants lost much of their luster. As the neighborhood around 21st Street became “Lavender Heights,” the Town House served the gay community as a neighborhood bar in the 1980s and 1990s. Paul Brown recalled the atmosphere of the Town House: “It was always seedy and run down, faded glamour.” The best-attended night was a drag-queen karaoke night, featuring Town House regular “Amanda Hugginkiss.”

Frank Torres owned the Town House until his death in 2004, when it was sold to Desi Reynoso. Under new ownership, the Town House became a newer breed of nightclub. DJs like Shaun Slaughter, Jon Droll, Missy, Roderick Carpio and Arnold, also known as GVNR (later X-GVNR) combined their massive record collections with a never-ending curiosity about new music, hosting nights like RECORD CLUB, F*** FRIDAY, BLOW UP, PITFALL, POP FREQ, BLACK RADIO and BLITZ. Record Club gave aspiring DJs the chance to spin a few records for the house, and Record Club’s movie nights featured music-themed documentaries like “The Nomi Song”, “Blank City” and “Gainsbourg.” Probably the best known of recent memory was GRIMEY, spinning dubstep well before people started really complaining about how overplayed dubstep was. It wasn’t all about DJs, though—the upstairs stage at the Town House featured a dizzying array of local and touring bands, and was the birthplace of the Sacramento Electronic Music Festival. In 2007, when music scene stalwart Kyle "Tracker" Brown died in his thirties of heart failure, the Town House opened its doors for a private party (it was during one of those mysterious closures) so his friends could celebrate his life just as he would have wanted it, in a loud, bouncing Midtown nightclub.

Unlike clubs with a casual or upscale atmosphere, Town House wasn’t a club where you’d dress up, or dress down—the edgy fashions on display were more like dressing sideways. Regulars included local fashion icons like Olivia Coelho of Bows & Arrows, Marilyn Ayres of Thunderhorse Vintage, and Kendall Tobe of Midikat Boutique. People-watching was as interesting as whatever was happening on stage, and many documented the wild nights at Town House to plaster them all over social media. When asked to sum up the Town House, photographer and unstoppable clubber Sergio Reyes said, “I recently took a friend to Town House for her very first time, and after we left she said "Now I know why you like taking photos of people here. Every girl looks like a hooker and the guys are smelly, greasy but kinda cute." I said to her "that’s pretty much Town House in a nutshell.” Sergio documented many wild nights at the Town House via his Facebook page BUFF $LUT.

The management of the Town House were apparently more focused on keeping up with musical trends than keeping up with mortgage payments and regular maintenance. When the building was recently sold after foreclosure proceedings, events continued for months. Regulars expected the club to fold at any moment, but it was still a surprise when the club finally closed—and a further surprise when the building’s iconic signage was removed earlier this week. The nightclub world is often as unstable and unpredictable as Town House’s second-story dance floor—you never know when the bottom will fall out. A new club will take its place, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the new operator will manage a club as edgy and interesting as Town House—and whether or not they manage to get that smell out of the bathroom.


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