Second Life is such a visual medium, it’s interesting to see how the design and architecture of a place influences how we feel and behave there. In the last year a few landmark ballrooms have been remodeled, including Frank’s Jazz, Sweetheart’s, and Phat Cat’s. This piece is a collection of some brief reviews I’ve written about these places and other ballrooms I know fairly well, and how the architecture affects the feel of the place…
I’m not happy with the new Frank’s. The new place looks like a corporatization of the old, a McFrank’s: bigger, brighter, higher ceilings, a layout that looks like it’s optimized for crowd control and efficiency and not to bring people together in intimate encounters. It’s Frank’s redone as a Big Box nightclub and the mood is different. I miss the the nooks and crannies, potted palms where mysterious people lurked. I miss the old outdoor walkway that led from the back bar to the entrance, where you could walk and sulk and look at the sea The old Frank’s was built for people. The new one is built for crowds.
I miss that long walk between the reception desk and the club, where you couldn’t see the dance floor and couldn’t see who was there. It was like a tunnel from the locker room out to the playing field, and the walk gave you a chance to get your game face on and check to see that your zipper was closed and that you’d remembered to wear shoes. And to wonder whether she was there tonight.
The new entrance just spills you out into the crowd with no transition. (I believe the term is “debouches.”) There’s no gradual ascent into elegance that special places have. The outside stairs don’t do it. They help a little, but they’re laggy like the old stairs were, tedious and annoying to climb. Once inside and past the reception desk, you’re immediately confronted by the crowd huddling in for shelter by that massive stairway, looking for some sort of architectural cover. The place is so inhumanly big you imagine the sounds of the crowd and the music bouncing and echoing in that cavernous space like in an abandoned warehouse.
The staircase shelter unbalances the feel of the wallflower area in front of the bar. SInce there’s no architectural attention paid to the ocean side, that part is abandoned and the center of gravity has shifted toward the stairs, which is just the area that newcomers have to negotiate.
But the main problem seems to me to be the dance floor. Barn-like and empty, it no longer has the DJ desk to break up the space, and the lights are too bright, leaving people feeling exposed. It’s not the kind of dance floor that makes you feel comfortable or that lends itself to romance and intimacy. It recalls grammars chool lunchtime dances in the gym.
I pick on Frank’s because Frank’s is so important to SL’s adult community. It’s the social center, the heart, the place to be and be seen, the prime meeting place for men and women seeking each other’s company with some modicum of elegance. It’s not just a sim anymore. It’s an institution, and it’s impossible to think of an SL without it. Countless relationships and affairs got their start those checkered tiles, and still do, but now couples don’t linger as long. You even might wonder if the management’s adopted the eat-it-n-beat-it philosophy of fast food establishments, that make themselves just comfortable enough so you’ll enter and just annoying enough so you won’t want to stay too long.
Frank’s is in no danger of losing clientele because of the redo. But it’s a shame that another comfortable old institution has been updated in the name of crowd control and efficiency.
Frank’s is becoming more, in fact, like Frank’s Elite. When Elite first opened, the exterior architecture promised great things, with domes and pillars and shadowy corridors. But down at the end of that long walk was a giant lavatory, A tile and glass cavern that had much of the charm of a fast-food establishment. The ballroom was cold, empty, and forbidding, with hard, bright surfaces of tile and glass and no place for people to gather and socialize. You couldn’t walk in there without imagining loud echoes and cold spots and feeling the hard tile beneath your shoes, and you were left in that huge space without cover or protection of any kind. It was like being a specimen. People stayed away.
It’s better now. The carpet job is definitely slap-dash but it gives Elite’s an informality quirkiness it sorely needed. There’s still a long way to go. They need to define meet-and-mingle areas and introduce some architectural elements that will encourage people to gather. (The bar’s an afterthought, tucked over against the wall like a daybed during a relative’s visit.) It’s still not very crowded, and while the membership fee is one factor, I think people are waiting till they soften and humanize it. And dim the lights (Candle light would be nice in there. Seriously.)
And then we have Sweetheart’s. Sweetheart’s was always the West Coast alternative to Frank’s East Coast formality and propriety. You didn’t need a tie at Sweetheart’s, or much of anything else, and the bright So Cal light was part of its funky charm. You could wear your shades to Sweetheart’s and no one would think you were trying too hard to be cool. That big yacht anchored off the dance floor set the tone: laid back, funky, informal, friendly.
The yacht followed Sweetheart’s when the new owners took over, but only for a while. The writing was on the wall, and on those intrusive pillars and new seeping staircases. The goal was clear, to out-Frank Frank at his own game. But with the bad tastes of the nouveau riche, they started fill the place with excessive and unnecessary ornament.: staircases, pillars, balustrades, and an entrance way worthy of a Pharaoh with bad taste. Goodbye California. Hello Hollywood!
The meet-and-mingle area at Sweetheart’s is actually very good, with lots of shadowy nooks and potted plants to soft the interior, but placing it in what’s basically a pit between the overbearing entrance and the elevated greeter station and visually inaccessible dance floor gives you a kind of degraded feeling. You feel like you’ve been consigned to the cheap seats or some orchestra pit in hell, and that you’re not quite good enough for the overly bright dance floor, and not agile enough to ascent the difficult stairs that lead to the exit. You have the feeling that you’re going to have gum wrappers and cigarette butts sticking to your shoes if you move, and the floor looks like they don’t mop it enough.
