The Shim Sham Club (615 Toulouse St., 299-0666), as owner Morgan Higby Night will tell you, isn't any easy establishment to categorize. When asked to apply a common term that best fits -- nightclub, bar, music venue, theater -- Night bypasses all the obvious choices and opts instead for "variety arts center," a term of his own invention and one designed to convey the fact that the Shim Sham is all of the above and more. "It's a pretty multifunctional space," says the 32-year-old entrepreneur and budding indie filmmaker originally from Los Angeles. "It's a mixture of venues in one place."
In addition to housing a bar which caters to a mostly local clientele, the Shim Sham, named after a 1930s Bourbon Street striptease club owned by the brother of local singer Louis Prima, is also a popular dance club and an intimate setting for live music, cutting-edge theater productions and old-time burlesque. By the end of September, a small upstairs lounge will be remodeled as a Polynesian tiki bar complete with the full mix of requisite kitsch: bamboo-hut decor, smoldering volcano drinks, group-style libations served with multiple straws, and island music.
Night, whose appreciation for tiki bars and other trendy, retro styles -- especially those of the '40s and '50s -- stems from spending time with a grandfather who kept company with Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, says tiki themes are enjoying a revival among the young and hip. But Night has met with success mining campy themes from other 20th century periods as well, enabling younger generations to experience the zeitgeist of those eras with a tongue-in-cheek twist.
The "juke joint" bar at the front of the club has a '50s-style jukebox (with CDs rather than vinyl) and several diner-style booths outfitted with "wallettes," the glass-encased music menus reminiscent of road trips along route 66 from which patrons can make selections of rock, jazz, rockabilly, French music, traditional country and punk. "If the Shim Sham was a body, the jukebox would be the heart," says Night.
Yet the club's biggest draw is its '80s-themed dance night called "1984." Started three years ago in the front bar, the regular Thursday night event now occupies the entire club and is sold out every week. "Our Thursday dance night is the place to go in the city," says Night. "We have new wave and dance in the theater, '80s hair bands in the juke joint, and in the upstairs bar, we have '80s industrial and gothic. For a lot of the kids who are coming, it's the first time they're hearing this music." The Shim Sham encourages dressing up for 1984 and gives free entrance to those wearing specific articles of '80s clothing -- such as Swatch watches -- on specific nights. Glam-rock nights featuring the music and androgynous fashions of such '70s icons as David Bowie and Iggy Pop also draw sell-out crowds.
For those interested in live music, the Shim Sham's 500-capacity, French Quarter-themed theater, once home to the Toulouse Theater, provides an up-close-and-personal experience more akin to MTV's unplugged than an arena setting requiring binoculars. Punk rock, rock and rockabilly make up the mainstay of the bookings along with some swing and jazz. National acts such as The Breeders, The Hives, The White Stripes and Counting Crows, promoted primarily through local publications and the club's Web site, have all played to packed audiences.
Since last summer, theater productions by a crop of creative locals including the Running With Scissors team of writer/director Richard Reed and writer/actor Flynn De Marco have also filled the house. Their local debut of the off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Shim Sham coincided with last summer's nationwide release of the film version.
The club's burlesque shows, which Night describes as "more about the tease than the strip," appeal to young and old, locals and tourists, blue-collar and white-collar individuals and have starred local and national celebrities. "There's a huge burlesque revival going on in the country," says Night. "We're trying to do it in the most authentic way possible -- true to old Bourbon Street."
Starting in September, the club's in-house burlesque act, The Shim Sham Revue, featuring the Southern Jeze-Belle Dancers and Ronnie Magri's Shim Sham Revue Band, a six-piece jazz ensemble, will perform two shows every Sunday night. And Night is confident that looking back continues to be a fresh way to look ahead. "I think a lot of people who came out of the swing revival are looking for something new," he says. "Striptease used to be an art form. People want something that is entertaining rather than just sleazy."