The Uptown Is On Its Way Up Again 

Rock club to be reborn under new owners

Bob Fratti was all a-tizzy when he and long-time pal Kevin Burns opened the Uptown nightclub in October 2005. It was supposed to be the new flagship for rock 'n' roll in Oakland, a 300-capacity venue smack in the middle of an area on the brink of some magical transformation, with storefront galleries and boutiques paving the way for high-rise apartment buildings and the newly resurrected Fox Theater. And the building had potential, Fratti insisted, rattling off its bullet-point list of amenities: an ornate, mahogany bar culled from the Old Spaghetti Factory, acoustics designed by the former sound consultant for Yoshi's, a smokers' patio, and even a backstage antechamber that he'd hoped to transform into "the Green Room."

Within a few months, it was pretty clear that the Uptown was going to flop, leaving one of downtown Oakland's most desirable pieces of real estate available for the highest bidder.

Programming was partly to blame. Despite Fratti's lip service to rock 'n' roll — emblematized in the glitzy, guitar-shaped "Uptown" sign affixed to the club's facade — he tried to give the place a pretty diverse calendar, which included several abortive open mic and DJ nights, plus a house blues band on Mondays. The Uptown's lack of focus irritated some of its more promising promoters, said Amanda Hines, who launched her underground metal showcase Lava Nights at Fratti's club in June 2006. "They held tight on keeping Mondays blues, Tuesdays open mic, Wednesdays jazz," Hines explained. "They wanted me to step outside my boundaries. ... I didn't sign up for that. I ended up quitting."

Still, Hines and other observers say the real reason Uptown folded was that the two owners had a falling out early on. For most of the time they ran the business together, they wouldn't have anything to do with each other. (Neither of them would comment for this story.)

"They literally didn't speak to each other for a year," Hines said, adding that she maintained a good working relationship with Fratti throughout her tenure at the club. Burns was a different story. "Kevin's a nightmare," she said. "If there was a hard rock show he'd throw on the Beatles. He wouldn't budge. You couldn't get him to change it. There was a High on Fire show and he put Van Morrison on. ... It was killing me."

Within a week of Hines' decision to quit, Fratti sent her an e-mail announcing his plan to sell the club. "I'd had it, I was over it, I didn't need to be there anymore," she said. "That day they said, 'We're selling, you might as well hang in there.' So I sent out a mass e-mail to everyone I knew who could run a club."

Hines isn't exactly sure how Blank Club co-owner and Zero Magazine founder Larry Trujillo came to the table, but he and two partners, Ray Yeh and Robbin Green-Yeh, eventually clinched the deal. They beat out three or four interested parties.

Los Angeles-born Trujillo, the current public face of the Uptown, boasts 24 years in the nightclub business — mostly in San Jose. At age 20 he launched an underground punk night called Club X, and the following year he rented the San Jose Convention Center to put on a huge punk show with 45 Grave, Executioner, and the Stiffs. "I lost my ass," he recalled. "For me, taking a loss of $3,000 meant my rent — it meant everything." But he came back in 1986 and rented the Center again, this time for a moderately successful show featuring Social Distortion. He'd fund these punk-rock gala events by throwing roller-rink dance parties with low overhead and high paper returns. He opened the 300-capacity Blank Club in 2003 with partners Corey O'Brian and Craig Yamato, and now books A-list rock acts on a regular basis. "Last week we had Dick Dale on one night, the Birthday Massacre on the next night, and Social Unrest the Night after that, then Jimmy Eat World a few nights later," Trujillo said in a September phone interview. "We hit the ground running."

Trujillo has similar designs for the Uptown, which he envisions as an East Bay counterpart to Slim's or the Independent. "We're gonna give something to Oakland that's currently not available on this scale," he assured. "People are tired of crossing the bridge. We want to provide a place where people could see a band like the Donnas or the Lovemakers on their own turf."

Trujillo has so much faith in the new project that he recently relocated from San Jose to Oakland's Lake Merritt district. He's remarkably sanguine about the challenges posed by the Fox Theater, a possible shortage of parking spaces, and the paucity of restaurants in that part of Oakland. In fact, he thinks the Uptown and the Fox will complement each other. "In San Jose we've got the HP Pavilion across from my other club," Trujillo said. "Whenever there's an event there we try to do something that coincides — like when they had Depeche Mode play there, we had the Depeche Mode after-party. Likewise, we have Stork Club down the street. A lot of times when there's clubs of different sizes next to each other, it's a trickle-down effect."

At present, the new owners are busy renovating the Uptown. For now, they'll keep the opulent Spaghetti Factory bar and the dorky sign — mostly because it's too expensive to move, said Ray Yeh. Obviously, the name stays, too. "We agonized about the name," Yeh admitted. "We didn't want the public to think, 'Oh, it's the same Uptown, whatever.' But the name has so much historical value to it. That area itself is the general plan of the whole new Uptown district. So we decided to stick with that name. I think it's important."

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