Wow factor: Cameo's main room.
Nightlife rivals join forces to survive.
Photos by Dan Vidal
Down in Miami, there’s a distinctive nip in the usually sticky air.
South Beach staple crobar is no longer, having succumbed to the area’s changing tastes and endless choices. But in its place – its very building – is the recently opened Cameo, a glittering homage to old-school clubbing decadence, powered by the best creative, sonic, promotional and marketing minds in American nightlife.
Crobar masterminds Ken Smith and Callin Fortis are still at work in the structure they helped make famous. Their team includes longtime SoBe promoter Emi Guerra, and celeb wrangler Dave Grutman, freshly poached from Opium Group. But their new partner is the big gasp: former rival Louis Puig, enterprising owner of downtown superclub Space.
“We felt that the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ strategy was the best one in such a small market that is controlled by very few,” says Fortis. “Louis is the best at what he does and we are the best at what we do. Together the options are huge.”
Hell hath flat-out froze up.
This Is Not (Crobar) Miami
There’s much more to the Cameo story than a just a name change. And it represents more than just a seismic shift in the local power balance. Cameo incorporates Puig’s sonic prowess, Fortis’ adoration of ‘70s fabulousness, Grutman’s omnipresent rapport, Guerra’s pedigree. The Cameo staff is modern nightlife’s first dream team, and the venue they’ve created reflects that.
But while he takes pride in the glittering new space, Fortis is insistent: “The Cameo is not a crobar redo,” he says. “It is a complete departure from what was in that space for seven years.”
The changes started at the top. “We got rid of the signature crobar columns,” says Guerra. The once-vast dancefloor has been scaled down to what Guerra describes as a more “cozy” size, and table seating has been almost doubled. “People party differently today than they did seven years ago,” says Guerra. “We realize that. It’s an evolution.”
Fortis concurs. “Since 1999 when crobar opened, we’ve seen many, many changes in South Beach,” he says. “The ‘fabulous’ crowd that dined solely on house music and high fashion went the way of the two-tone shoe.”
The club’s extreme makeover was complicated by the fact that the structure itself is protected by law. “The space is a historic landmark building built in 1935,” says Fortis. “The Cameo name appears on the marquee and will never, ever be changed.” Finding a way to update the interior while preserving the Art Deco architectural flourishes and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act was a challenge, but Fortis and his Miami-based Bigtimedesign Studios (bigtimedesignstudios.com) partner Orlando Lamas made it happen.
According to Guerra, the venue has a split personality: main room Cameo, “dirty disco meets ‘Scarface’”; and upstairs lounge Vice, quite literally the red light district: “The walls are all frosted Plexi [lit] with LEDs,” he says.
Fortis’ first task was to “completely change the physical plant so that no one would ever walk in and say it looks like crobar with a paint job,” he says. “Massive, over-scale pieces were designed to force perspective.” There’s a giant Rubik’s cube bar on the upper level, and even the main DJ booth was formed in the shape of an enormous halved disco ball, hovering a few feet over the end of the downstairs dancefloor.
The centerpiece of The Cameo is the stage. The towering Art Deco proscenium on the back wall now frames a 48’ x 22’ illuminated pop art mural instead of a movie screen. “The Lichtenstein-inspired illustration will serve as a massive piece of fine art,” the designer says. “The image is part Warhol, part Marilyn Monroe meets Hollywood biker chick; very sexy with urban street appeal.”
To keep the big room from seeming overwhelming and impersonal, friendly colors, shapes, and textures were added. The large bar immediately inside the main entrance features a soft, plush, almost organic covering. “We call it the ‘hug me’ bar,” says Guerra. “Patrons can lean up against it. It feels really good.”
As for Vice, the edgy club-within-the-club concept upstairs should attract a cross-section of 24-hour party people and those with rather, uhm, unique sensibilities. “What we created was Betty Page meets ‘8MM’ meets West Hollywood peep show,” says Fortis. “The bars are white and black leather with acrylic stiletto heels for legs. The furniture was inspired by Italian lingerie.”
Fortis assembled a team of local artists and companies to complete Cameo’s electric, eclectic look. Sean Drake created “digital fine art”; Lebo, a local Miami street artist, designed the Vice entrance. Downtown chic designers Heatherette created the uniforms; Innovative Branding Network the feature wall.
The resulting vibe is a captivating combination of old and new, cool and kitsch; more crobar New York than the original crobar Miami. “We’re trying to be retro without being campy,” says Guerra.
