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PROFILE: Ramona Downey

She knows how to book 'em
Enthusiasm helps club prosper

Neva Chonin, Chronicle Pop Music Critic

Tuesday, September 11, 2001



Bottom of the Hill booker Ramona Downey is in her office above the lower Potrero Hill nightclub, examining her wrist, which is patched together with metal pins artfully concealed beneath a chain wristband. She broke it while skateboarding the half-pipe in her West Oakland warehouse home.


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"My doctors said, 'You were doing what? How old are you?' " Downey recalls, laughing. For the record, Downey is 51, and has two adult kids, Billy Schaaf, 31, and Max Schaaf, 29, a pro skater whose own warehouse is across the street from his mother's.

Pity the poor half-pipe. Sleek and tough in black jeans and combat boots, Downey is as resilient as the club she's booked for the past 10 years. When the neighborhood bar on the decidedly unhip corner of 17th and Missouri streets was first transformed into a live music club in 1991, most observers thought its days could be numbered on their fingers.

Then came the Beastie Boys. And Marilyn Manson. And Alanis Morissette. Within five years, Bottom of the Hill, capacity 350, was on the national map as a venue where stars could grab a little indie credibility -- and local acts could get much-needed exposure by sharing bills with them.

That's always been the mission of Downey and her co-owners, Kathleen Owen and Tim Benetti. And that's why Bottom of the Hill (BOTH), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a string of special shows, has flourished at a time when high rents and noise-abatement laws have smothered other live clubs.

Downey, who began booking BOTH in 1991 and became a co-owner in 1995, always believed in the isolated lower Potrero Hill club's potential and was excited by its willingness to accept an eclectic assortment of music, from alternative rock, rockabilly and punk to folk, lounge and hip-hop. Not everyone shared her enthusiasm.

"I asked other people working in bars around town if they thought we had a chance," she recalls. "They told me the club was too far away from everything and we were doomed. 'But we have free parking,' I said. They just laughed."

Downey credits Slim's nightclub booker Dawn Holliday with giving BOTH its first break in 1992 when Holliday referred the popular indie band Sebadoh to the nascent venue. Word of the club's artist-friendly atmosphere spread, and other high-profile acts began to arrive, beginning with Marilyn Manson in 1994 and a double bill of Korn and the Deftones in 1995. The Beastie Boys (touring as a hardcore band called Quasar) played in 1996, and other acts followed, including the Manic Street Preachers, Kid Rock, Morissette, Oasis, Pavement, Elliott Smith and, most recently, Sleater-Kinney, the White Stripes and the Strokes. Green Day filmed its "Live at the 10-Spot" program for MTV at BOTH.

But it's not just the ability to draw big names that has made BOTH so prosperous. Jordan Kurland, who manages Creeper Lagoon and Beulah, thinks much of its success comes from Downey's "attention to local acts."

"She's found a way to run a club in a credible, fair fashion by presenting successful national acts while incorporating local bands. That's an art."

While many bands and promoters credit her booking acumen for BOTH's good fortune, Downey insists that the club's 16-member staff, which she describes as "a family," deserves the real applause. Co-owner Owen "lives and breathes and eats at the club," she says, "and the staff really cares about the bands being respected and taken care of."

Don't think the bands haven't noticed. "Bottom of the Hill treats you well and pays you decently, and the sound and staff are tops," says Aislers Set drummer Yoshi Nakamoto. "In the indie scene, in terms of prestige, it's up there with the Knitting Factory in New York City."

For her part, Downey, who is also a textile artist when she can find time between ringing phones and skateboarding accidents, continues to tend bar at BOTH at least three nights a week.

"I have a real problem with people who own clubs but are never on the premises," Downey says. "Besides, I love it."



BOTTOM OF THE HILL celebrates its 10th anniversary beginning at 9 tonight with performances by Mike Watt, Victims Family and All About Evil. $10.

Wednesday: Tarentel, Winfred E. Eye and the Album Leaf, 9:30 p.m., $7.

Thursday: The F-- Champs, Drunk Horse, Captured! By Robots, 9:30 p.m., $8.

Friday: Zen Guerrilla, Lost Kids, Dori Bangs, 10 p.m., $8.

Saturday: The Gossip, the Aislers Set, the Mosquitoes, 10 p.m., $10.

Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., San Francisco. Tickets available at the club 3-7 p.m. or at (866) 468-3399 or www.ticketweb.com.

E-mail Neva Chonin at nchonin@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page G - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle