Back to The Bayou: Film explores Georgetown club
By Katie Pearce Current Staff Writer
For the creators of a documentary on The Bayou nightclub in Georgetown, a dawdling approach has turned out to be the right fit.
The filmmakers first latched on to The Bayou in 1998, documenting the music hall as it prepared to shut down for good that New Year’s Eve. At the time, their general aspiration to make a film outweighed their connection to the K Street club.
But after 14 years of soaking in The Bayou’s posthumous wealth of anecdotes and artifacts, the team members now speak of the venue with intimate affection. They describe it as a complex, offbeat and raucous place that survived its decades on the Georgetown waterfront — on the site beneath the Whitehurst Freeway that’s now a Loews movie theater — by constantly shifting identities.
“Once we looked under the hood and saw this engine with odd parts and gunk and weird assembly … it became a story worth coming to,” said writer Vinnie Perrone, a former Washington Post staffer who has interviewed subjects for the documentary.
The team, working under the auspices of producer Dave Lilling’s Metro Teleproductions in Silver Spring, also includes C-SPAN producer and announcer Bill Scanlan and writer and humorist Dave Nuttycombe. They recently brought on board a young New York University film school grad, Adam Bonsib, as editor.
Now, they’re in the post-production phase, hoping to raise some still-needed funds though a campaign on Kickstarter, an online platform that supports creative projects. The plan is to release the full-length documentary, “The Bayou: DC’s Killer Joint” to area public television stations later this year.
The Bayou started out as a Dixieland jazz club in 1953, owned by brothers Tony and Vince Tramonte. Its building, a former barrel factory, had hosted speakeasies and “late-night histrionics” in the first half of the century, according to Scanlan. It was also the site of a single-gunshot mob slaying in 1951, whose sole victim, George Harding, was rumored to haunt the venue for years afterward.
By the early 1960s, “when musical tastes started to change, out of necessity the club started groping for alternatives,” said Nuttycombe. A short phase as a burlesque house bridged the gap until the rock ’n’ roll era descended on D.C., and a house band called The Telstars took over The Bayou. Playing cover versions of hits, the band sold out the club most nights of the week for three years.
In the late ’60s and through the ’70s, the owners became more ambitious with booking. Though the club’s “bread and butter” was local bands, it “began to make its name known as a venue for national acts,” said Scanlan, drawing performers like Kiss, Dire Straits, Todd Rundgren and Foreigner.
“A number of bands made their Washington debut at The Bayou,” said Nuttycombe.
The Bayou’s popularity continued into the ’80s, after Cellar Door Productions took over ownership. U2 played its first American show at the club. Billy Joel went there to record his first live album, “Songs in the Attic.” Eddie Murphy performed comedy. And Foreigner returned to tape MTV’s first live nightclub performance.
One legendary night, Bruce Springsteen “showed up unannounced and jammed” with another musician, Perrone said.
The club’s heyday, the filmmakers say, coincided with a loose and wild time for Georgetown’s nightlife. The Bayou was the center of that scene, a major local music destination that drew audiences from the suburbs who stuck around after shows to drink.
“For a long time, [The Bayou] was the biggest music club in Washington,” said Scanlan.
With the 9:30 Club taking over the punk and alternative scene in the ’90s, The Bayou relied on more mainstream acts, like Hootie and the Blowfish, Phish, and the Dave Matthews Band. Eva Cassidy made her final performance there in 1996.
But “toward the end, the club sort of lost its mojo with booking,” said Nuttycombe, and it stayed empty some nights. At the same time, area rents had skyrocketed, and The Bayou was “the last valuable piece of [developable] property in Georgetown,” he said.
The filmmakers first devoted their attention to the spot after the EastBanc firm had purchased the property with plans to demolish it.
The team’s focus was a matter of timing more than anything else: Lilling had made extra cash through steady crew work covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and he found himself wanting to pursue a creative project.
Scanlan, his friend, suggested The Bayou as a documentary topic, and the team got to work recording its final days.
The project easily could have been a shallow effort, sentimentalizing the closure.
“There was discord during the early days about when we should air this thing,” said Perrone, who believed then the documentary would be “fresher” if released shortly after The Bayou shut down.
But after more than a decade of interviews and research, the team members feel they’re coming out with a richer product. They’ve uncovered some surprising gems, like footage of one of the Dixieland bands playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And with “the advent of social media, we’ve been getting things we never would have access to, ever,” said Lilling. “We’ve gotten tapes, we’ve gotten T-shirts, we’ve gotten other memorabilia.”
The elder team members also emphasized the benefit of the fresh, impartial eye of 23-year-old editor Bonsib, who will head to Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking career when the project is complete.
“This is an entirely different film than when we started a dozen years ago,” said Scanlan.
More information about the documentary is available at bayoudoc.com, and details on the Kickstarter fundraising can be found on kickstarter.com by searching “Bayou DC.”
This article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.