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25 years later, the Castle stands alone as Ybor's goth mecca

It has been said every night is Halloween at The Castle. So, it was a fitting story for their website that the nightclub began its journey to becoming a Tampa icon during Guavaween — Ybor City's now-defunct Halloween celebration.

Turns out, it wasn't true. But the Castle, the multi-story, gothic nightclub where it's not uncommon to see someone on the dance floor in a Batman cape, a leather corset or a Peter Pan costume — or really anything you can think of — is nothing if not theatrical. And it did actually turn 25 this year, which the club is celebrating with a party this weekend.

It was actually late summer of 1992 when Alan Kahana opened a new bar downstairs in the historic Cooperative El Primero Progresso, or "Labor Temple," built in 1930 as a place for Ybor City's cigar and restaurant workers to organize. The building's strange architecture, including a tall castle-like battlement, made the name easy. Finding the right vibe indoors took longer.

The Dungeon, a popular space for parties within the Castle that's now decked out in skulls, metal chains and moody red lighting, was still the offices of a cigar workers union in those early days. The massive Centro Ybor entertainment complex was years away, and Ybor City's Ninth Avenue was not a destination. Across from the Castle was a dirt lot where people parked.

"Those days you didn't leave Seventh Avenue; maybe for a slice of pizza," remembers John Landsman, who helped manage the club in the '90s and 2000s and has maintained close ties. "The bar that was there before the Castle opened was called the Spanish Garden Tavern. It held a record for most consecutive months with a shooting, or years with a murder; it was something like that. So we were trying to bring new attention to Ninth Avenue. It was like the edge of the world."

Kahana opened the place as a saloon where people would drink scotches and specialty martinis. There was no DJ, just a jukebox.

Early on, Landsman threw a rave in the upstairs space that was then used for union workers' birthday and retirement parties.

Kahana eventually purchased the whole building and began remodeling that upstairs space. It was covered in ugly wood paneling and had a ceiling riddled with bullet holes. Today it houses the club's main dance floor.

They tried acid jazz nights and a live DJ downtairs. They tried swing dancing nights and house music and gay dance nights upstairs. There were beer events. They tried live bands. Nothing really stuck, but the place had a look. Downstairs was entirely candlelit back then, and Kahana installed the "moat bar," the little river that still circulates through the surface where people set their drinks.

Then they caught wind that nearby club Masquerade (now the Ritz Ybor) would sometimes cater to the goth scene, but only for a couple hours early in the evening. And they heard about a weekly party at a Bennigan's in St. Petersburg, where goth nights were bringing in a fully dressed-up crowd of around 100 devoted regulars who had nowhere else to go.

"We thought, 'What if we give them a Friday?," Landsman said. "They'll go nuts."

They were right. Goth night at the Castle was a hit, bringing in hundreds of people that first night, and so many thousands more over the next two decades. The Castle became known as one of the premiere dance clubs for goth and industrial music on earth.

It has outlasted all the old nightspots of '90s Ybor. DNA and Tracks were gone long ago. Fuma Bella bar, which Kahana also owned, and New World Brewery down the street hung on much longer, but both closed earlier this year.

Part of that longevity comes from a fiercely loyal following that calls itself family, but the club still draws a new, younger crowd to its various parties — '80s nights, Star Wars nights, cosplay events, steampunk and vampire balls.

"As long as I'm alive, it will be there," Kahana said. "Sure, I'll say it. I think it will be there another 25 years."

People from all walks of life show up in formal wear, costumes, lingerie, T-shirts and jeans to dance to DJ Tom Gold, a pioneer of the Florida scene. He's pretty sure his two decades as a resident DJ at the same club is some kind of record.

Marci Richter, who along with Christopher Spires is half of the photography team Drunk Camera Guy, says taking photos there for the past decade has been more like "shooting a living art gallery" than a nightclub.

The place has long been known as a sanctuary of "utter acceptance," where people feel free to experiment with their appearance, express their views, and feel comfortable no matter what, said Meagan Prime, 33, who has been going out there for more than 10 years. That reputation as a safe place is what made a recent controversy over a go-go dancer there who'd worn Nazi regalia so surprising. That incident turned out to be mostly overblown, but in the interest of preserving the club as a place for everyone, management reiterated a zero tolerance policy for hateful symbols or actions.

