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Just south of the Henry E. Kinney tunnel in downtown Fort Lauderdale sits a big, fat, square, teal-and-brown building with no windows and a couple of hanging signs that read "$1 drafts." You've probably driven past it a hundred times without noticing it, let alone feeling the pull of its advertised special. Though most patrons enter the Fort Lauderdale Saloon through the back entrance from the parking lot, there is a door in the front that opens into the large, dim, one-room dive.
You got your pool table right there in the corner, there're some laundry machines across the room beyond the little wooden stage, and back there behind that bar top, well, that's mild-mannered, 52-year-old owner Walter Ciuffini.
In the past three months, a fledgling promotion company called By the Way Inc. has overrun the bar, and now there's a hell of a lot more going on than sports games and the spin cycle. On a recent Tuesday, the place played host to a crowd of 50 young, casually dressed peeps. The wood-paneled and mirrored walls served as a gallery for original paintings and sketches by local artists. The Tuesday-night showing called "La Noche de Galeria" included a noise band. Beers flew across the bar in a quantity that few other gin joints could have claimed that early in the week.
But it's a regular Saturday-night rock 'n' roll show sponsored by BTW, "Along Came the Spider," that has put the Saloon on the city's cultural map lately. The past three months' lineup has included local standouts like AC Cobra, Humbert, the Bikes, Southern Flaw, Irish Car Bomb, the Shakers, and Malt Liquor Riot.
BTW started two years ago when 25-year-old Yvonne Colon, a wide-eyed Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale graduate with long, brown hair, wrote a business plan. The Puerto Rican-born woman presented the plan to her entrepreneurial parents at a party in her three-bedroom Oakland Park home. "By the way," she wrote in her proposal, "we are an agency, doing things the hard way." She impressed her parents, and the name "By the Way" just sort of stuck, she says.
In the past year, several local artists and musicians have gotten onboard. Her tidy house is a hub of both business and hanging out. On a recent visit, five graphics artists were there sketching for fliers and a magazine planned to come out in September. Two of these artists were Doug Henry, who specializes in curvaceous caricatures of women connected to nature but tarnished by their concrete environments, and Jimmy Krimmer, a young man with long dreads and sleepy eyes who is the director of BTW's visual arts department.
Garo Gallo, the company's 24-year-old music coordinator, was also there. The energetic musician with a shock of black curls is the one who discovered the Saloon and easily won Ciuffini over to the idea of letting him book shows. "I've been driving by this place for a while," Gallo says, "and I always liked the way it looked. This weird little place. So finally, I went in and [asked Ciuffini], 'What are you doing here?' He was doing lingerie shows.
"I told him I knew bands. I could rattle off 30 bands that I'm friends with. I grew up in the Broward rock scene," the Fort Lauderdale High School grad relays. "It's kind of a strange little scene, but it's starting to bubble. He gave me Saturday.
"I was like, 'Whoa, give me a month. '"
Together, the bar and the company have created a vibrant little scene, with a grungy, Brooklyn-like feel.
Not long ago, I approached Ciuffini at the bar and asked him how he liked the music. "I used to book my own bands that weren't that good. These are great. And most importantly, the customers love them. It doesn't matter too much what I like." He's seen an increase in business and gives BTW one dollar cut of each drink he sells at the bar. The $4 cover also goes to the bands.
"We're getting people 24 to 35, which is a nice group. They're not wild."
Gallo explains, "It's like we're downtown, but we're to the left. It's not like there's the random guy who walks by and wants to come in 'cause he sees a bunch of girls dancing to a band and he wants to be a part of it. People know that this is a special little thing."
The BTW kids talk about community-building a lot, and they're not being tongue in cheek. These are not your average blithe, detached hipster kids but a group of ADD-afflicted, serious artists who are putting their resources together to help one another get off the ground.
Krimmer puts it this way, "It's a network. We make things happen for each other. We want to unify Fort Lauderdale and give artists an arena to exist in."
This past Saturday night, I sat down with Gallo and Colon on wooden stumps surrounding overgrown cactus patches in the parking lot behind the Saloon.
Gallo told me: "We're lacking a sense of community like right now with the music and art. Everyone's out to get their own. You have a bunch of loners down here, but we're making it seem like a force. It's South Florida, you know?"