Orlando’s Barbarella nightclub leaves downtown after more than 30 years | Musical Stories + Interviews | Orlando
The end of February will mark the end of an era in downtown Orlando nightlife, as the historic Barbarella dance club closes its doors and leaves downtown Orlando for new surroundings – and still unknown – after more than 34 years.
Barbarella is downtown Orlando’s oldest nightclub, and in a city like ours, where change happens fast, that’s no small feat.
For those who have spent more than a few years in the Orlando club and bar scene, this news hits like a ton of bricks. Through its various incarnations — Beach Club, Barbarella, Independent Bar — the space at the corner of Orange Avenue and Washington Street has been a go-to destination in downtown Orlando.
Besides the dreaded 80s New Wave parties on Saturdays, 70 N. Orange Ave. was a destination for bold and influential alt-rock bands – Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Flaming Lips – and a proving ground for some top local bands – Genitorturers, Hate Bombs, Potential Frenzy. Barbarella was also one of the early homes of the influential and taste-creating DJ party Phat-N-Jazzy in the mid-90s.
Even for those with little interest in Orlando’s music history, Barbarella has been a provider of high-profile nighttime entertainment. Barbarella club night staples like the aforementioned New Wave night, monthly gothic Memento Mori night and the now defunct Thursday Mac & Cheese night would draw crowds and consistently rank in our annual “Best of Orlando” awards. . And the new house/techno-oriented Night Club has been booming with very credible guest DJs for a good part of the year.
No matter how you look at it, this move is going to leave a massive void on the Orange Avenue strip of bars and clubs, both physically and historically.
“From Face to Edge, Orlando has a history of legendary nightclubs. But Barbarella is second to none,” says Orlando Weekly music writer Bao Le-Huu. “Its musical culture, its sense of the stage and its longevity are a combination that makes it a singularly historic place. That’s why an unreasonable proportion of my life has been spent there.”
Barbarella owner (and resident Saturday Night DJ) John Gardner spoke to OW about the move, and from the start he wanted to dispel some rumors. He doesn’t leave downtown Orlando because his landlord raises his rent or forces him to leave.
“Basically, what I’m selling in downtown Orlando isn’t working. I think there’s a market for it and I think we’d be better off somewhere else,” Gardner says. “Downtown Orlando has a fairly young clientele and we’ve just struggled since COVID because a lot of my clientele was a bit older. … Once COVID hit, they lost the used to come into the club and some of them didn’t really come back.”
“My landlord has been great. Frank [Hamby] treated me more than fair. He’s been my owner for about 30 years,” Gardner says. “It was never a problem. He’s the best owner I could have asked for.”
Gardner announced that Barbarella — freshly renamed last year after a long stint as an Independent Bar or I-Bar — was leaving downtown Orlando with a bang in late January on the venue’s social media.
Despite the apparent suddenness of the announcement, this decision seems to have been made for some time. Gardner tells OW that a new location is sorted (with plenty of parking, music to any Barbarella fan’s ears) – although hesitant on the specific address – and a reopening date will be announced shortly.
“I can choose to reveal the location the day before,” says Gardner. “I don’t want to be pushy about it because I certainly don’t want anyone showing up. But you definitely can’t have too many people showing up on day one and then they have a bad experience…. We just want to make sure the transition is smooth.”
In the meantime, Gardner says Barbarella will be open until the rest of February.
So, even if Barbarella does not close forever and the move seems, in fact, to be part of a larger plan for the development of the club, it is impossible not to be nostalgic for the silence of such a prestigious building.
It was quite a ride.
Prior to Barbarella, Gardner – then a young, hard-pressed New Wave DJ – was fired in 1985 from his gig hosting a “video nightclub” event he had been running since the previous year at The Hague Lounge at a Lake Buena Vista hotel. . The whole thing was getting a little too edgy for the tourists – too many mohawks and a little too much chaos, you know.
Just over a month later, in late 1985, Gardner moved into his own space on Orange Blossom Trail. He dubbed it Faith in Physics, promoting the club by calling 200 phone numbers he had collected in The Hague.
Faith in Physics lasted two years, then moved its operations to downtown Orlando—”There were no clubs on Orange Avenue at all,” Gardner recalled—on New Year’s Eve 1987. And he will remain there, through several name and club changes. redesigns, experiments with a cafe menu, and a rapidly changing downtown all around it.
