ManRay’s last chance: Nightclub owner seeks six months for lease or license sale

By Marc Levy Cambridge Day
March 19, 2014

This may be Don Holland’s last chance to revive the legendary Central Square nightclub ManRay – or that last chance may already be gone.

The License Commission teetered Tuesday on whether to take away immediately the restaurant and alcohol license Holland has clung to since the club was forced to close in July 2005, after his landlord decided to build condos on the 21 Brookline St. site. The club had been open since 1985, providing a stage for breaking bands such as Nirvana and Peter Murphy and a clubhouse to a variety of regional subcultures, including the LGBT scene and some that were then even more exotic: goth, fetish and BDSM.

“This is a family and a man that has really tried to make a difference in this city and serve the public. He had a clientele that he served where the levels of tolerance and acceptance that exist today in the entertainment world didn’t exist in the 1980s. That was groundbreaking, and he has support from all over Boston for what he achieved. And he’d like one last opportunity,” said attorney James Rafferty, noting that the business founded by Holland and run by his brother, Hi-Fi Pizza, was just thrown out by its landlord after more than 45 years in Central Square. “This would be a double hit.”

Holland reminded the three-member commission that, despite the raucous and racy reputation of his late-night club, it was a “good, tight ship” that avoided violence and altercations and never needed a police detail.

“I’ve been in Cambridge and Central Square since I was 18 years old. I love Cambridge,” Holland said.

And citizen Peter Valentine, an eccentric in colorful, handmade clothing, concluded rambling remarks by calling ManRay “a sacred institution [that] will find its special location in our genius city where it belongs” – if the commission kept letting Holland look.

“I see no difference”

None of this was especially relevant to the commissioners, though. Chairwoman Andrea Spears Jackson arrived particularly prepared for ManRay matters despite having started on the commission in December. She told Rafferty and Holland she had read every meeting minute concerning the nightclub since it closed eight years ago, and when the attorney offered his initial argument for giving Holland an extension on his license, she rattled off the date and duration for each he’d been given, starting with a six-month extension in September 2005.

“So here we are now in March 2014, and I see no difference from where we were before,” Jackson said.

The difference is that after a list roughly as long as Jackson’s of attempts to find a new home in Central Square, Holland had acted in good faith to move into the square’s former Blockbuster at 541 Massachusetts Ave., Rafferty said.

“He has come as close as he ever came with this location on Mass. Ave., and spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal and engineering and architectural fees trying to make that location work, and he’s here tonight asking for just a little more time,” Rafferty said. “It may sound like a broken record – you have accurately recounted the history – but I want to emphasize, this has not been a case of a licensee who has simply been indifferent or passive about finding a location.”

Part of the problem has been Holland’s devotion to Central Square, where Rafferty said his client has been frustrated to bid for sites and see them leased instead to other tenants. At the Blockbuster, he said the problem was landlord 3MJ Realty’s insistence on a one-year demolition clause that could force Holland to walk away from hundreds of thousands of dollars spent turning a hollowed-out video store into a nightclub and restaurant with a stage, sound system and full kitchen. As of a conversation Rafferty reported having with the landlord Tuesday morning, there is another tenant better able to handle a demolition clause – making the site unlikely for ManRay.

On Monday, Holland said, he’d talked with the owner of the massive Metropolitan Moving & Storage building at Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street – which, while outside Central Square, has 12,000 square feet available immediately. That’s nearly the size of the original club.

DJ Chris Ewen, who took his skills down Brookline Street to T.T. the Bear’s Place when ManRay closed and started the “Heroes” dance night, organized a reunion in February 2013. It sold out Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, and he’s planning another one for April.

“ManRay is a going concern,” Ewen said Wednesday.
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A final extension

Still, commissioners said, nothing here seemed much different from any of Holland’s previous extension or revocation hearings.

Rafferty pleaded for a six-month extension that would be different, though: It would see the year end with either the license being applied or sold, since over the years Holland had been responsible in paying for its renewal, a total now at $35,000. “He’s never offered the license for sale because that’s never been his interest. As this has gone on, I’ve counseled him, ‘Maybe you should just sell the license, because after all we can’t find a location and the rents have gone crazy,’ and he’s steadfastly refused. He’s determined, and he loves this business. This is his life,” Rafferty said. “I’m asking that that a few months be given to see if he can recover something, either by way of a sale or a transfer – one last effort to capture some return on his lifetime investment in Central Square.”

He described it as a narrow window in which Holland could produce a lease or letter of intent, if not an outright sale.

“If he loses the license tonight, he walks away with nothing,” Rafferty said.

“I don’t want to see him take a financial loss, [but] this can’t go on indefinitely. This is not anything to do with the establishment he ran or if he a dedicated individual. That’s not the issue. The issue is, at some point it’s over,” said commission member and Fire Chief Gerald Reardon. “When do we pull the trigger?”

“Dec. 31,” Rafferty said. “Or was that rhetorical?”

The commissioners members took the matter under advisement until a March 27 decision-making hearing.

If the year and hoped-for extension ended and the commission had to move to revoke the license, Rafferty said “on the record” that he and Holland would waive any defense, essentially letting hopes for a new ManRay disappear forever.

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