Go Tell It on the Mountain

As a big church needs more room, will Sunrise Musical Theatre find religion?

Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Musical Theatre may soon be finding God. Rumors have floated for weeks that the 3900-seat concert hall could be filled with the sacred sounds of Lauderhill's Faith Center Ministries, which is looking to buy it and move in with a 5000-strong congregation. No one will confirm or deny the sale (Joe Nieman, VP of venue owner Clear Channel Entertainment, avoided Bandwidth's calls for a solid week), and Sunrise has booked shows through the next few weeks -- up until Bush on March 23.

Unless corporate behemoth Clear Channel has plans to build a suitable replacement, Sunrise is worth keeping in its current, secular state. It isn't a horrible commute from Miami or West Palm Beach, and it's the only venue of its size with decent acoustics and sightlines. If Faith Center takes over Sunrise, the only comparable space for concertgoers will be Boynton Beach's Orbit -- not nearly as centrally located (unless you answer to "Grandma") and where pretty much every musical act ends up sounding like tap shoes tumbling in a dryer.

No other venue in the area has that just-right appeal of Sunrise, a popular Broward destination since 1977. Almost every big-time band that's made the trek to South Florida has ended up there: Talking Heads, the Replacements, Living Colour. Last fall, fans filled the place early to catch a glimpse of Alicia Keys ascending the escalator of overpromotion. But not every Sunrise show has sported such gospel-crossover compatibility. Don't the faithful know they'll need to resanctify the room with an industrial-strength, holy-water pressure wash thanks to those visits from Marilyn Manson?

Maybe revelation will strike the Faith Center's leader, Bishop Henry Fernandez, and he'll build his church somewhere with a less colorful history or, better yet, realize that this is not a community in need of more places to pray. The phone book lists more than 11 pages of churches in the Fort Lauderdale area yet only 29 theaters (including film, dinner, and stage), leading to the conclusion that this town is over-opiated spiritually but shortchanged culturally. It may be too late, however: At least one source at Clear Channel claims to have relocated from the amphitheater office to the firm's Miramar digs.

The Faith Center's attendance has blown up in recent years, quickly outgrowing its lowly Lauderhill strip mall. Last Sunday, the church was bursting at the seams (or at least the parking lot) during services.

Churches of that size are often charismatic, controversial, even cult-like. Sunrise's flying-buttressed mini-arena could easily -- too easily, in fact -- be transformed into a massive, video-ready, televangelical headquarters. What in God's name are they planning there, anyway?

"We have no comment, all right?" said a man who identified himself as -- gulp! -- the Reverend Jones. "But thank you for calling."


Loud Sunday nights in Himmarshee Village may quiet down if the Chili Pepper's hip-hop night ceases trading, a change that could be on the horizon. At any rate, the club was silent last Sunday, January 27. Despite the fact that police were dispatched 43 times since August 1 to quell rowdiness spilling outside the club, that number isn't out of line for an event drawing so many people. Though some say downtown is a "war zone" late Sunday nights, personal observation has proven otherwise. The hip-hop event has been running strong since July, packing in partygoers and enjoying swing-throughs from the likes of Jermaine Dupriand Juvenile. "It's not a bad night, and it's a really good night businesswise," confirms marketing director Cat (who wouldn't give her last name). "To some people, it might be a little scary walking in. But all our bartenders like working that night. I come to it."

Why would the Chili Pepper close down a moneymaking event that hauls in more than 500 people each Sunday, growing so large that the club opens neighboring Sutra as a VIP area? "We get a lot of crap from the area," Cat reports, adding that much of it is unwarranted. "Just because it's predominantly black does not mean that it's a bad night. Before people start talking about it, they should come to it and see what it is. Everybody should have the opportunity to go out somewhere."

The Chili Pepper sits on contested turf, within walking distance of the African-American stronghold of the Sistrunk corridor but on the border of a popular, nontourist, yuppie enclave. Apparently, when some of the latter locals peep throngs of black people in native urban garb, they see thugs. Thus, for fear of having a cap busted in their lily-white asses, they stay away in droves.

Yet Lauderhill/Plantation institutions like Strawberries, which hosts a hip-hop party on Saturday nights with demographics similar to the Chili Pepper crowd, fails to generate public outcry -- because there's no well-heeled white folks next door. Seems the loudest squeals always come from those who want to live near the center of the action yet haven't accumulated enough white guilt to hang with party people bearing 40s and blunts. Throwing cops at problems and cordoning off sitting areas with police tape as a deterrent ignores the provable fact that a little provocation goes a long way.

 
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