[INTERVIEW] Breakin’ Up A 3-Count: South Broadway Athletic Club Gets Back on Its Feet
March 24, 2016
“It’s not so much a ‘changing of the guard’ as it is just a new band of soldiers,” clarifies Kevin Wilkins, current President of Soulard’s storied South Broadway Athletic Club.
I’d used the phrase to ask how he came to be the new leader of SBAC, a historic boxing and wrestling venue that’s weathered an aging membership and financial hardships in recent years. IWTAS sat down in the Wrestlers’ Room at SBAC (a green room/shower room hybrid scattered with homemade entrance music mixes and mismatched chairs) to chat about the upcoming Bottle Rockets show.
Band of Brothers (Well, Old Friends)
For board member Evan Bolesta, an investment in South Broadway means an investment in the neighborhood that’s become home.”I’ve lived in Soulard for 10 years now,” he explains, “and this club is part of its history.” He, Wilkins, and a handful of their longtime friends began the revitalization efforts by spending Saturday nights at the club as patrons of its popular professional wrestling events. They learned the unofficial ins and outs of SBAC and its origin story, which dates back to 1899.
There in the malty haze of pro wrestling madness, the group would eventually inquire about volunteer opportunities. “We started by just showing up and asking around at wrestling,” says Wilkins. “Maybe we’d throw a chair here and there; break up a 3-count,” he jokes. After some gentle prodding, they finally made contact with the club’s leadership and offered new perspective and support.
“We met guys who have been part of the club for 30 years, who have lived in this area their entire lives. SBAC is a vital part of the neighborhood’s story, yet so many residents don’t know what goes on down here,” mentions Bolesta. “It’s a cornerstone of Soulard, but you could pass it 25 times and not notice it’s here…just another brick building in the city,” Wilkins adds.
From Body Slams to Bottle Rockets
With new leadership in order and with popular club events like amateur boxing, meat shoots, and even a fuzzball league intact, the SBAC Board was ready to work in a fresh lineup of activities to complement the stalwarts. Wilkins gives Bolesta credit for the Bottle Rockets concert idea, whose ears perked when he heard a feature about the band on NPR back in 2015 (RFT Music’s piece offers more background on the album naming decision).
“So really, the Bottle Rockets thing just fell into our lap,” Bolesta admits. Approaching the band to spearhead SBAC’s latest attempt at hosting live music was a no-brainer. “I mean they’re standing right outside under the sign, we figured there had to be a story there, or at least some familiarity. And we needed and still need to fill the calendar with events that help the club financially…and since we don’t know how to pull off a trivia night, and bingo isn’t popular now that all the bingo folks go to the boat and play slots…our next best idea was a rock n’ roll show.”
A Working Class Concert For A Working Class Club
Actually booking Bottle Rockets for the gig was another thing. With lots of combined business experience under their belt (Wilkins is a lawyer, Bolesta the marketing director for a St. Louis-area industry council), but little in the area of talent buying, they took the logical first step: contacting the band’s manager and booker. That connection didn’t flourish initially and understandably so, says Bolesta: “The agent was doing what an agent’s supposed to do, which is be a buffer between his musicians and the weird guys who are asking this big band to play a free show at a weird place.”
It took a different (also new) SBAC signature event to bring everyone together: a monthly antique and vintage market that’s championed in part by Janet Henneman, who’s married to one Brian Henneman of Bottle Rockets fame. The band then heard about the club’s down-but-not-out situation, and with fondness and enthusiasm, accepted the benefit gig.
The spacious, rectangular main room of South Broadway features a huge wooden floor, a modest stage that will be extended for the night to accommodate full bands, and 3 elevated sections that border walls for sitting and standing, and that allow for multiple vantage points. Old friends of SBAC should expect to mingle with first-timers. The everyman vibe that Bottle Rockets pioneered in the Midwest 20 years ago will find a perfect home among the boxing trophies, popcorn machine, and faded American flag. “Some veteran club members bought 15, 20 tickets to give to family and friends, which is amazing,” marveled Wilkins, “so we want to provide ample standing, sitting, and dancing space. Everyone should feel comfortable and welcome.”
“Be thankful for another try…”
“Be thankful for another try,” Henneman sings on ‘Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)’ off South Broadway Athletic Club, the album. And Wilkins and Bolesta’s excitement about the concert is palpable. They go off on tangents during our conversation as ideas sprout about logistics, decor, ceremony. Maybe they can get the regular wrestling announcer to welcome the bands to the stage (“Why not a little pomp?”). Maybe two bars will be enough to serve thirsty show-goers (“This is gonna be a big one.”). Maybe they’ll enlist SBAC members to volunteer as bathroom attendants (“It’s an old-school touch.”). Maybe they’ll dust off the club’s disco ball and hang it in the middle of the dance floor (“Oh, definitely.”). It’s all happening, and it’s happening at a most unlikely place: the oft-overlooked, much-loved aging athletic facility in a fun and frustrating old St. Louis neighborhood.
This flurry of activity surrounding the show, this youthful exuberance and future planning, reveals an organization that’s wiped the blood from its face and is back, standing in the ring for another round.