On Sunday, December 16, Crocodile Cafe booker Eli Anderson was shopping for Christmas gifts in Ballard. His cell phone rang—it was an unlisted number so he didn't answer, but the caller, Stephanie Dorgan, owner of the Crocodile, left a voice mail, he says. "She said she was sorry she hadn't returned my calls in the last couple days," recalls Anderson, "and that she hated to tell me this, but they were closing the Crocodile immediately." She told him he was welcome to come down Monday afternoon to gather his personal belongings. Then she hung up the phone.
Anderson was shocked. While the past month had been turbulent for the club—longtime booker Pete Greenberg, who had been with the club for almost four years, suddenly quit in a fury of recriminations about mismanagement earlier this month ["Croc Booker Books," Dec 6, Jonathan Zwickel]—Anderson, 26, took over booking and was optimistic about the future at the Belltown indie-rock haven.
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"Attendance was up compared to this time last year. From the end of September to the beginning of November the average attendance was almost 300 people [a night]," he says. "That's huge." (As Anderson remembers, last year it dipped as low as 190 in the spring, and the highest it got in the fall was 350 for the month of October.)
On top of that, the club had apparently identified its Achilles' heel—the restaurant kitchen in the center room, which Anderson says was cutting into the bar profits, was closed in November with the intention to reopen it again in the spring after some menu reconfiguration.
Other supposed financial problems seemed to be clearing up as well; the club was no longer bouncing checks. "When I first got there we were bouncing a few checks," Anderson says. "I had a paycheck bounce at least three times; they said it was an accounting screw-up." After the club corrected the problem in the spring, it never happened again.
But there were signs the Crocodile wasn't doing as well as it may have seemed on paper. Despite the increased attendance, Anderson says he was always being told by Dorgan that the club was losing money.
"On a weeknight, a person drinks about $10 a head, so that's at least three grand a night," he speculates. "I knew it wasn't going to me, and it ain't going to Pete; I wondered where it was going. That was the thing, I didn't really know what was happening with the business."
Greenberg shares the same sentiment. The day after he quit, he told The Stranger, presciently now, "She's not making the right decisions for the business. [Shutting down] probably is not too far off."
Dorgan didn't return phone calls, so details about the Crocodile's finances are unknown, but according to Anderson, Dorgan claimed in her voice mail that the club didn't have enough capital to keep going. And now the club is closed.
When reached Tuesday, December 18, the owner of the building that houses the Crocodile, Howard Close, flatly declined to comment on whether or not the building has been sold. However, it appears that it's the business that's in play, not the property, which should calm rumors about condo development on the spot. On Tuesday, a listing for a "Seattle Area Business Opportunity" was posted on real-estate agency John L. Scott's website for $495,000: "Brand-New 10-Year Lease Term. Fabulous location on corner of Second Ave and Blanchard ideal for any full-service restaurant or bar concept. Become part of the Legend that is the Crocodile Cafe."
Even so, for now, the loss of the club threatens to alter Seattle's music scene.
"We had the best January schedule in the city," Anderson says. "January's a shitty month for any club, but we were going to be doing well. We had Bobby Bare Jr. and the Decemberists and Harvey Danger." Those shows are guaranteed packed houses for sure. "I'm bummed out for the city; the Croc was a community space and it's just gone now," Anderson says.
He also noted that there were still outstanding contracts with bands booked to play in the future, some of which are still owed 50 and 75 percent of the contract value even though the club has closed.
"I honestly don't know how it's going to work out for them. It's [Dorgan's] business now. I'm only an agent of the club. Somebody owes somebody a lot of money."
Dorgan, 48, opened the Crocodile in April 1991. With grunge just starting to boom as the Croc opened its doors, the timing was perfect. The Belltown club became one of the premier music venues in the city's scene that hadn't yet found its defining club. Nirvana were the unannounced opening act for a Mudhoney show in October of 1992; Built to Spill played their first show outside their hometown of Boise there in November 1993; Elliott Smith played there regularly between 1995 and 1997; Death Cab for Cutie played their first show there in 1998, opening for Harvey Danger; the Strokes have played there, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse.
Adam Grunke has worked at the club for three years as the monitor engineer, and worked the club's last show. He has also done sound at other venues, including the defunct Atlas, and he says there was no other club in the city like the Crocodile. "They don't book just international and national tours there," he says. "You see bands get onstage who have been together for a month and barely know how to play their instruments. They're nervous as hell. A couple years later, you see them again [at the Crocodile]—they got their shit together and they've grown into something. It's powerful to see that."
Liz Riley, cofounder of Three Imaginary Girls, a local indie-rock website that has hosted a number of events at the Croc over the past five years, says, "It was more than a place to see music. It was a place to catch up with people and cross paths with people. It was a little think tank of indie rock. The Croc was neutral territory. [Capitol Hill competitor] Chop Suey has its own aesthetic that gives it this hipster feel to it, and I love it, but the Croc had this air of being a landmark but also being approachable."
Indeed, the Crocodile, with its unpretentious vibe, was able to host smaller local shows as well as popular national acts with promised draw. The showroom was separated from the cafe by a removable wall that could remain in place for the smaller shows, and be taken down for the larger ones. That unique characteristic brought an interesting mix of acts to the stage and gave smaller, less experienced local acts a place to grow. No other club in the city is capable of that.
Throughout the years, its competitors like the Showbox, Neumo's, and even the now defunct Northgate Theater and Fenix Underground were all too large to comfortably host a bill of locals with smaller draws. And some of the smaller bars like the Sunset, the Comet, or the defunct Sit & Spin were too small for more substantial touring acts that can bring in a crowd of 700 or more.
On Tuesday, December 18, instead of hosting a local show featuring Old Man Winter, Sweet Jesus, and Jon Wesley, the Crocodile's doors were locked. There wasn't enough time for the bands to find a new venue. On Monday, organizers of the venue's big New Years Eve show with Sweet Water announced that the party was canceled and refunds will be available at point of purchase.
With the business officially up for sale, people have already started speculating about who is going to move into the space. At the top of that list are Jason Lajeunesse and Steven Severin, Neumo's owners who recently took over booking at Chop Suey as well. Lajeunesse, though, confirmed that he and his partner haven't made any plans to purchase the business from Dorgan or lease the space from the owner of the property for their business. What's more, he was told by a source that Dorgan wouldn't sell to them even if they were seriously interested.
With Dorgan not responding to phone calls (even those made by her former staff about last paychecks and severance), the current status and the future of the club remains a frustrating mystery.
"She needs to say something," says Anderson. "A lot of people are really upset. If the place is just going to up and close, you'd think we'd get an explanation or severance or something. But I honestly don't think anyone's ever gonna get an explanation."
Grunke agrees. "The community would've appreciated a chance to say goodbye to the Crocodile and have a last drink. No one had a chance to say goodbye. It really didn't need to be like that."