A Fabled Club Seeks an Encore in Brooklyn
By GREGORY BEYER
Published: December 16, 2007
AS a teenager growing up in Flatbush, Allan Pepper used to set aside his schoolbooks every evening and tune in to the radio station WINS for the alternative education offered by the legendary D.J. Alan Freed. Mad for more, the gratefully distracted student discovered a jukebox sale and rental shop on Coney Island Avenue, not far from his home, that sold the 78s - five for a dollar - after current hits had run their cycles. Eventually, he sold his record collection to friends and used the money to venture into an even more daring genre of recordings: jazz.
The musical flexibility of that shift was the hallmark of the Bottom Line cabaret, which Mr. Pepper opened in 1974 at Mercer and West Fourth Streets in Greenwich Village with his business partner and boyhood friend, Stanley Snadowsky.
Over the decades, styling himself after Mr. Freed and especially his hero, the promoter Bill Graham, impresario of the Fillmore clubs in San Francisco and New York, Mr. Pepper oversaw the rising fortunes - and often, the wincing declines - of nearly every popular act to pass through New York.
Mr. Pepper is 65, and with adjustments made for age and experience, his life today is not so different from those long-ago evenings spent listening to his radio. The dining room of his modest house in Tenafly, N.J., is cluttered with CDs and cassette tapes of recordings from the club that was his life's passion. He is working his way through them, selecting tracks for a live boxed set to be released next year in honor of the club, which closed in 2004.
Lori Cheatle, a film producer and fan of the Bottom Line, had approached Mr. Pepper about filming the club's last days in late 2003, when New York University, its landlord, was threatening to evict the club for failure to pay about $185,000 in back rent.
Mr. Pepper still believed then that the Bottom Line would be saved, but Ms. Cheatle saw a good story no matter what happened: either Mr. Pepper's triumph or - better, really - his idealism bowing to whims of a faceless landlord. Then, the quest for redemption. "It's this notion of, can there be second acts in life?" Ms. Cheatle said recently.
When Mr. Pepper isn't listening to music or being filmed, he is looking for a space to start up the Bottom Line again. "Why give it up now," he said this fall, "just because some major corporation came and took it away from me?"
He didn't always feel so determined.
After losing the club, Mr. Pepper said, he feared falling into depression. For days after, brooding at home, he used to unthinkingly pick up the phone and dial the club to check the box-office numbers and ask if there were any calls for him. "Then," he said, "I'd realize there wasn't a call for me to make."
His own phone, though, was ringing, and his inbox was overflowing. Don Duggan, a 50-year-old Bay Ridge native and live music enthusiast, volunteered himself to the cause, flooding Mr. Pepper with e-mail messages that proclaimed Manhattan dead to live music and Brooklyn electric with potential. "I'd send e-mails to Allan and say, 'Your audience is waiting for you,'" Mr. Duggan said.
Though Mr. Pepper appreciated the kind words, the idea of moving to Brooklyn seemed far-fetched. He visited more than 50 possible locations in Manhattan, but after a year of searching, none seemed promising. Hearing this, Mr. Duggan again suggested Brooklyn, and he offered to drive Mr. Pepper around Park Slope and Carroll Gardens to take a look.
"It's very much a neighborhood as the Village was when you first started," Mr. Duggan told him. Mr. Pepper's daughter Jessie, who lives in Carroll Gardens, gave her blessing. Gradually, Mr. Pepper warmed to the thought of taking the Bottom Line to his native borough.
"In Manhattan I've found that it's really about dollars and cents," he said, "and even when you attempt to talk to people that you think could understand on some kind of aesthetic level what you're trying to accomplish, I haven't got the same reaction that I've got with Brooklyn."
So Mr. Pepper has transplanted his idealism back across the East River. Plans for the new Bottom Line, which is backed by several investors, include not only a music club but also an adjacent pub decorated with memorabilia. The hope is that the pub's revenue will anchor the enterprise financially and allow the club to flourish.
Still, the rebirth is slow going. Each potential property faces the inevitable comparison with the original, and Mr. Pepper goes months without viewing new sites.
The variables of location and space make it difficult to estimate the club's eventual cost, according to Joel Wechsler, a real estate broker for Grubb & Ellis who is representing Mr. Pepper. Even in Brooklyn, he said, "pricing in the real estate market has gotten to be so phenomenally high that it's made it very difficult for us to find something that has a realistic price tag on it for the club to survive."
In spite of his vague timeline and economics, several Brooklyn officials are encouraging Mr. Pepper, eager to adopt the Bottom Line and its cultural clout.
"Any place that can attract the likes of Miles Davis or Bruce Springsteen is a place we believe could attract a high degree of talent and visitorship in Downtown Brooklyn," said Joe Chan, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a group that is putting Mr. Pepper in touch with potential owners or builders.
WITH a sense of irony, Mr. Pepper has also been following a developing story at New York University. After the Bottom Line vacated its premises, the building that had housed the club was converted into a lecture hall and renovated with money donated by an N.Y.U. student; it was later discovered that the student had acquired the money, and millions more, by defrauding investors.
The university was criticized for keeping about $200,000 of the student's $1.25 million gift, and only in October, more than a year after the donor pleaded guilty, was the name of the student's family removed from the building.
Mr. Pepper insists he harbors no grudge against his one-time landlord. Nevertheless, there is still a flicker of vindication in his brief analysis of the scandal, delivered with a wry smile: "Karma."