Monday, December 17, 2007
Crocodile Cafe: A Countdown to Implosion
With the announcement of Seattle's Crocodile Cafe closing on Monday December 17th, I have to say I wasn't surprised at all. On the Seattle Weekly and Stranger's blogs, fans of the club seemed surprised, but anyone that was following the news of what has been going on with the club should have seen Monday's announcement coming. Over the past year information emerged out about an old lawsuit, owner Stephanie Dorgan's divorce and possible ill-management, and last month the kitchen closed, then the booker quit. Below is a timeline of the Crocodile Cafe, documenting it's rise, the personal life of the owner taking precedence over the club, and it's eventual downfall. If you follow the timeline of events, you can clearly see the writing was on the wall many months ago that the club may close... and maybe it was more a matter of when it would happen, rather if it would happen.
1991- Lawyer and music fan Stephanie Dorgan and partners open The Crocodile Cafe as a rock club and cafe on 2nd and Blanchard (2200 2nd Ave) in Belltown, a fairly rundown neighborhood in downtown Seattle. Grunge is already starting to explode and the club is in the right place at the right time.
1992- Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, The Fluid, The Dwarves, The Supersuckers and many other popular Sub Pop and touring bands play The Croc, helping catapult the club into being the venue of choice in Seattle for the growing grunge and local rock scene.
1992- Croc owner Dorgan meets her husband-to-be, Peter Buck from REM, although at the time she's still married to her first husband, a fellow lawyer.
1992- In August, Dorgan's business partners, Gerold Everard and Erickson Shirley, sue her for failing to maintain proper accounting records. A settlement is reached and the details of the case are sealed, quieting the press coverage.
1993- Dorgan divorces first husband. Her attention becomes split between the club and spending time with Buck, who's often on the road touring with REM.
1994- Dorgan and Buck have twin daughters, Zelda and Zoe. The rock goes on at the Croc, but with a lot less attention from it's owner.
1995- Dorgan and Buck officially tie the knot.
1995-2000- The Crocodile Cafe hosts hundreds and hundreds of rock shows, often filled to capacity. Dorgan called an "absentee owner" by ex-staff during this period. Regardless, the club is profitable and has a string of great shows.
2000- Estimated year the Crocodile Cafe stops making a profit (see the February 2006 entry for details, that's when the information came out).
2000-2006- Local music fans complain about Crocodile club staff making shows at the club less fun than at other venues. Bar staff are often called rude and complaints arise about the club's security. At the same time greater competition arises for the Crocodile with larger clubs like The Showbox, Nuemo's, El Corazon, Vera Project and Chop Suey all proving to be successful. Crowd friendly neighborhood clubs like The Sunset and Tractor Tavern in Ballard, Jules Maes in Georgetown, and the High Dive in Fremont also compete for crowds and shows, as do smaller bars like Funhouse and Mars Bar. The grunge movement, which catapulted the club into popularity and brought in the crowds, is long gone. The Croc has a bit of an identity crisis and booking seems all over the map, from indie rock to Sub Pop bands to alt country to punk to metal. The Croc is no longer a go-to destination, except with tourists looking for their Seattle grunge experience. For Seattle music fans and local bands, the club has become just one of many options for live music around town.
2006- In February, Stephanie Dorgan and husband Peter Buck divorce, having split up the previous year. At the time Dorgan declares in court documents: "All of the time away from the Crocodile Cafe adversely affected its moneymaking ability. Since 2000, the Crocodile Cafe has not been able to pay me any salary at all." According to Dorgan's testimony, it's quite probablye the club hadn't been making money since 2000, and now it's owner was going through major personal turmoil going through her second divorce and trying to raise two daughters.
2007- In August, The Seattle Times succeeds in getting the details of the 1992 lawsuit against Dorgan by her partners unsealed. A number of articles follow in the Seattle press about Dorgan's business practices and the Crocodile Cafe's financial stability. The string of bad press for the club begins.
2007- In September, The Seattle Weekly publishes and article entitled "Confronted With a Perfect Storm of Challenges, Belltown's Legendary Crocodile Cafe Fights for Its Life." The article delves into the financial, legal, and personal problems of Stephanie Dorgan and the club, read it here.
