Just five years after a star-studded cast of investors revived the Hot Tin Roof, the legendary Edgartown nightclub partly owned by Carly Simon is closing down, the victim of a graying Island population and a hard-nosed town policy. The building is up for sale at a price of $1.1 million.
Co-owner and manager Herb Putnam decided to pull the plug on the business last month, and while he blamed a number of factors for the club's decline, he said the final straw was the refusal of Edgartown selectmen to bend on their policy that liquor license holders keep their businesses open at least five days a week.
"It's a marginal business and very difficult to have it pay for itself," he said. The five-day minimum just put more pressure on the club, he added. "When we opened in '96, it was for two or three days a week. That enabled us to open weekends in May and weekends in September or October. In this day and age, it's extremely difficult for small clubs to survive."
Demographics and changing attitudes about alcohol also played a part in the downfall of what was once the Island's hottest nightspot.
"The drunk driving penalties have made people more aware. They drink less, and they travel less," said Mr. Putnam. "And Martha's Vineyard has changed. It's much older now, and that crowd doesn't necessarily go out to nightclubs as much as they did in the early '80s. I came here when I was 16, and there was just a very large group of us. We fueled the entertainment venues. But as we have gotten older, we have not been replaced. The cost of living here is too high now."
Still, despite those factors, Mr. Putnam believed the club had a shot at surviving if the five-day minimum could be overturned. He lobbied selectmen for a year and a half with no luck.
Ironically, just this week Edgartown selectmen finally relented and decided to approve a three-day minimum policy after restaurant owners also complained that the regulations put too heavy a burden on them. But for the Hot Tin Roof, the action came too late.
"All our acts needed to be booked in February and March," said Mr. Putnam. "We already told people we're not having music. I think it's great the three-day rule has prevailed, but unfortunately selectmen have said for the last two years there was no chance for this to be changed. The Hot Tin Roof had to take a totally different direction. We would not be able to run it as nightclub."
Edgartown selectmen never considered giving the Hot Tin Roof special consideration.
"What we were trying to accomplish when we instituted the five-day policy was a measure of protection for all year-round license holders who stay open in February," said selectman Arthur Smadbeck. "We were trying to avoid having seasonal restaurants closing in October and November and then opening up at Christmas or taking only weekends that cut into business that we felt year-round people needed to survive."
Mr. Smadbeck said that if selectmen had made concessions to the Hot Tin Roof, then other license holders would have demanded special rules. The policy, he said, was meant to be uniform for both seasonal and year-round license holders.
But without any relief from the town, the Hot Tin Roof cut short its entertainment season after Labor Day. Since January, Mr. Putnam has been renting out the space as a function hall for corporate events and private parties. And given current zoning restrictions, he said there's little chance the space will ever become a nightclub again.
The end of the Hot Tin Roof leaves the Island with just one nightclub, the Atlantic Connection in Oak Bluffs. The silence near the airport will be remarkable. In its heyday in the early 1980s, the club pulled in such top performers as Peter Tosh and Dizzy Gillespie. Created in 1979 by Mr. Putnam, Carly Simon and George Brush, the Hot Tin Roof functioned as ground zero for Vineyard nightlife. In addition to the performers, there were celebrities. The late John Belushi was known to storm the stage and take over the drum set.
The club was sold in 1986 to Peter Martell, but that tenure ended in bankruptcy several years later. By 1995, Carly Simon had assembled a formidable list of investors to rescue the club. With big names and deep pockets, they embarked on a complete renovation. The line-up included publishing heir Dirk Ziff, investment banker Steven Rattner, BMG music chief Strauss Zelnick, Presidential landlord and Boston developer Richard Friedman and Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Pictures.
Within a short time, the Hot Tin Roof was again a celebrity hang-out for the likes of former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, Diane Sawyer and Keith Richards. But beyond the glitz, there was the music.
From the outset, the investors said their goal wasn't about making money but about reviving a social landmark. The key was offering up a diverse selection of musical offerings.
"We resurrected a center for music and we were successful in trying to provide a very wide cross section of entertainment, from oldies to the Cuban Latin influence," said Mr. Putnam. "The ownership really went to great lengths to try and encourage national acts to come here." But it was never an easy formula, and others have wondered if the management went too far in booking big acts at big prices, then under-selling the shows. "The last three or four summers, there was so much good music coming here," said musician Pinto Abrams of the Island band 2nd Power. "But it was hard to get people out there."
Tom Major, founder of the band Entrain, agreed. "With your heavyweight acts, the room was too small. They could sell more tickets than they had, but with too many of the acts, people didn't come out to support them," he said. "Two, three, four nights of that with a high price for the band, that's all it takes to mess it up."
Indeed, as Mr. Putnam said, survival in this business rides on a thin margin. Now, all that's left is mourning for the end of a musical landmark on the Island. The only nightclub left is the Atlantic Connection with a capacity less than half of the Hot Tin Roof's room for 800.
"The Roof is such a great. We're all kind of amazed, shaking our heads," said Mr. Major. "This is the best place in the world to live because it's a place that supports the arts. Now, there's only one place left to really play."