Boom Ups The Ante For Music (and Food) On Venerable St. Mary's Strip

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Paper Tiger opening salvo: Elias Ronnenfelt (left) howls over the audience at the club’s free three-day fest - LINDA ROMERO
Linda Romero
Paper Tiger opening salvo: Elias Ronnenfelt (left) howls over the audience at the club’s free three-day fest

Helpers Or Interlopers?

While excited to move forward, Carey and Biedenharn are careful not to step on the paws of the former White Rabbit, an institution of sorts on the Strip. With over 18 years in service, the venue has amassed such cultural weight that, perhaps not surprisingly, has put a bright spotlight on its new owners. They're already being dubbed as interlopers in some quarters.

"We're painfully aware of the perception that we're a bunch of hipster, cultural snob elitist motherfuckers," said Carey.

Painting over the Rabbit's rough likenesses of Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa, Paper Tiger went with a geometric white and orange pattern, obviously in deference to their animal of choice. To the right of the papel picado cat is the "C/S" brand, graffiti culture shorthand for "Con Safos," or with respect.

As another sign of respect, Paper Tiger made its three-day opening weekend "free as a gesture," according to Carey. In that late March fest, Iceage, Roky Erickson, The Spits and Ryan Hemsworth hit the main stage, while the recently reopened side stage featured SA acts like Bill Baird, Spokesmodel and Cannibal Bitch. Both stages sound great, with their JBL toys losing no fidelity.

More To Come

Elsewhere along the St. Mary's Strip, exciting new spots for music will be in operation in the next few months. Danny Delgado, of Hi-Tones and Faust fame, is opening up Phantom Room in April in the old Enchilada Warehouse/Web House/Los Frogs building at 2100 North St. Mary's.

"Phantom Room is looking a little more clubby, with more DJs," said Delgado. "The inside is old school theater-ish looking, we've knocked down several walls. We're doing photos of a lot of famous spots here in San Antonio that have been haunted, like the Dancing Devil on the West Side to La Llorona to the Donkey Lady. It has an eerie, old theater feel to it. Everything in there is going to be very old school vintage-y."

Like most actors on the Strip, Delgado is optimistic about the recent investments in the area. "It has a lot of history. For a while it started to diminish," he said. "The whole Strip is changing in a positive way. This resurgence is going to be good for everybody, including the neighborhood." 

New management at the long, shotgun-sprawling venue at 2718 North St. Mary's will keep the Limelight's name and neon sign. Deric Wynne, purveyor of 502 Bar on the North Side, plans to add the same speaker system to the Limelight that's made 502 a destination. After four years north of the airport, Wynne is excited to have a presence closer to downtown.

"It seems like people are getting into the city a bit more," Wynne added. "Actually going out and doing things and participating in this place ... San Antonio and Atlanta are the two most passed-over large markets in the whole country. That's a real bummer. We need to get a touring history with a lot of these groups, get 'em coming here from the time they're playing small clubs all the way up to amphitheaters. We need to establish that continuity. We need cool places that people dig."

Up, Down And Up Again

With all the new spots popping up, comparisons are being made to the Strip's heyday in the late '80s and early '90s, when MTV visited with its Day-Glo spring break show.

"There was a lot going on but it was a little more 6th Street-ish," said musician and Robot Monster co-owner Chris Smart. At the desk of his music gear store on the Strip, Smart recalled the street's history, when he played in a SA post-punk outfit called Lung Overcoat.

"A lot of bars, but mostly cover bands playing or Top 40," he said. "There was a lot going on, but it was a lot straighter, honestly. There was a lot more people down here. Halloween, they used to close off the street."

As the decibel levels steadily increased, so did tensions with the neighborhood. "The Strip was at an all-time high and it was starting to be a nuisance for the neighbors," real estate developer Don Thomas recalled. "People were parking deeper into side streets and not well lit, cars were getting broken into, petty crime."

Thomas recalled one evening in the early '90s as the tipping point that sent the area into decline. Thomas' friend Trey Waters and his wife were leaving the building that Candlelight now occupies. As Thomas went across the street, he saw a group of "five to seven" kids surround Waters and hit him and his wife.

"Me and the two other guys I was with ran across the street and ended up in the middle of a pretty big fight," said Thomas. "There was a lot of commotion so it attracted some people, a bartender nearby was trying to help ... I remember hearing the sound of a muted fire cracker. It didn't dawn on me that it was a gun."

The bullet entered Waters' heart, causing him to bleed out later on the operating table.

"It was overnight — people quit going there immediately," Thomas said.

"There was a time when people were scared to come down the Strip, 'cause it was rough and dangerous," noted Smart, of Robot Monster. "Which is hard to think of now. I've been playing here since the late 80s and it's always been pretty trashy. It's nice to see it get a little cleaner."

Far from overdeveloped, without a single chain, the Strip is now at an exciting crossroads. With grooming, it can maintain the image of the Paper Tiger — a little edge, but no real harm, without the bark of gentrification and the bite of violence.

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