Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Working to Laugh (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)
[Chapter 2: Into the Field, p.33-36]
Along the central avenue running east and west, and cutting through the heart of The District, is Helter Skelter. A self-described punk/rock/sci-fi/horror bar, Helter Skelter is perhaps the most culturally eclectic and unique of all of Collegetown’s nightlife venues. The large building that houses Helter Skelter was once the original location of several independent movie theater venues. The first theater opened in 1907, with just over one thousand seats for predominantly viewing silent films. In 1929, a large fire destroyed this theater. It was eventually restored, exchanged owners, and from 1935 to 1985, the building operated as a movie house under several different names, the last one being the most popular. In the early years following its restoration, the theater was ‘invitation only.’ This designation allowed the theater to deny entry to men and women of color during legalized racial segregation, though by the time the theater closed in 1986 both white and nonwhite residents frequented the venue. Unique to the restoration of the theater in 1935 was the inclusion of a balcony, and the only theater in Collegetown at the time used exclusively for feature-length film viewing. The other three downtown venues at the time featured vaudeville acts and other live, performance arts, though they also showcased feature-length films.
Though it may appear odd that a town with a relatively small population at the time would have three theater venues, the context of this period in American popular culture history indicates otherwise. The pre- and post-World War II eras of U.S. history precluded the era of theatre mega-plexes like the now popular Cinemark and Hollywood Movie chains. In 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, over fifty million people were attending movies each week in the United States, at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.[i] These smaller theaters, then, were necessary to meet the public’s increasing demand for film entertainment.
Helter Skelter first opened in 1997 (under a different name) in a small portion of the old theater’s space, with the rest of the building occupied by a sandwich shop and a vintage video-game trading store. The owner/operator of Helter Skelter is Santino, a New Jersey transplant to Collegetown. A self-described ‘wild kid’ growing up, Santino worked as a pipefitter in New York City in his early adulthood. In the late 1990s, opportunities for work as a union pipefitter in New York City became scarce, and Santino relocated to Collegetown, taking a union job at the major University’s power plant. Having a long-held desire to one day run his own bar and tavern, but with overhead costs too expensive on the East Coast, Santino found Collegetown’s relatively cheap real estate market encouraging. He soon quit his job at the power plant to open his dream adult nightlife hangout.
The original Helter Skelter had a much more sinister sounding name. However, local scrutiny of the establishment was often based on perceptions of the original name, with many locals believing it to be connected to the occult, to criminal activities, and to other less-than desirable subcultures. These perceptions led Santino to eventually change the name of his establishment to its current title. Helter Skelter, according to Santino, was inspired by three themes that had a huge influence on his teenage years and through his early adulthood: horror, science fiction, and rock music. Posters of Star Wars and cult-classic B-movies adorn the walls. Novelty skulls and graphics of flames accompany them. Halloween rubber masks are juxtaposed with metal-rock memorabilia, and, in the early 2000s, there was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader stuck to the bar’s door. In an interview with the local paper shortly after Helter Skelter opened, Santino recounted his inspiration for his establishment’s design:
In my childhood, one of the best ways to relax were horror and sci-fi movies…It was kind of escapism. A fantasy world…What seems strange or grotesque to others seems quite normal to me.
Along the shelves above the booths inside of Helter Skelter are dolls and figurines from popular, American horror films: Chucky from Child’s Play, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise, Pinhead from the Hellraiser series, and Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Along the ceiling, the large HVAC system is painted in the image of a giant squid, and the air ducts extending out from it are painted to resemble large tentacles gripping the ceiling. The wall above the front of the bar is painted in the caricature of a nude female demon, complete with a long tail and a sexually suggestive pose. Near the pool table in the back of the bar hangs a large poster from the Rob Zombie-directed The Devil’s Rejects.