"That's the appeal of the Castle," Prime said. "You either get along, or you move along. If you accidentally bump into someone at the Castle, both parties immediately apologize and make sure no drinks were spilled. There's not a level of aggression there like I've seen at other clubs."

Manager Robert Soutullo, who has often worked the front door over the years, said there's a reason. The only rules upon entry have always been, don't break any actual laws, and "be respectful."

Here are a few more reasons the place is a Tampa icon.

Serious life events happen there

Mea Prime thought she was there to celebrate her 30th birthday with some friends who'd agreed to her request to dress up as the X-Men. She was Rogue, her boyfriend, Spyder Prime, was Gambit. He told her they were going to battle some Marvel villains on the dance floor. Someone yelled, "The X-Men, we gotta fight!" Spyder turned to her and said, "the only way we can defeat them is together," then dropped to a knee and proposed. It wasn't the first engagement on the club's dance floor. There have been a few weddings, too, as well as a few memorial services.

People want to stay forever

One day Landsman spotted an older couple peeking in, and flinging something near the foyer. He asked if they needed help, or perhaps wanted a tour, and they sheepishly admitted that their daughter had asked that they scatter some of her ashes there at the Castle. "The parents thought if we knew what they were doing, we wouldn't let them complete the task," Landsman said. "Instead we let them go upstairs and scatter some more on the dance floor. That seemed to be a better place to hang out forever than the foyer."

The bartenders never retire

The service industry normally has a very high turnover rate. At the Castle, "the joke is that to get a job as a bartender, someone has to die," Kahana said. There are a number of bartenders who have been working there more than a decade, and a handful who have been there more than 20 years, including Rob Ballesteros, left, Tia Doran and Tina Brodeur. Soutullo and another manager, Sheri Shuttleworth, have been there since the beginning as well.

People know it in other countries

When Castle regular John Allman traveled the U.S. he'd seek out the alternative club in whatever city he was in. "No matter where I went, California, North Carolina, people knew the Castle. I was in a club in Arizona and someone told me going to the Castle was on their bucket list." Landsman can remember arriving at a nightclub in Greece with a large group of friends. The management heard he worked at the Castle, and let the group in free. "My friends were like, 'You're the only one who could travel across the world, and still get us into a club for free'."

They have their own Senator

The Castle has had many well-known patrons over the years. There was Peter Pan, who must have posed for thousands of photos in his green costume, and Batman, who'd stoically watch over the dance floor in a movie-quality batsuit before riding into the night on a motorcycle. But nobody is better known than "the Senator," right, a guy named Mike who has been showing up wearing lingerie since the early days. "Everyone wants their picture with the Senator. He has his own Facebook page," Landsman said. The club has even celebrated the Senator's birthday as an official event. Why the name? "We used to see him come in wearing regular clothes with his duffel bag every night, and he'd change into a teddy. I was joking with some employees about how he looked like a guy who must have been really repressed during the day, like someone with a very normal, serious job — like a senator." It stuck.

It has appeared on TV and in movies

A Slim Jim ad starring wrestler the Edge, a segment for Conan O'Brien featuring a fake Chris Christie with a stripper and numerous music videos and other commercials were shot there, as was the horror film Parasitic. In the 2000s, a production company shot a pilot for a reality TV series based on the club. Regulars will tell you the recurring "Goth Talk" sketch from Saturday Night Live was a reference to the Castle, and there may be something to that. Chris Kattan created the idea, but SNL writer Dennis McNicholas, who had lived in Tampa and had seen the goth scene, was the reason the sketch was set in Tampa.

Celebrities get treated like everyone else

Entertainers and musicians have stopped in often over the years. Landsman remembers a strange night when Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins was sitting at the bar across from a group of local politicians. Steve Guttenberg sticks out in Soutullo's mind. Kahana remembers that Cedric the Entertainer was annoyed when he wasn't allowed to skip the line, as was Bubba the Love Sponge, who he says called him the next day to complain. "You're just another person when you come here," Kahana said.

The Castle 25th Anniversary Party

With Special Guest DJ Danny Bled, DJ Tom Gold, DJ Mark Paradise, DJ Sean (Patio), VJ Jason Barco (Dungeon). Doors open at 10:30 p.m., Nov. 18 at The Castle, 2994 N. 16th St., Tampa. (813) 247-7547.

25 years later, the Castle stands alone as Ybor's goth mecca 11/14/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 12:22pm]
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