Christmas, Y2K, Batman and theatrics mesh in Cavern Club complex

By Julia Smith-Eppsteiner, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 19, 2011

A place where Greek Life comes to grind, hipsters come to sway and older folks come to not feel like grandparents does exist — it’s called Cavern Club Entertainment Complex and it’s a bit out of the way from the normal nightlife spots. Ann Arbor is a town geared toward the crazy disposition of college students, and places like Rick’s American Café and Scorekeepers Sportsgrill & Pub are the obvious answers to the nightlife dilemma. But there happens to be an underexposed alternative a block past Main Street. The club may have a mere 20-percent college student demographic, but Jason Segel and Emily Blunt jammed to the DJ's beats there during the filming of “The Five-Year Engagement” this past summer. Nick Easton, the owner of the complex, manages the four eclectic bars within the building: listed from bottom on up, Cavern Club, Millennium Club, Gotham City and Circus Bar & Billiards.

Easton’s life trajectory has changed wildly — he began his career as an elementary school teacher and is now the successful manager of a quartet of connected clubs.

“I wanted to be my own boss,” Easton said. “I had that entrepreneurial spirit and I’m interested in histories, so I started an antique store here back in ’94. I bought this building and it just kind of evolved over time.”

The place that currently houses the complex's Cavern Club used to contain antique items, but Easton took it upon himself to convert the space into a banquet hall. After this was well received, he took it a step further by getting a liquor license and remodeling. More than a decade later, it seems the transformation was a wise one. Now the Cavern Club, which is rented out for private soirees like sorority-fraternity date parties and events for the dental school and the business school, resembles nothing I’ve seen before.

As I walked into the underground club, I was confronted by a deer head hanging from the wall, twinkle lights in garland outlining the bar and over-sexualized modern grinding juxtaposed up against a large painting that echoes Michelangelo’s The Creation. That made the place feel like a Christmas cabin gone wrong. All of that said, the cherry on top was that the DJ seemed to have a man crush on Usher. Frankly, the club is the perfect place to give a handful of disposable cameras an authentic night out on the town.

Venturing upstairs, I found myself amid the neon lights of the Millennium Club walking by cages, a glittery fish tank and empty poles seen in the front window. These used to be alive with hired dancers back when the club launched in 2000. This particular venue is open on Saturdays, when a live band plays. Traditionally, it's the Killer Flamingos, a pop-rock band of the Detroit area, who take the stage and get the crowd of a wide age range grooving on their feet for hours with covers of popular radio songs like the Black Eyed Peas’s “I Gotta Feeling.”

I wasn't as impressed with the adjacent, Batman-themed bar entitled Gotham City that exists as a spooky and exciting atmosphere with a mirror-walled dance floor that lost its crowd to the live band next door.

When Millennium isn't “happening” with live music, you can almost always count on the people flowing through Circus, if not just for the cheap PBR and free perfectly buttered popcorn. I appreciated the karaoke stage but wished the jukebox wasn't just decoration. A lion's head appropriately emerges from the circus tent that encases the bar and five billiard tables available for a free hour of play.

The most classic time to walk those extra few blocks in your boots is Wednesday nights. On these evenings, there is always a different and usually well-known bluegrass band, leaving the top floor of the complex sweaty with the beautiful grunge of music lovers with taste for less popular music styles.

“I think because of the large number of grandchildren of the ’60s — the children of the 1960s children in town, who are into bluegrass, we’ve found a niche audience,” Easton said.

Despite the turn-off of cover charges, the atmosphere's unpredictability and the walk in typically frigid weather, the Cavern Club environment embraces adults of all ages trying to have a memorable night of play.

“We’re really just far enough away from campus — about a mile — that we appeal to a lot of townies and working grad students,” Easton said. “So it’s just a little bit older age group on up and that’s another reason why students feel comfortable bringing their parents here, because their parents don’t feel like grandma and grandpa walking around.”

It turns out though the establishment has a couple of shortcomings, the ability to show up and have a good time before turning 21 is a turn-on to many. There is a lot more adventure to offer than the average party joint with the multiple themed options, especially on its biggest night of the year: Halloween.