“I think the reason it lasted is because the owner and the DJ were the same person. So I figured out what I wanted to do and…I wanted to make a living, but I wanted have fun too,” muses Gardner. .
Live music became an early staple of Gardner’s operations, thanks to a chance visit from the infamous Jim Faherty, who immediately began booking bands large and small, first to Faith in Physics and then to Barbarella. .
“As soon as I opened Faith in Physics, within a few weeks, this guy shows up, Jim Faherty, and he’s like, ‘Hey, can I do shows on the nights you’re closed?’ And I said sure,” Gardner recalled of the early days of their partnership. “Jim was booking gigs that were doing very little business. And I was like, ‘Wow, no band has ever come up to me and said they don’t get paid. I’ve never heard anything bad from bands. And then every three or four months he had a huge gig and we were packed. …like the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies. He was able to pocket a couple thousand of those and then spend it on bands he liked.”
Though resolutely looking to the future with his business, Gardner takes a moment to think back to a personal highlight in Barbarella.
“When we had Smashing Pumpkins – it was 1992. We didn’t really have a stage, we just had a raised seating platform near the front of the club. And behind that were all the sliding doors glasses that are still there to this day “…And we were so excited. We were so full…Jim had security on stage but the stage was only 12 inches high, and so people were almost forced onto the stage because of the influx of bodies.
“The thing I remember the most is people were crowdsurfing and there was literally…they were rolling to the left, to the left of the stage, and they were hitting the wall and they couldn’t fall! And then they were rolling all the way through the crowd to the right of the stage, and they hit the wall there. … They were rolling right over the crowd. And it happened. passed for a good hour, there were people riding the crowd and they couldn’t fall. They go all the way to the back and then get out of the crowd. … No one was hurt. There It was so hot in there that my pants were soaked. It happened to Butthole Surfers too. Those two shows were like that.”
It would be almost impossible to list all the concerts of period or historical significance of a club night that took place within the walls of Barbarella, but it’s a safe bet that Orlando Weekly local photographer and music columnist Jim Leatherman was a decent percentage of them. He provided us with priceless archival footage (see more at orlandoweekly.com) and reflected on the importance of Barbarella. “I had some of the best nights of my life at John’s club,” Leatherman says. “So many amazing shows have happened within these walls. It was also the location for many great local shows! Truly special musical moments, in a magical musical venue.”
Over the past year, Friday Night Disco parties have taken up the maverick torch of the club’s mission to bring new sounds to people. This came in the form of freewheeling dance parties headlined by adventurous locals and touring titans – artists like Todd Terry, DJ Three and Felix Da Housecat all performed. For Nightclub promoter Nick Whitney, Barbarella was the “perfect venue” for his events.
“Every time I went downtown, I made a point of stopping there – and since it was a dance-only club, that was a no-brainer,” says Whitney. “I’m so grateful that John and Mickey allowed this to happen as it helped grow our scene and create an environment that was missing in Orlando. My absolute favorite memory was when we had our first big booking at Barbarella with Todd Terry I was in the middle of the dance floor looking around an absolutely packed club and everyone was smiling ear to ear, dancing like crazy. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. life so far and fueled the fire to keep growing.”
Demetrios Pappas (DJ Lavidicus) has been running the monthly gothic party Memento Mori at Barbarella since 2014. Pappas concedes he was surprised and saddened by the news of Barbarella’s impending closure, but he puts all his energy into doing “Last Dance” by Memento Mori. » final on Monday, February 21, memorable. Pappas promises “one last night of the best music of the genre and a huge group photo of everyone on the dance floor at midnight”.
“I would like to add a very sincere thank you to Orlando for all the support and making my dream come true and I am truly heartbroken to see it unfold like this,” Pappas said. “Those will always be the best times of my life and I will never forget them.”
Gardner is happy to look back on Barbarella’s run in downtown Orlando, but doesn’t get too sentimental. He is clearly ready for the next chapter.
“I think no matter how it goes, I’m fine. I’m happy with my decision. I’ve been in the business for a long time. I have five nightclubs in the United States. So I don’t have pain for the ‘money,” Gardner concludes. “I’m 63 now. It’s been a long career in the club business and… I love doing what I do. I really like that. I would miss that very much. So reopening in another location is something I can’t wait and look forward to doing.”