Photo by Thomas Jack
Save Club Mezzanine: Inside The Efforts To Rescue San Francisco's Iconic Music Venue
Concert and club venue Mezzanine has been a pillar of San Francisco nightlife for nearly 16 years, but, due to a 600% rent increase from the building's owner, its days of showcasing underground talent and GRAMMY winners alike may be sadly numbered. As it currently stands, the beloved venue is projected to shut down in October of this year. Remarkably, though, officials at San Francisco City Hall are helping to fight for its survival.
"Mezzanine is one of our only medium-size concert venues," San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney told SF Weekly last month when he introduced legislation that could protect the future of the business. "It’s woman-owned, and I think it has an incredibly important role in our community as providing a space for the LGBT community, and for local acts. There's rightfully a lot of fear and outright anger that it would be shut down."
Speaking to the Recording Academy, Haney’s legislative aide Honey Mahogany elaborated on Mezzanine’s vital role in the LGBTQ community.
"Mezzanine is an incredibly important venue for San Francisco," Mahogany said. "San Francisco's entertainment real estate is pretty tight, especially when it comes to LGBT[Q] venues. When queer parties get a little too big for their home bars—I’m thinking of parties like Honey Soundsystem, Hard French [and] Swagger Like Us—Mezzanine has been a good next step helping queer promoters to expand their audiences, bring in bigger artists and generally continue to provide creative and fun nightlife experiences for diverse communities."
Haney's proposed legislation would give entertainment venues in his district (Western SoMa) an 18-month buffer should a landlord try to push out tenants and obtain a change of use permit to convert into office space, which is what building owners Dave and Todd Chritton plan to do with the space that is rented by Mezzanine come October. After the lease was set to expire, the brothers had proposed a rent hike from the current $10,000 per month to $60,000 per month, which owner Deborah Jackman can’t weather on her own. (The Chrittons could not be reached for comment.)
The brothers made the announcement that the Chritton family’s 54-year-old security company Microbiz would be taking the space only after Jackman had thought that they'd agree to a three-month lease extension so that all of the events that had been booked in good faith through New Year’s Eve could go ahead as planned.
Microbiz "will be taking over the entire building as of October 11, 2019—ensuring their legacy in the Northern California marketplace," reads a release sent to SF Weekly. "It was their parents' wish that someday Microbiz would occupy the entire building."
If approved, Supervisor Haney's legislation would at least buy Mezzanine some more time to try and negotiate a new lease with the building owners to preserve one of San Francisco's nightlife cornerstones, or a fighting chance to relocate.
"I don’t anticipate any opposition from the Board on this legislation," Mahogany said. "Our colleagues have expressed support."
"I don't think it would be great," Maggie Weiland, the executive director of San Francisco Entertainment Commission, said of the potential impact of Mezzanine's closure on the city. "I don't think that we would be pleased with another venue that provides live music to go away and to turn into another use such as office space. [Mezzanine] is an asset to San Francisco, a very valuable venue that has been around for 16 years. Personally, I would be very sad; I've been going there since I was 21. But also just on a professional level, it’s not a great storyline for our city."
Deborah Jackman was more into bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish when she became manager of Mezzanine in 2008 after relocating from New York City, where she had been opening restaurants, bars and venues for 17 years.
"I moved out here thinking, 'Oh, I’ll get a job running the Fillmore' and found out very quickly that the people that hold those positions in San Francisco, they either retire or die," Jackmain explained. "No one is just leaving a general manager position at the Warfield or the Fillmore or one of those legendary venues that an out-of-state person would think of when they think of San Francisco. So I lucked out when I got the call from Mezzanine that they wanted to meet me."
She's now been the owner of Mezzanine for seven years and credits her time there for opening up her mind to much broader sonic horizons. Her musical highlights from the past 11 years inside the venue are numerous and colorful.
"The most obvious [performance] that sticks out is Lady Gaga," Jackman says, remembering a fond Mezzanine moment. "My first year there we had her it sold out in five minutes of course, and we added a second show the same night and I had no idea who she was. Most average people didn't know who she was, at that time she had a cult following. And I remember seeing the first show and calling my husband and saying, 'You need to get down here and see the second show! This is the real deal, Holy Moses, she is the new Madonna.’ That was just an amazing moment having her, and then three months later she sold out Madison Square Garden; it was that quick of a turnaround for her.