2007- In early November, the Crocodile Cafe halts food service, closing its restaurant, presumably in an attempt to save money. More articles hit Seattle newspapers about the Croc's financial stability. The club website is never updated to say the kitchen is closed, it continues to advertise "breakfast 6 days a week."
2007- November 28, the club's primary booker Peter Greenberg quits. The final straw for Greenberg occurs during a staff meeting that devolves into an argument between Dorgan and Greenberg about catering food for a party, now that the kitchen is closed. Ex-employees talk to press about past paychecks bouncing, a leaky roof, financial problems and Dorgan treating the club like a vanity project. Current employees defend the club, saying it will go on and to ignore the rumors. Greenberg gets hired by rival club Chop Suey the following week.
2007- December 7th, corporate media giant AEG announces it's bought the two Showbox theaters in downtown Seattle, one just 6 or 7 blocks from the Croc. Already owner of the WAMU Theater and partnering with One Reel for the Bumbershoot Festival, AEG clearly is taking big steps into asserting dominance in Seattle's live music scene and creating a large powerful new competitor for the Crocodile Cafe and other locally owned clubs. (Sadly, AEG has an extremely conservative owner that sinks the profits from his music clubs and other investments into scary right wing political causes like denying gays rights and fighting the science of evolution, see previous entry).
2007- December 16th, new Crocodile booker Eli Anderson receives a phone message out of the blue from Dorgan, informing him the club is now closed, while he's out Christmas shopping. Dorgan's message to Anderson cites "financial reasons" for the club's startling and immediate closure. Anderson is shocked, he's spent the last three weeks working non-stop booking the club and saw no signs of the club's impending closure at show the night before.
2007- December 17th, news of the closure begins to hit the media from "an unnamed, yet reliable source" who's most likely Anderson. Seattle Weekly staff are first to publish the news via their Reverb blog. They share it with radio station KEXP, which in turn announces the closure on air. A few hours later The Stranger, Seattle Times, Seattle P-I and various music blogs like this one spread the story and their feelings about the Crocodile Cafe now being closed. Fans of the club flood online blogs (particularly The Stranger's Line Out music blog) and forums with messages of complete surprise and dismay.
The reality is, the club hasn't made money for years, possibly since 2000. Stephanie Dorgan recently went through a divorce and has two 13 year old daughters to raise. The club and Dorgan have had a string of bad press since August. Competition has stepped up from an alliance between Nuemos and Chop Suey on Capitol Hill, as well as AEG buying the two Showbox venues and talking about sinking money into both venues. The economy is having problems, people are spending less money on shows and drinks. Belltown has become increasingly yuppie and less rock crowd friendly. A number of music clubs the size of the Croc have opened in neighborhoods closer to where music fans live, such as Ballard, Freemont, Capitol Hill, Georgetown and West Seattle. And to top it off, Dorgan just got in a spat with her booker of four years, who quit and was hired by a competing club.
The future was looking pretty dismal for the Crocodile Cafe. Nothing seemed to be going Dorgan or the club's way (although that may be in large part to how Dorgan ran the business over the years if you listen to her ex-partners and ex-employees). I don't think anyone should really find the club's closing as a surprise once given all this information. What's sad is it came out of the blue for Crocodile staff, right before Christmas, leaving all the employees jobless with no warning. Many would see that as unethical.
In it's hey day, the Crocodile Cafe was a great club. I have many fond memories of shows and experiences there (and heck, it's the only Seattle club I've been thrown out of... twice!). In the past few years the shows haven't been the same, everyone knows it. My guess is it was less a problem with the booking and more the tougher competition the club faced from larger capacity venues that could pay bands more (the Croc maxes out at around 350 people). The Crocodile Cafe had a great run, the longest of any Seattle rock club I can think of. There's talk now of a bunch of different groups of people trying to buy it, but it may just be gossip. It will be interesting to see if anyone steps up to the plate. Can it be made a financially successful club again? Can it be made a go to destination for music fans again? I wish anyone that tries the best of luck.