Putting your greeters above your patrons is always a bad idea because it gives the impression that they’re there to supervise. I cringe whenever they greet me at SH’s because I feel like a prison searchlight is going to pick me out and sirens will start to wail. You get the feeling that someone on the balcony will start tossing coins or maybe even gobbets of flesh to the milling crowd, and that the host and hostess are there to distract you while men with long poles herd you around.
But I like Sweetheart’s for all that. I just wish they’d go back to being an alternative to Frank’s and not a copy.
Intimate Romance Gardens
When I need to flee the maddening lag at Frank’s now, I tend to go to Intimate Romance Gardens, a kind of kitschy but endearing sim that captures some of the feel of the old California Sweetheart’s, but with the feel of a hyperactive, overly-romantic landscaper gone wild. It’s not really fair to cover Intimate Romance Gardens in an architecture review because IRG isn’t a ballroom so much as a seaside park with a decidedly Floridian feel, with palm trees and waterfalls and people dancing everywhere: under the falls and in the tiki bar and on the little dance floor and under the palms–on them too, for all I know.
The place is unremittingly romantic, the the point of self-parody and kitsch If it has to do with love and romance, you’ll probably find it here somewhere. They even have a romantic volcano glowing romantically in the distance, and the waterfalls don;t really flow as much as they kind of ejaculate.
This is a very informal and come-as-you-are place, but you don’t feel out of place in a tux. You feel rather James Bondish. Crowds are actually pretty sparse, which means the platforms set up against the falls are almost always free and you can have one for you and your partner all for yourself. The waterfalls are kitsch itself, but so earnest and well-meaning that they eventually get to you.
Intimate Romance Gardens also has the most extensive and exhaustive dance menu I’ve ever seen in SL, which is another reason to go. But be careful, because the dance menu is what puts the Intimate in Intimate Romance Gardens. Along with the usual dances are some lovely but graphic sex scenes. And since the dance balls start up where the last couple left them before running home to jump in the sack, that first dance might be a little awkward. And try to explain to your date that it wasn’t intentional..
This is a place that looks much better at midnight than it does in the glare of day, and the first thing you might want to do is set your lighting to night. A lot of people prefer sunset, but midnight highlights that seething glowing volcano.
Phat Cat’s used to be the third stop on my standard club-crawl, but then things went horribly wrong. They seem to have put all their attention into expanding their mall, and at one point Phat Cat’s looked like a cock fighting pit, and then it turned into this massively intimidating rollerdrome that was actually frightening. I don’t know what happened, but thankfully they’ve gone back to their original design. But the damage was done and the crowds are just now trickling back.
Phat Cat’s was the first club I ever visited in SL and the first place I saw avatars dance. At first I was struck by its kitschy grandeur, with roses and ribbons entwining the enormous columns that separate the dance floor from the sitting areas. But as with Intimate Romance Gardens, that sentimentality works on you, and I came to love the place in a personal way, in a way I could never love Frank’s or Sweetheart’s. I identified with it. I’m glad to have it back.
The people who come here are either with someone, or have struck out at Frank’s or SH’s, so Phar Cat’s has a kind of sweet sadness and world-weariness to it. At least, that’s the way it feels to me. It’s the kind of place that Sinatra would drink at. Phat Cat’s is also the only ballroom I know of that has food and table seating around the dance floor. There’s something elegant about taking your date back to a booth and plying her with drinks as you watch the dancers, and Phat Cat’s has a certain kind of drama (in the good sense.) Mafia dons would no doubt meet here, their body guards lurking behind the pillars; secret love affairs would happen here, and spies would exchange secrets. All they need is a cigarette girl wandering among the tables
Phat Cat’s keeps the lights low and their carpeted dance floor is dim and intimate and humanely sized but still roomy. It’s a very romantic place. It’s certainly the most romantic the major ballrooms I’ve described and I hope it prospers.
The New York Ballroom
The New York Ballroom isn’t really a ballroom in the grand sense. It’s a small club with a big bar and mingle area and a very retro feel that calls up the salad days of New York elegance and sophistication. It’s simply a beautiful place to be in, a meticulous build, with lots of polished wood and reflective floors, period furnishings and big picture windows overlooking a vintage New York skyline. The lighting’s subdued, and the mirror polish on the floor produces some beautifully done reflections like the surface of a pond that give you the illusion of floating. The music is from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. years when there was such a thing as class and elegance. No waterfalls here, just cascades of lights that glow warmly without spoiling the intimacy Here the romance isn’t kitschy in the least.
The dance floor is down a room wide flight of stairs but has none of that pit-of-despair feeling you get at SH’s. The stairs even add to the charm. You can imagine Fred Astaire tapping down them in white tie and tails. This is a place for the intelligentsia and sophisticated.
And don’t forget to get a drink from the bar, which gives of clouds of smoke as it’s mixed and green fumes when you drink it. It’s the house special.
The New York Ballroom is really one of the classiest SL builds still around. You really should see it.