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Polly Esther’s, located on 12th Street NW “between F(funky) & G(groovy) streets,” according to its Web site, features “3 Clubs-3DJs-3 Dance Floors-4 Decades of Music.”
And, presently, five lawsuits, which have proved to be a major bummer for the retro-themed dance club with the winking-smiley-face logo.
This past fall, D.C.’s Polly Esther’s, one of 18 individually owned and operated clubs licensed by New York–based Do the Hustle LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, thereby staving off the litany of litigation—albeit only temporarily. Until those suits are finally settled, the past will continue to haunt the downtown discothèque.
In true throwback fashion, the club’s legal woes began around the turn of the century.
Flashback to 1999: On July 4, a wooden beam rigged with lights and speakers collapsed onto the club’s crowded second-level dance floor around 1 a.m.—injuring about 30 people and sending 15 to the hospital, according to a Washington Post account of the incident.
Two of the injured, Woodbridge, Va., resident Kathleen Bardzell and Mario A. Sanchez of Hyattsville, Md., would later sue the nightclub for negligence.
A subsequent investigation by James Delgado, then a building inspector for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, determined that the fallen lighting-and-audio assembly had not been installed in compliance with city regulations. “The kind of work that went into the mounting of the speakers would have required a permit and government structural inspection,” says Delgado. “It didn’t happen.”
Two years later, another tumbling-electronic-equipment disaster befell Polly Esther’s. On Feb. 18, 2001, Cynthia Rosario was standing by the bar, where a television set was mounted to the wall. According to the complaint the Oxon Hill, Md., resident later filed, “Due to the faulty construction of the device holding the television, the television fell and struck her on the head and arm.”
Like Bardzell and Sanchez, Rosario is now seeking compensatory damages. Bardzell is asking for an unspecified amount. Sanchez wants $50,000 plus interest. And Rosario, who filed suit in 2004, is demanding $100,000 plus interest and legal fees.
Polly Esther’s, in turn, has filed its own complaints, which cast blame on allegedly shoddy installation work by Arlington’s Acoustic Works Presentation Systems and the New York– based Barbizon Electric Co. In court papers, both companies have denied the allegations.
Adding to the club’s busy court docket, Polly Esther’s has also been cited in two additional lawsuits in federal and D.C. Superior courts, stemming from the February 2001 death of Arlington resident Kevin Hurley, 22, who was killed in an auto accident after leaving the venue. Court records indicate that Hurley “had substantial amounts of alcohol both in his blood and in other bodily fluids.”
Typically, such claims would be handled by the club’s liability-insurance provider. Unfortunately for Polly Esther’s, its insurer, Legion Indemnity Co., a subsidiary of the Delaware-based Mutual Group Ltd., is too mired in its own financial problems to do anything about it. Under an Illinois judge’s 2002 conservation order, which basically provides bankruptcy protection for insurers, that company is barred from paying any claims.
And not surprisingly, Polly Esther’s hasn’t had an easy time finding a new insurance carrier, which is hard enough even for a place where stuff doesn’t fall from the ceiling. The club’s bankruptcy lawyer, Steven Greenfeld, says, “The big problem is just getting any insurance company to write liability coverage for a nightclub in the District of Columbia.”
Especially a nightclub currently entangled in so many lawsuits.
Despite its problems, Polly Esther’s has remained at least somewhat profitable. In his most recent monthly operating report, which covers this past November, club President Gary Ouellette cited more than $61,000 in sales of the venue’s notorious Brady Punch and other drinks, plus cover charges and coat-check fees. After wages, taxes, and other expenses, the club earned a net income of about $17,000 that month.
“The club’s doing OK,” says Greenfeld. “It’s not doing fabulously.”
But its continued operation without liability coverage isn’t helping. Last month, citing this lack of coverage as “evidence of the absence of a reasonable likelihood of rehabilitation,” U.S. Trustee W. Clarkson McDow Jr. formally requested that the club’s case be converted from the cautiously optimistic Chapter 11 to the more dire Chapter 7—which threatens to send local clubgoers to the next nearest Polly Esther’s to do the hustle. That would be in a less funky—or groovy—location on Rockville Pike, “next to the DoubleTree Hotel.”
But Greenfeld says he’s confident that Polly Esther’s can secure a new policy “probably within two to three weeks” and allay the trustee’s concerns. Granted, he adds, that new policy likely won’t cover past claims.
The club will have to address those prior cases as part of its forthcoming reorganization plan. “Right now,” says Greenfeld, “it’s kind of premature to decide how we’re gonna treat them.”
Price Club: Stretching your dollar at D.C.’s night spots
Venue: Millie & Al’s, 2440 18th St. NW
Item: 13 songs blaring out of the TouchTunes Digital Jukebox for approximately 45 minutes
Put down that cheap pitcher of Miller Lite for a minute and check out the TouchTunes’ M300 Rhapsody Floor Model Jukebox—one of “the most advanced jukeboxes on the market today!” according to the manufacturer’s Web site. “Powerful amps, speakers and sub-woofers deliver music like you’ve never heard from a traditional jukebox.”
Picking a dozen and one of your favorite hits is as easy as touching the color monitor. As the TouchTunes Music Corp. proudly boasts, with the Rhapsody, there are “[n]o clumsy push buttons, no wasteful CDs and no title strips.”
And no geeky indie rock, either. Sure, you could head across the street, slip your hard-earned fiver into more traditional music machines at either Toledo Lounge or Pharmacy Bar, and hear five more songs for the same price. At Toledo, that could mean a whole half-hour of classic-rock noodling. And at Pharmacy, you’d be wasting your money on artsy-fartsy no-names such as Mogwai—or locals such as Phaser. You’re not gonna find your standard holiday favorites. Or timeless hair-band classics. Or family-friendly versions of today’s hottest hits.
At Millie & Al’s, you can hear “Jingle Bell Rock” performed by the Platters, as well as Randy Brooks’ immortal “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” You can go “Round and Round” with Ratt, too. Heck, you can even “Take It to Da House” with Trick Daddy—and without all that “rookie-ass niggaz” talk. That’s just impolite.
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