By LAUREN ANDREWS
ATLANTA — The composition begins with a duet between the night sky and the neon letters, illuminating the faces of the concertgoers below with a purple hue. The century-old wood rattles to join the buzz of the glowing sign that reads, “The Masrade,” — only seven of the 10 letters are glowing.
A North Avenue car horn joins the chorus on cue, representing the melodic sounds of Old Fourth Ward. Within the drafty walls of the original mill, ghosts of music past echo their lyrics across the stage they once graced, and into the crowded room they previously serenaded.
Celebrating 25 years of music in August, the Atlanta venue, proudly known as The Masquerade, sings a resounding anthem of harmony between treasured history and modern community.
Announced July 28, The Masquerade, including the surrounding acreage, sold for $2.8 million to commercial buyers. Intending to expand the Old Fourth Ward community with an upscale residential complex and fine dining facility, the purchasing party boasts no popularity among venue die-hards. The immediate whiplash from local music fans across social media platforms proves telling to the value the gloriously grungy venue possesses among Atlanta’s music-hungry residents.
Ultimately, the Atlanta music culture refuses to mask any concerns surrounding the beloved venue, even while The Masquerade’s fate hangs in the shadows.
According to an article written by Melissa Ruggieri, published on http://www.AJC.com on July 29, SWH Residential Partners LLC, based in Atlanta, purchased 3.3 acres across the Atlanta Beltline, including The Masquerade property. Joining forces with Southeast Capital Companies, the company involved with The Masquerade for six years, the two big names plan to co-develop an eight-story luxury apartment complex and a high-priced restaurant measuring 4,500 square feet.
Perhaps, everything is replaceable in today’s evolving society, including 25-year-old music venues. Yet, fancy apartments and oversized restaurants will certainly draw a different crowd in comparison to those attending a rock show on a Friday night at “The Masq.”
“If The Masquerade does close within the next year, chances are nothing that attempts to replace it will have the comparative historic value,” said James Leketter, veteran employee at The Masquerade who walked through the venue doors in 1995 and never left. “Developers like to come in, a lot of times from other cities, with no idea of the raw history of Atlanta they are taking over. Often, their only real motive is to make a profit.”
Dating back to the year 1901, Dupre Excelsior Mill occupied the existing structure and surrounding 1.32 acres in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Transitioning in the late 1970s, the mill became a pizzeria, only to be bought out by Dean Riopelle in 1989, and indefinitely converted into his pride and joy, The Masquerade. The same property that stood in 1901 continues to inhabit the compound, only now, as a treasured piece of the Atlanta music scene.
Leketter, currently one of the managers at the Masquerade, appreciates what the art of purchasing a music venue used to entail, and in contrast, recognizes the increasing danger of what the current business is becoming.
“Atlanta music clubs used to be started because the owner had a true love of music, like Dean [Riopelle] and ‘The Masq.’ He wanted to give bands a place to play while exposing an audience to musical diversity,” said Leketter, speaking of the late owner of The Masquerade, Riopelle, who was remembered Sept. 24 on the two-year anniversary of his death at 53 years old.
For any music enthusiast, a venue plays a significant role in a live music venture. One with a layer of rock star stench in the air lends a deeper level of fan and performer experience, alike.
“I mean, just knowing that I played on the same stage as Nirvana makes me feel like I’m doing something right,” said Ruben Actarez, lead singer of Space Orphan, a start-up band from Atlanta that has performed a handful of shows at The Masquerade.
Fellow icons like David Bowie, Green Day and Dave Matthews Band made Masquerade debuts early into their careers, decorating the long list of artist appearances at the local venue. This year alone, Future, Run the Jewels and Childish Gambino rolled into the rugged Old Fourth Ward music hotspot, packing the main stage to maximum capacity.
The format of The Masquerade remains consistent throughout its 25-year-run in the business, allowing for fan and artist expectations to be mutually accommodated. Within the shabby walls of the indoor/outdoor venue, three interior stages claim their names from afterlife destinations. “Heaven” is upstairs, “Purgatory” is located on the main level and “Hell” is in the basement, as expected.
In addition to indoor acts, The Masquerade hosts outdoor festivals on its adjoining piece of land, providing an arena for larger acts. In honor of the venue’s 25th anniversary, The Masquerade hosted a two-day festival in August ironically referred to as, “The
Wrecking Ball.” Potentially foreshadowing the venue’s future, fans of The Masquerade are choosing to focus on the positive aspects of a potentially devastating loss.
“The Masquerade has always had a certain vibe that other venues don’t have,” said repeated Masquerade attendee, Tonya Villos, “I think the announcement has made a lot of people realize how important this venue is to not only them, but to our city.”
Attending a three-act show on Sept. 26 at The Masquerade, Villos also reflects on what the local music scene could miss without the iconic setting.
“I just don’t really know where all the smaller bands will play now. Center Stage is another option, but it’s like a whole different world on that part of town,” said Villos, a fellow Old Fourth Ward resident.
Boasting nearly 80,000 likes on its Facebook page, social media is a leading means of communication between the venue and its fans, especially during time of uncertainty. A day following the news of new ownership, The Masquerade addressed the public through a Facebook status. On July 29, part of the venue’s post read, “We are continuing our booking through 2016 and all shows are going forward.” Corresponding with the current schedule displayed on The Masquerade’s website, the artist lineup for the rest of the year is booked solid.
A large number of Atlanta locals feel a binding connection to The Masquerade, and many are unashamed about taking personal action against the potential closing.
“I definitely signed the petition, but I wonder if that is going to be enough,” said Actarez, “I mean, I’d even stand in front of the construction site if that’s what it would take. I’d really hate to see this place leave us.”
Nearly 15,000 participants have acted to sign an online petition entitled, “Save The Masquerade” via Change.org, and the numbers only continue to climb. In addition to signing one’s name, petitioners are given the option to add comments on the website. An outpouring of heartwarming “Masq” memories related to finding oneself, meeting new friends and even marriage proposals can be found within the passionate postings of the online petition.
According to The Masquerade’s website, the official takeover is set to begin this month, despite the loud outcry from the passionate venue attendees. With a predicted project end date of 2017, business at The Masquerade will continue into 2016 even in the midst of the surrounding construction site. Only time will tell if the highly favored musical spectacle will win a Goliath-style battle, or fall victim to the expansion.
“The same truth Atlanta proved during the ‘Save The Fox’ movement in the ‘70s is true in this case — magical things happen when passionate people unite,” said Leketter.