Cameo: already branded.
The Sonic Theory Of Natural Selection
The sound installation, like the interior design, isn’t what one might expect for a south Florida superclub. None of the usual suspects got the job. “We redesigned the existing crobar sound system ourselves using all kinds of different components. It’s a remix of different speakers, amps, and processors,” explains Puig.
“It has been my experience that there is not one single manufacturer, designer, or installer that can deliver a completely perfect speaker system,” he says. “The ones that do subs well don’t do mids or highs and vice versa. The same goes for amp manufacturers. Some amps are better for bottom and others are better for highs.”
In order to create a custom sound system for the Cameo, Puig created a custom sound company: Hybrid Sound Systems (HSS). It’s an “application-specific sound company tailored to the specific needs of our industry,” says Puig, and a partnership with longtime friend David Padilla. Puig will design and Padilla will install: “No design is complete without a perfect installation and David is the best in the business,” says Puig. “He installed our system at Cameo and no one does a cleaner sound install.”
“We started with a great foundation,” Padilla says. “The components weren’t exactly new, but the technology was so advanced that it would’ve been pointless to start from scratch.” Indeed, HSS inherited Steve Dash-designed, Phazon-branding speakers. “You can’t get any better than that,” says Padilla. “I just re-coned all of the drivers and gave everything some TLC.”
The old Berthas, however, got the boot, but not because of their performance. “They took up too much real estate on the floor,” says Padilla. HSS instead went with components from Quebec-based Transparence (www.tr.ca), the hi-fi manufacturing arm of distributor Belisle Acoustics. “We listened to a lot of other subwoofers, and decided to go with them,” says Padilla. “Not only were they relatively compact, but they had a high output and could take a pounding all night long.”
Padilla says that the system isn’t set in stone. “We might add a few more cabinets in the future, depending on the music format and the crowd,” he says. “You put 2,000 people in a room and the characteristics of the sound definitely change. The bodies absorb sound, the amps and drivers heat up. The system sounds amazing right now, but we want to stay at the cutting edge, so we know we’ll have to do some fine-tuning once the club opens.”
“Combined, we have 60 years of nightclub experience,” Puig says. “You can’t EQ music you don’t know or feel!”
One thing’s for sure: As former jocks themselves, Padilla and Puig will make Cameo a “DJ’s dream.” Although Padilla is quick to add: “Of course we’re going to protect the system.”
Disco Pole Show
In keeping with the Cameo’s “best of old and new” approach, the lighting installation combines a little of everything, from pin spots and police beacons to 21st-century moving heads and LEDs. Designed and installed by industry veteran Joe Zamore, the lighting perfectly compliments the rest of the venue.
“Joe is an old-schooler who goes back to the Studio 54 days,” says Puig, “so he was the right man for the job we had in mind. We wanted to bring back the fun that people used to have at clubs before they became red with red curtains, or all black. We wanted a fun, interactive club with different looks and feels, and eye candy everywhere.”
“Instead of going with the usual moving light show, we went to the old days, using layers and layers of projection,” Zamore explains. “Of course, we used the latest projector technology and moving heads.”
Zamore’s design evokes a certain disco era sensibility, but with a modern edge. The eight light poles hanging down over the main room dancefloor, for example, are more than a little reminiscent of a certain legendary nightclub. “It’s an updated version of the Studio 54 chase pole,” says Zamore. “The original poles were done with incandescent lamps, so we updated them with LEDs and added some Martin Wizards and classic police beacons.”
Cameo also features the latest architectural lighting. “The trick with LEDs today is optics,” says Zamore. “We used a unique LED optical system to get those walls to scream color, but not wash out the rest of the room. Most fixtures just offer you LEDs in an enclosure, but optical systems allow designers to really control where the light is and what it’s doing.”
Don’t Call It A Comeback
While Cameo stands tall, crobar, the club and brand it replaced, seems to be losing its footing. Crown jewel crobar New York became Studio Mezmor (yes, you read right) on February 17, after unarticulated internal unrest led the owners of the name – Fortis and Smith – to pull out. Crobar Chicago is alive but eternally gasping. The empire seems unsteady.
But Fortis insists that’s not the case. “We have not ‘given up’ on crobar,” he says. “Our plans for crobar expansion are just around the corner, and we have a space in our sights for the next step in the crobar brand.”
We can feel the thaw now.