New owners struggling to resurrect Eli’s Mile High

on October 14, 2008

Story and audio slides by MARTIN RICARD

It was a little after 7 p.m. on a recent Monday night at Eli’s Mile High Club, and a slow, celestial song by the British space rock group The Telescopes was blasting over the speakers to an empty room.

Jason Herbers, the assistant to Eli’s owner, who manages the day-to-day operations of the club, was visibly frustrated by the lack of customers as he strolled back and forth throughout the place.

The stocky man, who has experience as a security guard and is versed in a host of musical genres, said he really didn’t expect people to start showing up for another two hours. Still, he thought, he couldn’t seem to get past feeling a little resentment, especially since he knew what the club’s potential could be.

For not too long ago, the North Oakland establishment was once known as a popular blues club that promoted all types of live music over the years.

Now, it’s just a club singing the blues.

“Our plan is to get this live music thing going,” Herbers said, sitting behind a desk in a dim, makeshift office upstairs in the club sipping a Guinness beer. “But, right now, it’s just kicking us in the gut.”

Eli's Mile High owner Geoff Melville, far right, sits in the club's lounge area with his assistant Jason Herbers, center, and bar manager Gordon Shafrir. (Photo by Martin Ricard)

Eli's Mile High Club owner Geoff Melville, far right, sits with his assistant Jason Herbers, center, and bar manager Gordon Shafrir in the club's lounge area. (Photo by Martin Ricard)

This summer, Geoff Melville, 26, bought Eli’s with the hope that he could revive the club back to its glory days.

The club had held a special place in his heart because his father was a blues musician who used to play at venues like Eli’s when he was younger. So running a place with such a rich local history that could potentially turn into an entertainment hub in a live music-deprived area had always been one of Melville’s dreams.

With the help of Herbers, 28, Melville re-opened Eli’s as a dive bar, serving alcohol and food the club always has served like bacon-wrapped hot dogs and chicken-fried sandwiches—“junk food,” as Herbers calls it. Eventually, the plan was to bring back the live music the club is most known for.

But after only a month of being open for business, Eli’s is already facing opposition from city officials and neighbors who complain of noise, parking and a threat to safety—all problems that have lingered from past ownership, Melville said.

“We’re just trying to combat all the different issues, and say, ‘Hey, we’re different than the previous owner. Let us prove to you that we can make this happen,’” said Melville, who has an appearance resembling a skateboarder but the poise of a veteran businessman. “And, quite frankly, I think we can make that part of Oakland shine.”

Eli’s still resides in the same red, brick building it has occupied for years on Martin Luther King Way.

Inside, the club still holds many of the remnants that existed when Eli’s was in its heyday. The stage—which was graced by such legends as James Brown and Etta James, along with local greats such as Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulson—is still intact. In the back of the club by the pool table, old concert posters hang on the walls like wallpaper from all the shows that were held there. A memorial case honoring Troyce Key, the second owner of the club who ushered in much of Eli’s fame, hangs on another wall. And the bar is decorated with colorful glass tiles spelling out “HOME OF THE WEST COAST BLUES” in blue letters—although that fact is disputed by most local blues musicians.

Outside on the patio, a graffiti-style mural is being painted on the back fence—a sign that the club is moving into a new era. In front of the club facing Martin Luther King, the MacArthur Maze casts a long shadow over the street.

Todd Morrish, who frequented Eli’s in the 1980s when he was a student at the University of California-Berkeley, said the club has a certain nostalgia for many folks.

“I remember it being a lot like it is today physically and having a higher energy in the ‘80s,” said Morrish, who also has used the venue, like many other people, over the years for fundraising events for his children’s schools. “It was a lot of fun,” he said.

But for all the history that is housed in Eli’s Mile High, there also lies a history of problems.

After Key died of leukemia in 1992, the ownership of the club changed hands seven times until Mike McDonald and Ron Kriss purchased it in 2002. Since then, the building has been leased to several owners, each time being handed back over because operating the club became too big of a task.

Under the previous owner, Sam Marshall—who also was trying to hold down a fulltime job while running the club—residents complained of noisy, drunk patrons who were disrespectful of the surrounding neighborhood. They also complained about the loud music playing into the wee hours of the night.

Consequently, few people have forgiven the club for those past ills even though Melville has taken over responsibility of the establishment and tried to turn a new leaf.

“In a sense, they made it a little tough for us being here now,” Melville said, “because what we’re trying to prove to the city of Oakland is that we’re responsible.”

The city administrator’s office held a public hearing in August to decide whether to grant Eli’s a new cabaret license, which was lost when the club last changed hands.

That decision has been delayed to give the new owner a chance to prove he can run the club properly.

Still, some people would rather the city hold off on granting Eli’s another opportunity to hold live shows again.

Amy Badore, a nearby resident, said she actually wouldn’t mind if the club stayed open as it is these days. But like many other residents, she said she does not support the effort to resurrect the live music scene there.

“The club was never designed to hold a lot of live, loud shows,” she said. “If they ran a business properly, I would have no problem. But you can’t seriously think they’re going to have shows in a reasonable fashion if they can’t fix everything else.”

Herbers said he and Melville have tried to address neighbors’ concerns about sound, parking and out-of-control patrons—they have even posted signs on the building’s exterior reminding customers to be respectful. But with business only coming in from the bar right now, Herbers said, they can only do so much.

It doesn’t help the situation either that the Oakland Police Department is opposed to the city’s issuing Eli’s a cabaret license. In a letter sent to the city’s assistant city administrator, Anthony Toribio, the patrol division captain for the area that includes Eli’s, said allowing live music at the club would put further strain on the department’s resources. The area is known for its share of crime, Toribio wrote, and police wouldn’t have enough resources to monitor Eli’s and all the other nightclubs in the city at the same time.

For right now, Melville said he is still determined to bring Eli’s back to the way it used to be. But he is worried that if he and the city can’t work out a compromise soon, he might have to bail on his big plans and let Eli’s close for good.

“We’re in a little bit of a limbo,” he said. “At the same token, I think it’s really important that we make things like this happen because this is a place where community members can come together. So I just hope that we’re getting a fair shot.[kml_flashembed movie=”http://media.journalism.berkeley.edu/oaknorth/eli.mr.080928/soundslider.swf” height=”550″ width=”650″ /]

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