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The Starlite owner on the Townhouse sign controversy

Shannon Cannon wasn’t courting controversy when she purchased the venerable yet shabby Midtown Sacramento nightspot, The Townhouse Lounge, early this year. But in removing the building’s iconic, decades-old neon sign, the fledgling bar owner unwittingly sparked a wildfire among a vocal minority of Sacramento’s Midtown residents and preservationists.

A veteran server of numerous Midtown bars and nightclubs, Cannon views the renovation of the Townhouse, now rechristened The Starlite, as her opportunity to finally open the bar she’s always wanted to patronize, the type of bar whose aesthetic leans towards a mix of sensibilities that blend rockabilly, midcentury-modern jet set and 1950’s sci-fi. In realizing this dream, however, Cannon was unprepared for the backlash the removal of the building’s large neon signs would generate (most notably, a Facebook page demanding the return of the original Townhouse signage and a subsequent pre-emptive boycott of The Starlite).

“[I]t’s unpalatable to see Midtown remade into a Maloof theme park for Jersey Shore castoffs,” writes former Sacramento News & Review arts editor and columnist Jackson Griffith on the Facebook protest group-page. “The Starlite’s vision of Disneyfied faux-Rat Pack swank seems in keeping with this trend.”

Taking time out from what Cannon and her crew of mostly family regards as a typical 22-hour-a-day renovation process, the visibly exhausted yet jubilant bar owner met with Sacramento Press to discuss her new venture and answer online detractors like Griffith.

Sacramento Press (SP): When you removed the Townhouse’s neon sign, were you prepared for the type of backlash you received?

Shannon Cannon (SC): Not at all. Everyone I had talked to about taking this place over and remodeling it was positive. Nothing was said until I took the sign down. And then, all of a sudden, that lit the town on fire. It broke my heart to remove a sign that had been up there for so long, but I didn’t have a choice.

SP: Why is that?

SC: I don’t own the rights to the business name The Townhouse. [Cannon and business partner, Charlie Coyne] own the building, but not the business name. You can’t just buy a building that used to be a Safeway and open up a Safeway. You have to have the rights to the business name, and I couldn’t come to an agreement with the people who had the rights to the name.

SP: Did the previous owners of the business name want to sell it to you?

SC: It’s bigger than just the name. There are a lot of other factors involved. It’s the reason we have a lot of new equipment in here now – a lot of new everything, actually. A majority of the equipment that was not attached to the property and the name belongs to the previous owners. It was easier just to wipe my hands of all of it than sit with this place dark for months and months while [we were] in court.

SP: Where is the signage now?

SC: It’s in my garage.

SP: Do you have any plans for it?

SC: I’ve been talking to a couple of places that are into preserving old signs. There’s a local midcentury-modern business that is interested in it. Most of the neon in the sign was broken. Only the T broke when we took it down. Everything else is still intact, but the neon inside was toast. As soon as [the workers] took it off of the building, the neon broke—it just turned into dust.

SP: With the Facebook group protesting the changes you’ve made, there seems to be a sense that people aren’t opposed to the renovations as much as they are the removal of the sign and the name change. What do you make of this online protest and how you have engaged your detractors there? [Cannon also joined this Facebook group to follow what’s being said by both her detractors and her supporters.]

SC: It’s definitely more the sign than it is the actual place. It’s clear—and it should have been clear—that the place needed a little bit of work done to it. The physical sign came with the property, but the business name did not. And I think that’s something people don’t necessarily understand.

One of the things I had said might have gotten misinterpreted [online]. I was talking about how this place was so run down and there was not a lot of care put into it. When I first got this place, the entire wall we’re sitting next to now had the words “F— you” spray painted across it. And I said, “I don’t want those people. I don’t want people that will come in and destroy the place.” And that got turned into, “She’s saying she doesn’t want any of the old customers!” That’s not what I meant, and that’s not what I’m going for. This isn’t going to be a high-end place. It’s going to be a little Midtown bar. I’m not going to turn you away for the type of shoes you’re wearing.

SP: Do you see the new sign as reminiscent of the previous sign?

SC: It has similar script. I tried to take it back to the era. I found some old paperwork from 1938 in the walls when we were retiling. It’s the original health department slip. So this building is older than I think people realize. I’m trying to keep this place in what I imagine its heyday used to be—what it would have been.

SP: Have you always wanted to open your own bar?

SC: Well, since I was first working in a bar, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to one day own your own bar?” I’ve worked in bars for years, and always thought, “If it was my bar, I’d do it this way.” I’ve taken a lot of what this bar looks like straight out of my house.

A lot of the little trinkets [encased in a clear laminate running the length of the bar] are from people who have helped build and create this place and do what we needed to have done to this building, contributing something that means something to them. We even have a “Reserved for [the late Midtown icon] Bobby Burns” seat up there.

SP: Will The Starlite featured DJs and live music?

SC: Oh yeah! Upstairs.

SP: What kinds of bands and DJs will you have?

SC: A little bit of everything. I’m talking to the guys who used to DJ here, like Shaun Slaughter and Roger Carpio. I’m still working with a lot of the people that were involved with this place for so long.

I want people to come in and have a lot of fun, have a few drinks, see some good bands or dance to a good DJ. I’ve picked out a staff with great personalities who are super friendly, who have been in the industry, know what they’re doing and know a lot of people around downtown.

Sacramento’s missing this type of bar; I want to be the one to put it here.

The Starlite is slated to open at the beginning of early August 2013.

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