Arts & Events

The Monkey House: Berkeley's New Underground Nightspot

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Friday June 22, 2012 - 01:33:00 PM

Berkeley's got a hip new nightclub. It's so hip, in fact, that most people don't know where it's located.

It's called The Monkey House and it's the home of Ira Marlowe, a multi-talented singer/composer The Planet once dubbed "the love child of Tom Waits and Tom Lehrer."

As a way of boosting Berkeley's music and art community, he's converted the front section of his live/work storefront on University Ave. into a cozy performance space, a maroon-walled mini-club complete with a small, well-lit elevated stage and several dozen folding chairs (interspersed with the occasional small wooden table). Earlier this month, he sent out word to a small universe of friends that a special club-warming party was to take place on June 9. By 8PM, the place was packed and the joint was jumping. In order to gain admission, you need a password. (The Monkey House follows in the tradition of other subterranean cultural treasures like Strings, another "secret," word-of-mouth performance space that has flourished for years.) The Planet uttered the magic phrase "Chim-chim" and was quickly ushered into the nicely lit band-cave. The walls are appropriately fitted with lamps that bear a monkey-tail insignia and a large stuffed monkey presides over one well-upholstered sofa. The front walls are adorned with a tangy assortment of Monkeyabilia—graphics, artwork, and circus posters. (An easy guess is that this collection will continue to blossom as fans begin bringing their own Monkey art to add to the walls. 

Naturally, a special night calls forth a special crowd. In this case, nearly everyone in the packed room seemed to be a professional performer. Instead of swapping business cards, people were reaching into satchels and purses to exchange their latest CDs. As Marlowe explained to the opening night crowd, the Monkey House is not just a venue for composers and singing guitar-pluckers, it's also a refuge for "storytellers, spoken word artists and magicians." 

The inaugural lineup of guest performers included: Maurice Tani, Vanessa Lowe, Alexis Harte, Robert Temple, David Gans, Clara Bellino, Ari Fellows-Mannion, Joe Rut, Jhene Canody, Tommy Banks, The Secret Identities, spoken-wordmeister Chris Chandler, and Marlowe, himself. 

There was so much talent in the room that night that soloists and duos had to limit themselves to a single song—three performances at a time with five-minute breaks to socialize. Every performance was a highlight. David Gans had the crowd hooting and guffawing to a tune that could well have been called "My Psychoanalytic Blues." ("I've been working on my issues/Got some work to do./ I've come to the conclusion/ That my problem is you.") Joe Rut had the throng convulsed with a song inspired by "the second time I died." (Wherein Rut ascends to the Pearly Gates and has to dicker with a less-than-sympathetic Saint Peter.) 

Under the glow of the stage lights, storyteller Chris Chandler, a slim slip of a man in a porkpie hat, transformed into a ranting dervish-from-Dixie. The embodiment of a slick hick swinging a mean schtick, Chandler dashed about, dishing out a cosmic perspective on the plight of people living on Trailerpark Earth. At one point, he grabbed a stage mike and turned it into a steering wheel for a souped-up car-chase through the Cosmos. 

Bringing things back to earth, Marlowe stepped to the stage to offer a poignant "song to our children." Somewhat in the tradition of Dylan's "Forever Young," Marlowe's touching chorus concluded with a hope and a whispered wish: "I hope you live forever… (for awhile)." 

While the guys largely sang original tunes devoted to kids and death, a bevy of talented women commandeered guitars and fiddles to wail songs (some wistful and some wicked) mostly about cowboys (some boyfriend material; others irredeemable jerks). Alexis Harte offered a sweet ballad of childhood innocence that contained this lingering lyric of reassurance: "It's [just] a temporary tattoo of a candy cigarette." 

Because The Monkey House is located on the street level of a large apartment building, the show had to wind down by 10, out of deference to "the folks who live upstairs." This should not be a major problem since the building manager is a big backer of the nightclub and was among the beaming participants on hand for the Secret Opening Night Gala. 

After the event, The Planet followed one happy partygoer to the door of her apartment. It was a short walk. She happily revealed she is one of those people who "lives upstairs." It was a good omen. 

The first official Monkey House show is set for Saturday, June 23. It's a Comedy Night with coic juggler/mgician Frank Olivier (The Tonight Show, America's Got Talent) comic and cartoonist Michael Capozzola, and host Marlowe himself, sharing a barrelful of his more humorous songs. 

Details on the show are available at: 

To make a reservation, visit There is a sliding scale donation of $10-20, and you'll need to bring your own drinks and snacks. The secret location of the Monkey House is located just three blocks from North Berkeley BART. That's all we can reveal.