On June 5, 1987, a line of scene-starved South Florida hipsters and the otherwise curious looped around the desolate 500 block of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. They were waiting to get into a new club in a previously boarded-up building that had once housed the Salvation Army and “about a thousand pigeons,” according to Rodney Mayo, the music lover who opened it.
Respectable Street Cafe, the live music venue, dance club, one-time lunch spot and haven for anyone seeking a good beat and a place to belong, became a South Florida institution and helped establish Clematis Street as a vital, hip place to be.
It’s now Respect’s 30th anniversary. What follows is its history, told by the regulars who flocked there and sought solace in a packed bar, a New Wave tune or two and the promise of someone to dance with. (Respectable Street’s 30th Anniversary Block Party is Saturday, Sept. 23. Purchase tickets here.)
When Rodney Mayo, then 24, returned to West Palm Beach from California’s Occidental College, he brought back with him a new love for the alternative music he discovered in Los Angeles. Finding nowhere locally to experience that sound, he decided that Salvation Army building, bordered by other closed buildings and a corner store, would be the perfect place for the club and cafe he wanted to open. This was not a popular decision.
Rodney Mayo: It was pretty undone. The soup kitchen had been upstairs. It was totally boarded up. I thought the interior would work as a club, and there was the (possibility) of changing the upstairs into four apartments that I could rent out. It seemed to make sense. … I figured there was an underground scene, that if more people were introduced to this music, they’d be into it.
Kimberly Mitchell, longtime friend, former West Palm Beach city commissioner: He said “I want you to see this property I’m looking at,” and we’re driving and I go “It’s in West Palm?” and we keep driving and I say “It’s on Clematis Street? On the west side? Are you out of your mind?” And then he told me the music he wanted to play. I was at Florida State, where I was still listening to the Eagles. He was into much more progressive music. I told him “That’ll never happen!”
Mayo: There was not one person who didn’t say I was crazy, including my mother.
The rehabilitation of what would become Respectable Street Cafe, which takes its name from a song by seminal British pop band XTC, was a do-it-yourself effort with Mayo and some self-taught friends doing a lot of the work themselves. The community, they recall, did not immediately fire up the welcome wagon.
Scott Frielich, business partner: He took the risk and opened a business in a place that no one would even come to. That’s why he named it Respectable Street, because he knew that street could be something.
The club finally opened on June 5, 1987, to what Mayo calls “a mob scene.”
Matt Ferguson, former regular: In Port St. Lucie there was absolutely nothing to do for anyone under the age of 65. I was hanging around this tiny record shop in Stuart, and someone happened to mention that when we got old enough, we should go to Respectable’s. And I was like “What does that mean?”
Vivian Angulo, regular: It was packed full of the most fabulous people, college kids, punk rockers, a handful of gorgeous, amazing artists … people who you wanted to hang out with.
Chris Carrabba, musician (Dashboard Confessional): You wouldn’t get grief from anybody. We were skaters, and this was well before skating was cool. You couldn’t get a girl just because you were a skateboarder. Actually, if you were a skateboarder, you were not going to get the girl. But we always felt included.
Mayo: There were a lot of preppies coming, and there were a few rifts at first, punks versus preppies. Somebody called somebody a freak. The place drew out the kids in the mohawks, but there were still people from Palm Beach.
Melissa Wohlust, former regular: At Respectable’s, you could have an aerospace engineer and sitting next to him is a guy with fangs — but he’s a really nice guy.
Of course, in its pre-CityPlace days, the area was not the safest place to be.
Angulo: Clematis was kinda cracky.
Elizabeth Dashiell, regular: There was no parking. You would pull into an alley and hope no one slammed into your car. You just parked where you could. You risked getting mugged. Prostitutes would proposition you and offer you drugs. That was normal. All of Clematis was dark from the 500 block to Narcissus, it was all black in between. But it was worth it. It was always packed.
Waiting inside was all the music they couldn’t hear anywhere nearby, from New Wave to alternative to hard-core German industrial music. They would gather on the floor, out on the patio or in a corner, dancing to their own private beat provided by DJs like “Morrissey Mike,” in reference to The Smiths’ lead singer, and Chris Jacobi, among others. Regulars say Respectable’s has always worked, in part, because it was owned by someone who, they correctly surmised, was one of them.
Keith Michaud, musician (Summer Blanket): Name the number of clubs where you go into a place and the owner is spinning his favorite music. And it’s meshing with what everyone is listening to. He’s got the pulse (of the scene).
John Ralston, musician: Any given night might add a new record to your collection, just stuff you never heard before.
Mitchell: War was playing there once. That was one of the best concerts I remember. I was working at Chuck and Harold’s that night, and I had to pay people to take my tables so I could get over there.
Mayo says that besides introducing locals to interesting national acts, an “integral part” of Respectable’s was providing “somewhere for up and coming local bands to have a place to play. Everyone I knew was in a band.” At least one, Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional, became a star.
Carrabba: The whole thing about Respectable’s that permeated the music scene there, and has really influenced my career and the way I play music is the idea that this isn’t for that guy and not for these guys, or that it’s for people who listen to this, but not for people who listen to that. There’s this air of, if you love music, this is for you.
As the crowds at Respectable’s continued, other businesses began to spring up as well, although keeping them open has often been a struggle. Some were created by Rodney Mayo, including O’Shea’s, which he sold, and The Lounge, and the former Lost Weekend and America, while a variety of past and present nightclubs and bars, followed suit. Mayo and Maurice Costigan, who bought O’Shea’s, eventually established Moonfest, the annual costumed Halloween block party, in 1993.
Mayo: I felt like nobody else was gonna do it. And (the rebirth of the street) was taking way too long. I thought that people would see the growth and things would be opening left and right. But it didn’t (immediately) happen.
Ferguson: Rodney was the cornerstone for putting culture on Clematis Street. Clematis Street was built around him.
Mitchell: Rodney was ahead of his time. I’m biased, but I know the challenges he went through, the risks he took. He was right. It was worth it. It did come.
Former Mayor Lois Frankel: Respectable’s and O’Shea’s have hung in there. They will tell you that there have been rough spots, but there’s something to be said for staying power.
Angulo: The place has definitely been the anchor. When my friends come into town, who haven’t been around for five years, the first thing they wanna do is go to Respect’s. The crowd has changed, but at any time, you always run into an old school face. It’s evolved. … It’s the only place of its kind. I have friends who have gone to different cities and said that there are places kind of like it, but no place quite like Respectable’s.
Mayo: I planned to be out of business in two years. Everyone told me that when you run a nightclub, get ready to do something else. We hit two years, and I said “OK, five years, we’ll be out of business.” At 10 years I stopped setting those deadlines.
A longer version of this story originally ran on the club’s 20th anniversary in 2007.
They came, they played
Among the thousands of bands that have played at Respectable Street during the past 20 years are some familiar names who appeared in the club at various points in successful careers:
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Death Cab For Cutie
Drivin’ and Cryin’
Over The Rhine
Southern Culture On The Skids
American Analog Set