Features & Columns

Rockbar Theater Calls It Quits
at Iconic Old-Boys-Club Venue

Last weekend, the Rockbar Theater threw its final rock shows after a short run.
BAD BET: Rockbar Theater's attempt to resurrect live music at an iconic venue lasted just a year. Photo by Brian Kirksey.

Last weekend, the Rockbar Theater threw its final rock shows after a short run. For just over a year, the chateau-style venue, formerly Garden City Casino, booked some major gigs and showed serious potential. But news broke a few weeks ago that interlopers have purchased the whole parcel of land.

Located at Saratoga and Stevens Creek, plans intend to fabricate something as artificial as Santana Row. So Rockbar, in the meantime, has decided to bail for Reno, the "Biggest Little City in the World."

On Saturday, the anti-man-about-town invaded the scene and couldn't help but contemplate the histories of that land parcel, and the various ways in which the creation and destruction of music has characterized the entire plaza. Most of this is outside the scope of this column, but just one example: across the parking lot decades ago was the Cabaret, where tons of rock shows pleased the FM radio audience before the joint likewise closed. For example, if you wanted to see Foghat in the '80s, that's where you went.

But the real mind-blowing history on which to meditate is that of Garden City. I can't physically think about the building currently housing Rockbar without imagining the "old" San Jose from 50 years ago. Garden City was San Jose's nickname and the original Garden City business opened downtown in 1946. It was a pool hall before it morphed into a card room and a hofbrau. But as downtown degenerated into a stew of pawn shops, crime and seedier card clubs, Garden City followed everyone else out to the suburbs during the mid-'70s.

If you really want to study the "old boy network" of San Jose, that is, the decades-long relationship-nexus of politicians and multigenerational businesses, along with attorneys, judges, real estate bigwigs, architects, cops and construction companies, plus the role Bellarmine played in the rise of San Jose's ruling class, even today, then go read up on the history of Garden City. That place was the piece that weaved an entire century together, an epic saga of San Jose underbelly. Garden City was the 50-year bridge between the WWII era—when San Jose really was a backwater—and the current era of real-estate-development-politik. From the late '40s until as recently as eight years ago, none of San Jose's major players were ever more than a few degrees of separation from Garden City.

I didn't cross the threshold until the late '80s, when a jazz history class at West Valley College required me to review some gigs. When I got there, Smith Dobson and Henry Schiro were the ones holding court over the Sunday jazz series in the restaurant at Garden City. Ultimately, Schiro would help start the San Jose Jazz Festival a few years later. These were people that cared about the music—gee, what a concept!—and at the time, the jazz series at Garden City was the hottest regular gig in San Jose. The gambling tables comprised much of the rest of the property, and I never ventured in, but at the time, I had no idea I was stepping into the past, and the future, of San Jose's old boy network. I just remember the jazz, and the steaks, being quite good.

So now, to see what could have been a world-beating rock establishment, Rockbar Theater, hightail it for the Biggest Little City in the World, it seems like one last phase of musical chairs at that intersection. San Jose can be understood as one continuous interrelated web of creation and destruction, especially when it comes to music and real estate. And now, we'll probably get another repulsive suburban village with all the same quasi-upscale shopping you see in any other city the world over. Hell, it almost makes me long for the gambling days to come back. And at least everybody was local.

So last Saturday when the anti-man-about-town rolled in to see former Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe deliver a nonstop-raging performance at Rockbar, as the surrounding neighborhood was deathly quiet, empty and dead as a doorknob, I couldn't help but shake my head. When will people care about the music around here?