"One of my other favorite memories is, we were having a fundraiser for Save the Waves—they do yearly fundraisers helping to save the ocean —and they had a couple local bands playing,” she added. "One of the bands happened to be friends with the guys with Green Day. Billie Joe [Armstrong] called up this guy and said, 'What are you doing tonight?' And the guys said, ‘Oh, I’m playing a gig at Mezzanine for Save the Waves Foundation,’ and Billie Joe said, ‘Oh, can we come play?’ Somebody called me at four in the afternoon, the event was at seven or eight, and said, ‘Hey, is it okay if Green Day plays tonight?’ I was thinking they would show up and play a song or two. They ended up playing a full hour-plus set of their greatest hits to 600 people. It was just insane! It was rock-and-roll at its most organic and raw form."
She's also gotten a crash course in rising superstar DJs: "Diplo and Tiesto, Skrillex [are] DJs that played Mezzanine so many times. Now they have residencies in Vegas and are paid millions of dollars, and it’s like, ‘Oh, he used to play at Mezzanine.’ One Coachella weekend, we had Florence & The Machine and Major Lazer back-to-back Friday and Saturday nights the year Florence & The Machine ended up winning a GRAMMY for Best New Artist . Again, it was so easy to recognize the greatness that was on our stage. It was like, ‘This is the real deal!'"
In 2015, Mezzanine’s original owner Patrick McNerney told Jackman, "This has become your baby and you've been running it autonomously for so many years now. I don't even know the people who work there anymore and I just feel like you should be the owner,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, okay!’ So we worked up a deal and he transferred ownership to me and in October of 2015 I went from the GM to the owner which was also amazing. Not only was it a dream come true, but to be the only independent venue owned by a female in San Francisco of this size, I am really proud."
Jackman is prepared to give that up for the future of the venue. When the building owners decided not to renew the lease, Jackman came to the negotiating table with a strong potential partner: Another Planet, the 16-year-old independent and local concert and production company behind Outside Lands and Treasure Island Music Festival. Another Planet already operates Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and The Independent in San Francisco, Fox Theater in Oakland and Greek Theatre in Berkeley.
"They want to come and basically co-own Mezzanine with me, which would allow us to pay the much higher rent that they want," Jackman said. "Again, it’s their right to raise the rent after 20 years to closer to market value. It’s just out of my range as an independent owner with no million dollar trust fund."
The Another Planet business model addressed one of the owners' parents’ original worries.
"The owners, one of their concerns when Pat [McNerney] sold me the business was, well, I’m not a multimillionaire with four homes and all this stuff that Pat had, so this gives them the assurance that there is a bigger entity behind the company and I would still be there as the managing partner. They would keep my whole staff, Mezzanine would continue running as if nothing ever changed, except for the fact that there would be some improvements and Another Planet would be booking it. So that is the dream solution, and [the owners] were open to discussions as far as we knew and they were very excited about Another Planet until May 1, when they just pulled the rug out from under us and said, ‘We’re not giving you your extension and we’re not interested in talking further with Another Planet.'"
“It’s hard to get into [the owners’] heads and it’s been a challenging experience for Deb especially because she’s given hope by the landlord and then it’s squashed, and then she’s given hope again, and then it’s squashed again,” Weiland said. “So I don't see a lot of room for trust personally, and I think that’s why the city is taking this stance that we are out there saying that this is a valuable venue... We want it to stay and we’ll do whatever we can in our policy-making abilities to help protect it.
"I commend Deb for keeping a positive attitude throughout this process and essentially getting super-creative and scrappy and trying to find ways in which to remain," Weiland continued. "I think reaching out to Another Planet and coming up with that plan was really incredible and I think that could essentially be the hook. I would hope that they would take that offer seriously because they’d make an amazing tenant and could help the venue survive."
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will vote on Supervisor Haney’s legislation on July 29.