In August of 2001, Santino opened a second venue across the street from Helter Skelter, aptly titled Helter Skelter Live. A concert hall meant to be an extension of its sibling, Santino intended to use Helter Skelter Live to showcase the musical underground of bigger cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. Like Helter Skelter, the rock/sci-fi/horror theme resonated in the room. A life-sized doll of Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire-toothed skull were just some of the venue’s décor. However, in just over a year, Helter Skelter Live closed down. A sprinkler system had gone off during a live show, a symptom of the interior deterioration within the building. With little capital or time to invest in repairs, Santino closed the doors to Helter Skelter Live, and instead turned his complete attention to his original bar and tavern across the street. With a desire to continue with live rock music shows, Santino began to devote his weekends to hosting similar bands to the ones he had been bringing in during the fifteen months his live venue was open. Some of the musical acts that have played live at Helter Skelter include: The Misfits, the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Marky Ramone. Santino proudly boasts that even Sebastian Bach, lead singer of hair-metal band, Skid Row, came in one night just to hang out after playing a concert at another venue in The District.
Currently, Helter Skelter serves a rather eclectic demographic, no doubt influenced by its décor and its weekly rotation of thematic entertainment. Monday nights are ‘Geek Night’, with free pool, darts, and board games offered to customers. Tuesday nights are designated for the amateur comedy show that was the focus of my research. Wednesday night is ‘Trivia Night’, and Thursday night is advertised as Collegetown’s ‘biggest and best karaoke night.’ Comics from Tuesday’s live show often frequent Helter Skelter on Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the bar’s activities. Friday night is themed, ‘Dirty Disco’, a mix of 1970s disco music with punk, horror, and sci-fi themed attire worn by customers. Finally, Saturday night is, with few exceptions, reserved for live musical performances by local, regional, and national acts, fulfilling Santino’s desire to provide Collegetown with a taste of the musical underground of larger, urban nightlife.
Though the eclectic nature of Helter Skelter’s weekly offerings would appear to make it difficult to attract and keep a regular crowd, it actually has the opposite effect. Patrons who frequent Helter Skelter state they do so because it is not like the dozens of other bars and nightlife venues within The District. While many of these other venues attempt to cater to the dominant college-aged demographic – White, heterosexual, upper-middle to upper-class, and of similar mainstream cultural tastes – Helter Skelter makes no such efforts. Specials on mainstream beer products like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are not offered at Helter Skelter, whereas they are prevalent at all of the other nightlife venues in The District. Instead, Pabst and Stag products are offered at similar, or cheaper, price points.[ii] The patrons who frequent Helter Skelter on a given night are highly unlikely to frequent the more mainstream venues of The District, precisely because Helter Skelter’s patrons do not identify with mainstream Collegetown culture.
The typical crowd at Helter Skelter is almost exclusively White, but unlike other venues, many of the patrons at Helter Skelter both talk and perform working-class identities. These identities come through in the style of clothing worn, the topics of conversation, and the affinity for the aforementioned Pabst and Stag beer products over the more common Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products, as a matter of working-class performance. Meaning, drinking a Pabst or Stag communicates to others that Helter Skelter is ‘your kind of place’. In addition, staff at Helter Skelter participate in working-class performativity through their verbal shaming of customers who do order mainstream products, including what staff refer to as ‘girlie drinks.’ Young men, in particular, are quickly made aware that, while in Helter Skelter, they should drink generic beers like Pabst and Stag, or whiskey, either neat or mixed with soda.
[i] For an excellent edited volume on American film history, see The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon. This four-volume set covers the origins of American film through the contemporary period, with essays by a number of cultural historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of popular culture.
[ii] I found it quite funny when it was pointed out to me by a colleague that the ‘daily specials’ advertised on the drinks board behind Helter Skelter’s bar were, in fact, not ‘specials’ at all. They are the normal prices, but are simply rotated on a nightly basis. So, Tuesday Nights were “$5 Whiskey doubles”, but this was actually the normal price throughout the rest of the week.