Stepping in from the Telegraph Avenue sidewalk into the dark confines of Oakland dive Thee Stork Club is like traveling through a time warp. Wood-paneled walls are dotted with velvet black lighting paintings, rising up from a floor covered in swirling, patterned casino-style carpeting; a faux rock facade found in dated California grottos surround the bar area, while an infinity mirror installation includes exposed, warm-hued lightbulbs reminiscent of an old episode of Solid Gold.
These aesthetic updates are just part of the changes made to Thee Stork Club, beyond the added “e” to the name. The bar and live music venue has long been home to the local rock scene, existing for decades as a space for musicians in Oakland and beyond. But this renovation has not rendered the space unrecognizable; instead, the venue update feels familiar for co-owners Marc Ribak and Billy Joe Agan, who both frequented the space in the ‘90s and aughts. In early 2021, when the two found out the music venue had closed with no plans to be rehabilitated or demolished, they decided to approach the previous owners about taking over the space. Agan, who co-owns Oakland dive bar Eli’s Mile High Club, was in the midst of the forced closures (and periodic reopenings) during the pandemic, while the music scene that Ribak worked in as head of Oakland’s Total Trash Productions had halted live shows. “With the events and bar business, basically they said, ‘You can’t work right now.’ So we needed something to do,” Ribak says.
But the space wasn’t just a project; it was also a chance to help revitalize the local music scene. Agan has booked and attended shows at the Stork Club, while Ribak performed there back in the ‘90s as part of the band Rock n Roll Adventure Kids and has thrown Total Trash Fest (a night of punk music) at the venue. “We were seeing our local music scene dissolve during the pandemic: People were leaving in the music scene, places were closing, Eli’s was hanging on by the grace of our savings,” Agan says. “It’s good that other stuff’s coming back, but you need places like this.”
Once the property was secured, it was up to Agan and Ribak to bring the space back to life. With a roster of artist friends and family to help, the vision of the new Stork Club fell into place. “Since we started the process early on, Marc and I agreed that the place should really be unique,” Agan says. “It should reflect an aesthetic that is in line with not only Mosswood Meltdown, the festival that Marc throws, but also sort of generally that kind of garage rock, DIY music scene we both came from, with a blend of Madonna Inn. It’s inspired by the sort of universe and genre of movies that we grew up really infatuated with.”
That camp influence is perhaps most in-your-face in the back room, which is painted all red — the floor, ceiling, booths, and light fixtures. Ribak and wife Amy Carver counted friend and director John Waters, known for his camp sensibilities, as an influence on the club, as well as the 1960s and 1970s horror films by directors Herschell Gordon Lewis and Kenneth Anger. But it also channels that 1960s vibe the bar is chasing. At its center is a detailed doll house refurbished by artist Ali Rose, and fitted with miniatures of Elvira, John Waters, and monsters that one could stare at for hours. “Red rooms were a thing in the ‘60s, so we thought this would be kind of a corny, tacky, gaudy red room vibe in here,” Agan says. “The bar inside is more of a California dive bar modality, that kind of ‘70s returned-to-nature aesthetic, fake plants and grotto vibe.”
Meanwhile, the music venue has been updated with dramatic red velvet stage curtains — made to “look like the setup of a crazy horror movie,” Ribak says — and an atrium featuring a gold disco ball and blinking marquee lights, befitting its retro surroundings. The atrium is a feature Ribak and Agan suspect past owners didn’t know about, through its years as a Chinese buffet restuarant, an Italian restaurant, and then, later, the (previous) Stork Club. But it’s a fitting update to glam up the spot for performances, as Ribak starts booking bands for the club. The Mummies will be headlining three shows to kick off the grand opening weekend on October 7 — with John Waters slated to host the first night — and Ribak is looking to continue with the style of music Mosswood Meltdown festival is known for, bringing bands like The Linda Lindas together with Bikini Kill. “I like music that people can dance to or move around to, music with a beat — it’s generally rock and roll kind of punk music, or stuff that draws from the ‘60s,” Ribak says.
As far as the food side of things, despite a full kitchen being at their disposal, the group is still mulling over whether to use it; meanwhile, Agan says they’re planning some pop-ups or potentially allowing outside food to be brought in. For the drinks side of the equation, Agan is showing off his bartending chops but in a playful way. He’s created a menu that’s full of throwback cocktails: appletinis, lemon drops, and fish bowls filled with blue Curacao and Swedish fish all feature on the list. He’s also making Harvey Wallbangers — brandishing a comically-sized bottle of Galliano to boot — and combined with the polished brass railing of the bar, it does make guests feel like they’ve stepped back in time.
“We’re not trying to take it seriously at all, that’s kind of the mode here,” Agan says. “We’re not really trying to win awards or anything — we really do just want to have fun.”
Thee Stork Club (2330 Telegraph Avenue) debuts Friday, October 7 and will be open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.