Sporting a white suit, a teal shirt, a yellow tie, and silver shoes, Neal Keller is perhaps the most garishly dressed person in Adams Morgan on the night of Feb. 17. But a loud fashion sense seems only appropriate for this self-described “loudmouth.”
“Heaven & Hell!” Keller shouts from the balloon-festooned entrance to the three-level 18th Street NW nightspot where he works. “Club Heaven!”
Sounds more like hell, though, at least to one neighborhood group, which has called on city regulators to silence the club’s crier.
For more than a decade, the almost-40-year-old Arlington resident has vocally promoted owner Mehari Woldemariam’s eschatologically monikered watering hole. Also a resident DJ directing Heaven & Hell’s Thursday-night 80’s Dance Party and a D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board– licensed manager, Keller usually works the door on weekends, checking IDs, collecting admission fees, and stamping hands—often dressed, as he puts it, “like Gary Glitter.”
Back in 1996, from his perch atop the club’s steps, Keller noticed something that he felt was negatively affecting the business: “I could literally hear people asking each other, ‘Where’s Heaven & Hell?’ as they walked right past our front door,” he says.
The club’s large neon sign, installed high above the entrance, is clearly visible a block away. But right outside the venue, it’s easy to miss. “That,” Keller says, “coupled with a lifelong desire for attention, recognition, and a life in show business, propelled me to try to draw the gaze of passers-by.”
So Keller began loudly calling out the club’s name, he explains, “complete with a sweeping gesture.” His repertoire quickly grew to include other catchphrases he hoped would draw nightlifers’ attention. In the winter, he shouts, “So warm inside!” In summer, “Air-conditioned cool!” On Thursdays, Keller often yells, “Oh yes, it’s ’80s night!” to the tune of Kool & the Gang’s 1979 hit “Ladies Night.” And on weekends, he’ll often give a shout-out for the featured turntablist: “DJ Freedom tonight!”
Keller’s clamorous calls have been heard, he boasts, “up by McDonald’s”—located a block-and-a-half-north on the bustling 18th Street business corridor. Or so “rumor has it,” he says.
At least one witness suggests that you can even hear Keller along residential Kalorama Road NW. “It can be heard inside the first floor of my house,” says Denis James, executive vice president of the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and an outspoken critic of the neighborhood’s ever-expanding nightlife scene.
James says that Keller’s schtick not only is annoying, but also openly flouts D.C. environmental regulations. Specifically, he cites a section of the District’s Noise Control Act of 1977: “The shouting and crying of peddlers, hawkers and vendors at nighttime shall be prohibited.”
And, therefore, he adds, it also violates an existing voluntary agreement between the club, the KCA, and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 1C. Though that agreement makes no specific reference to the retro-dressed dude being loud out front, it does require Heaven & Hell to “comply with noise-control provisions of District of Columbia law and regulations.”
James has complained about Keller’s yelling to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. The continuing circus-style barking, he says, “helps set the tone that anything goes around here.”
But other community leaders don’t think that Keller’s yelling is such a big deal—especially given all the other nighttime nuisances in the pub-and-club-lined neighborhood. “You can’t tell me that one barker is what’s keeping you up at night,” says ANC 1C Commissioner Bryan Weaver, “as opposed to crappy Eurotech music and traffic and the parade of bridge-and-tunnel people going ‘Woo-hoo!’ as they head back to their autos illegally parked on Champlain [Street].”
Heck, fellow ANC 1C member Josh Gibson thinks Heaven & Hell’s balloon display—which, he says, “periodically will blow away and be found in a tree on 18th Street”—is a bigger environmental problem than Keller’s barking. And Gibson’s digs are even closer to the club than James’ place.
But James isn’t the only complainant, Keller notes. At least one other listener “wasn’t amused” by his performance, he says, and threatened him with physical violence if he didn’t shut the heaven & hell up.
Oh, and club owner Woldemariam, who was out of the country and unavailable for comment at press time, has also “on occasion” asked his vocal charge “to tone it down,” Keller admits.
Other than that, Keller says, most people seem to enjoy the shouting. Some even shout back. “People call back while standing in our own line—even from the lines to the other clubs,” Keller says. “And frequently, once people get to where they’re standing right in front of me, they will ask me to ‘Do that yell, dude!’ It used to bug me at first, because I feared I would become like the Carol Burnett of Adams Morgan, but I’ve made peace with it.
“The best part,” he adds, “is people who can’t figure out what I’m yelling.” The variations on “Heaven & Hell” that have gotten back to Keller include things like “hibbity hey” and “hub huggin’.” And “Club Heaven,” he says, is sometimes misconstrued as “top-heavy.”
“If they really think I’m yelling ‘top-heavy,’” he ponders, “what do they think I’m referring to?”
So maybe the shouting isn’t the most effective form of advertising for the club. If his boss tells him to cut it out completely, Keller says, then so be it. “I don’t think the club would suffer.”
After all, the dazzlingly dressed doorman has other marketing tricks. “I try to draw people with a wave and a silly tuxedo as well,” he says. “No need to stop that approach—unless future agreements involve my taste in clothing.”
100 PERCENT COLUMBIAN
Proprietors of the Warehouse, D.C.’s self-proclaimed “downtown alternative arts space,” are emphatic about the quality of their venue’s many offerings. According to a brochure, these include “the best in professional theater, visual art, performance art, music, film and more.”
And last week, in an e-mail sent out by Warehouse management, the multipurpose Mount Vernon Square venue touted another first-rate amenity: the coffee served by the Warehouse Cafe, which includes such exotic-sounding varieties as “Peruvian La Florida Fair Trade Organic Decaffeinated” and “Columbian Popayan Fair Trade Organic.”
The Feb. 16 message went on to describe a rather exotic-sounding excursion: “Last week the Warehouse Staff visited our coffee roaster, Orinoco Coffee, in their new roasting facility in Columbia. We went on a tour—from green bean to finished product—and tasted several different varietals and blends.”
To judge by the replies, however, that e-mail sounded a little more impressive than it should have. One respondent expressed his own wish to take a South American getaway. Another pointed out that the Warehouse had misspelled “Colombia,” the nation ranked No. 2 on the list of top coffee-producing countries posted on the Warehouse’s own Web site.
Juan Valdez would not be pleased.
Neither was Warehouse Producing Director Paul Ruppert, who worried about how this apparent miscommunication might affect his venue’s ability to raise money. “We need to raise $50,000,” he says, explaining that the Warehouse is currently soliciting donations for new lighting and sound equipment—not airfare.
So Ruppert sent out a follow-up e-mail the next day: “There was some confusion about the e-mail yesterday about Warehouse coffee,” he wrote. “Our coffee roaster is located in Columbia, Maryland. Our brewed coffee comes from Colombia, South America. We visited our roaster last week by hopping in a car and driving down [Interstate] 95 to Columbia….we don’t want you to think we’re jetting around to South America on your donations.”
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