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Vino's party to mark 25 years

by Sean Clancy | November 24, 2015 at 2:11 a.m.
Vino’s celebrates its 25th anniversary with a show on Saturday.

It has been 25 years since Vino's opened its doors, offering some of the best pizza and calzones found in these latitudes at the front of the building on the corner of Seventh and Chester in downtown Little Rock. And, just as famously, Vino's back room has been the site of countless concerts, plays and film screenings.

The tiny stage at the back of the long, narrow venue has seen the likes of national acts like Green Day, Fugazi, Lungfish, Flogging Molly, Type O Negative, Corey Glover, Built to Spill, Jawbreaker and many others whip crowds into a frenzy. Just as importantly, the club has been a haven for local bands to play original music at all-ages shows for the past quarter century.

Vino’s 25th Anniversary Show

Bonnie Montgomery, Go Fast, Ebo and the Tomcats, Big Boss Line, Lollygadget

7 p.m. Saturday, 923 W. Seventh Street, Little Rock

Admission: $5

(501) 375-8466

Vino's will celebrate its silver anniversary with a Saturday night show featuring Bonnie Montgomery, Go Fast, Ebo and the Tomcats, Big Boss Line and Lollygadget.

"There were no other places with original music for people under 21," says local musician and Vino's booking agent Christopher Terry about the club's early days and Little Rock's music landscape. "They had a regular show called Fresh Blood. If you had a band and original music, they would book you. There would be all these local bands and the cover charge was just $5."

Vino's owner Henry Lee chuckles when asked about the secret of staying in business for 25 years.

"It's just hard work and putting out a product that is consistently good and doing the best you can," he said from Baton Rouge, where he was about to watch Louisiana State University play the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Lee, 56, grew up in nearby Morgan City, La., and was working in investments when he moved to Little Rock in 1989 to be closer to some of his clients. By 1990, he and partners Allen Vennes and Bill Parodi decided to open their own pizza joint.

"We wanted a place where we could get good pizza and good beer," Lee says. And no, he'd never worked in a restaurant before, but he and his partners got advice and recipes from friends who ran the Fellini's pizza chain in Atlanta.

The trio settled on the building at 923 W. Seventh that was built in 1909. The building's well-worn character still plays a natural role in the relaxed vibe of the restaurant.

"People thought we were crazy for wanting to be downtown, but we liked the building. It felt like a good place and it felt comfortable," Lee says.

The front of the building was vacant at first, but the concert hall in the back had been hosting punk rock and new wave shows for a while under names Mandrake's, The Zone, Nemesis and DMZ.

"We kept the music going while we were doing construction on the restaurant just so we could generate some capital," Lee says. Vino's grand opening was held Sept. 19, 1990.

Vennes and Parodi left the restaurant/club in the early '90s. "They realized it wasn't what they wanted to do," Lee says. His current partner is Dan Brown.

Lee got the jump on the current craft beer craze and started brewing his own beer in 1991 with his friend Mark Crossley, who died in 2011.

1n 1993, he bought the neighboring building, expanding the size of the restaurant.

All the while, there were shows, plays and film screenings in the back room.

"The early days here were cool," says soundman Marcus Lowe, who was playing and attending shows at the club back in the DMZ/Mandrake's days.

Vino's continued to act as a breeding ground for central Arkansas' nascent punk rock scene. "We didn't have anything to go by," Lowe says. "There was no Internet. We didn't know the rules. Everybody sounded different, even though we were in the punk scene. If you had a three-band bill, it was really diverse."

Terry said he even remembers seeing local punk heroes Trusty share a bill with influential central Arkansas Christian death metal legends Living Sacrifice.

Wearing a Pallbearer shirt and speaking at the bar in the back room on a Saturday afternoon before doing sound for a hard-core show that night, Lowe, 41, says that though shows at the club tapered off recently, things are picking up with not just metal, punk and hard-core, but rap gigs as well.

"There's a local hip-hop group, Young Gods of America, they do shows here and they are pretty packed. It seems like we're in an upswing now ... last night, we had nine bands, all hard-core and metal and there was a great crowd."

Asked about some of his favorite shows over the years, Lee, who is quick to credit general manager Chris New and his staff for the restaurant's longevity, mentions a show with former Living Colour front man Corey Glover, and there was another gig with Arkansas rockabilly pioneer Billy Lee Riley he remembers fondly.

"The first Green Day show really blew me away," he adds. "I never expected anything like that."

As for Saturday night's show, most of the bands on the bill were playing there in Vino's infancy.

"We want to make it casual," Terry says. "It's not so much a show, but a party and we want everyone to come hang out and have some fun."

Style on 11/24/2015

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