Wonderland Ballroom Celebrated its 13th birthday last night. In their infinite wisdom, Brightest Young Things thought it would be fun to send Jonny Grave and Nick Karlin to cover the festivities. No one left sober.
It’s a Sunday, about 11 p.m. on 11th St NW. Red Rocks is closed, the Pint is wrapping up, Good Silver seems curiously empty, the staff at Bad Saint is counting their tips, and Chucho looks straight-up bare. Everyone’s at Wonderland.
Underground Comedy (which is curiously held upstairs at Wondee) is done, which means the upstairs crowd has started to trickle downstairs, and spill onto the patio. The scene before me looks like a 21st-Century version of Renoir’s Boating Party. The sodium lights on the streets cast an orange hue over the biergarten tables, the fairly lights over the umbrellas are dancing in the wind, everyone’s lighting up American Spirits, Parliaments, or rolling their own shag. There’s no shortage of drinks out here– everything from massive beer steins to orders of a dozen whiskey shots. Everyone’s talking at the same time. The mushrooms I took are finally kicking in.
Holy fuck, is Karlin still here? It’s 11 p.m. I thought he got here at 7 p.m. Did he not get the shots he needed or something? Oh, good he’s just having a fun time. I can see him switching lenses and turning on the flash while Ian Walters goes into the next tune. Wait, is the whole bar singing along? That’s pretty cool. What’s the tune? D’Angelo? Nice pick, Ian.
Hey, look! It’s Matt and Rose, the owners of this fine mess. Christ, Matt’s drunk. It’s fine– when Matt drinks, he turns into a giant sweetheart, and starts hugging all the customers. He also looses control of his voice’s volume, which I find hilarious, especially when he’s talking to strangers: “HEY! WHO ARE YOU? I’M GLAD YOU’RE IN MY BAR! IT’S OUR ANNIVERSARY, YOU KNOW. YEAH! THIRTEEN YEARS!” It’s like talking to a labradoodle, and I’m okay with this.
Alexander’s still happily at his post, manning the door, checking IDs. He has all the confidence and bravado of a personal trainer, because that’s exactly what he is; I’ve seen this guy working with folks at the Y, getting his clients in touch with muscles they didn’t know they had. He’s demanding, but patient. I like talking to him. He’s the kind of guy who makes you feel like you’re an unexpected but altogether welcome addition to the night. “OOOOH! Hell yeah. Welcome in, man. Good to see you. Just you tonight? Where’s that dog of yours? Get a beer!” He’s great. Just watch your fingers when you go to shake his hand. He’s got a deathgrip, but doesn’t know it.
Midnight, and I’m still upright, still awake, and still mostly mobile. Oh, here’s some good news: the patio’s closing. That means everyone from the biergarten is getting crammed into the downstairs bar. How many bartenders do they have? Just two? No, I don’t see how this could possibly go poorly. Just Cora and Nick. Oof… Hey, who’s dancing with Gwen? Awesome job, Nick. Wait, who’s behind the bar, then? Does anyone have any idea who’s in charge? I’d like a beer, please. Thanks, Cora.
Rose looks gorgeous. She’s talking to a sweet couple at the end of the bar, under the weird overhang by the window. She’s pinned between the bar and the ATM, but doesn’t care; she’s explaining how the bar got its start, and how it turned into the scene it is now. It’s the couple’s first time at Wonderland. I can only imagine their surprise when they first walked in the door. Matt comes over briefly, yells “THIRTEENTH ANNIVERSARY! WHOOHOO!” then passionately kisses Rose, and moves on to the tables down from the bar. Ten seconds later, and he’s dancing with Karlin. I love this bar.
What’s most amazing about this scene is that everyone’s having a fucking ball, and no one’s causing any trouble. The downstairs bar is brimming with people, everyone stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder, like a happy, ridiculous, drunken mosh pit of good feelings. Looking around the room, as someone turns on Van Halen, I’m only seeing smiles.
Bars like this place are a rare thing these days. No, I’m not bemoaning the sickening advance of #NewDC, though my stomach turns whenever I see that hashtag around town. What I mean is that there is a distinct shortage of bars like Wonderland, that have a dedicated band of local regulars, but that also welcome in new folks with the same gregarious nature. Rarer still are the bars that have done this for more than a decade, and remained relevant to the constantly changing tide of the District. Wonderland is for good people.
1 a.m. and someone has just handed me a nugget the size of my thumb, saying, “Go ahead and break this apart, and I’ll get the papers.” Only a moment later, and we’re in a backyard, not far from Wonderland’s doorstep, enjoying the smoke and conversation. None of those present would dare to smoke cannabis on Wonderland property. Sure, Wonderland Ballroom encourages debauchery, but they do try to keep the fun within the boundaries of legality. We’re being respectful, and keeping our distance.
As the smoke rises over our heads, I’m deep in conversation with complete strangers. The talk whips around topics like Harriet Tubman’s literacy, how to turn a potato into a battery, and who the best Green Lantern was (Kyle Rayner, of course). I feel right at home. Wonderland is particularly good at bringing people together. This is something the world needs more of.
I made it home sometime before 2 a.m. Like most visits to Wonderland Ballroom, I don’t fully recall exactly how I got home, but I know I was smiling when I left.
Long live Wonderland.