Washington Avenue’s bumpy summer has seen its first casualty: the long-running Rue 13.
Tommy Gray, who opened Rue 13 with Scott Gilmartin and silent partners the McGowan Brothers in 2000, closed the nightclub and lounge Saturday after a last-minute announcement.
Its closing represents the end of an era for downtown nightlife.
He says Washington Avenue has become something akin to a “military zone,” with police everywhere keeping youth in check.
“A lot of people are turned off by that," Gray says. "It wasn’t the inviting atmosphere it used to be when everybody on the street was having fun. The city overreacted.”
Gray was upset that patios on Washington Avenue had to close at 1:30 a.m.
“That takes the vibrancy off the perimeter of the space," he says. "People would rather leave than go inside.”
The strip as it is today, he says, “is not really cool anymore. It’s a copy of Laclede’s Landing. The clientele has changed a lot.”
And with all that, attendance and alcohol sales at Rue 13 consistently declined. Gray first noticed a decrease four years ago but says it really hit hard this past summer.
“This summer was the worst," he says. "It hit like a ton of bricks. Everybody just freaked out."
And with that, Gray decided it was over for Rue 13. He opted not to renew his lease.
“I booked a bunch of shows, and they weren’t bringing in people anymore, and I decided it was time to go,” Gray says. “We knew something was wrong, but we stuck it out and kept trying to do it.”
He expects more closings.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if by next summer we see other places closed, but I can’t be sure about that," Gray says. "It may turn around. It’s always good to be positive.”
The look and feel of downtown Washington Avenue was a more positive one for Gray in the strip's early days, a time when he also ran the now-closed Velvet.
That period was popping with a slew of other bygone venues: Tangerine, Lo, Cheetah, Polly Esther’s, the Galaxy, the Indigo Room, the Boom Booom Room and Kaos.
“Back then, things were really happening," he says. "The street was the place to be for nightlife. It was very cool and very laid-back. It’s not really cool anymore.”
He believes Rue 13 outlasted everything else from that era because of its different approach, one that welcomed different things and stayed away from being pigeonholed.
“We always tried to do something different," Gray says. "Now if you’re different, you’re ostracized."
Over the years, Rue 13 has been home to a number of special events, including That 80’s Club, Level 13, the Red Rubber Ball, the Alley Cats burlesque show, a punk-rock night and even drag shows.
For a while the drag shows were "really successful, but they wanted to move to the ‘gay-borhood' (the Grove) rather than here,” he says.
Looking back at Rue 13’s heyday, Gray most fondly remembers bookings such as DJs Kaskade, Charles Feelgood, Mark Farina and Scooter & Lavelle (my own fondest memory was a DJ spin from the Roots’ Questlove).
The Rue 13 space is slated to be used as warehouse space for Boxers and Beverly’s Hill underwear stores, located next door.
Gray has been getting calls about running other clubs, but that’s not where his head is. He says he needs a break. In the meantime, he’ll help a friend run a new restaurant, Bar Les Freres, opening soon in Clayton.
“I’m certainly done with Washington Avenue,” says Gray, whose memory of the final night at Rue 13 last Saturday is a warm one.
“There were lots of old faces I haven’t seen in years. It was great. My face is still sore from smiling.”