Fifteen years have passed since Larry Jenkins, a successful longtime nightclub operator, committed his life to God and attracted national headlines by destroying $5,000 in liquor and converting his So Fine Club into a church.
Jenkins self-published a book about the tragedies and unhappiness that led him to end his 27-year-old business — one known throughout the metro for its celebration of old-time rock 'n' roll. And then, he faded from public notice.
If the So Fine Club at 8200 SW 3 was one of city's livelier night clubs, the opposite could be said about another longtime venue, The Neighborhood Lounge, 733 NW 4.
According to county records, the 2,600-square-foot bar dates to 1930. I recall visiting the bar just once, about 20 years ago, when I was The Oklahoman's crime reporter, to interview a down-on-luck person helping me on a story.
The bar, located across from the Oklahoma County jail and surrounded by dilapidated century-old flop houses, was dark, gloomy and filled with the scent of cigarettes, cheap beer and despair.
The Neighborhood Lounge was a destination for aging inmates released from jail — a place where they could drink and smoke until they died.
A couple of years ago, however, I noticed changes at the corner of NW 4 and Shartel. The Neighborhood Lounge got a new paint job, with a mural of a cheery couple dancing next to a sign declaring “Cocktails and Dancing.” Banners sometimes advertised karaoke nights. And then the gloomy, dilapidated flop houses were torn down and outside lights were added around the bar.
For someone who has seen change of all sorts downtown the past 20 years, this was one of the oddest transformations to date. Then, last fall, I noticed that several popular downtown young professionals with big social media followings began posting about their adventures at The Neighborhood Lounge.
The bar established Facebook and Twitter accounts. When I saw an application filed with Downtown Design Review for addition of an outdoor patio, I noted on my blog, OKC Central, that I had seen everything.
Or so I thought.
Warm welcome key to revival
By most definitions, The Neighborhood Lounge still qualifies as a “dive.” Those who live on the street, folks who have endured tough times, still gather at The Neighborhood Lounge. But now, increasing numbers of young professionals are joining them. A couple weeks ago I finally took up a challenge to see what's going on with my own eyes.
When I walked in the door, my senses were first overtaken by the sound of an older gentleman singing a country song with a creative rearrangement of notes and chords. The inside was surprisingly well kept with new carpeting, colorful lighting and the kind of decor you might expect if a fun-loving grandfather decided to open a bar.
In talking with various folks, I learned the influx of younger customers apparently began as a lark: “Hey, let's go see what's going on inside that old dive.” They were surprised by the warm welcome given by the owner. The bar took on a festive atmosphere, with older and younger customers dancing, doing duets on karaoke, and even taking a shot at the limbo bar.
Presiding over the entire transformation is none other than Jenkins, now 70, with a big smile on his face. As the years passed since the closing of the So Fine Club, Jenkins found himself more and more secluded at his home, watching television, not getting out much. He gained weight, suffered some health issues, and came to a conclusion: He had to make yet another change, or simply wait to die.
Jenkins admits he chose to buy a dive. It was his way of getting back to ministering to those most in need of help. He paid $200,000 for the property and then spent another $350,000 on renovations and cleaning up the surrounding properties. He hosts a sermon every Sunday, feeds the least fortunate, and is as surprised as anybody by the transformation that has ensued.
In response to these changes, he banned inside smoking and is planning to build the outside patio this spring to accommodate those who can't go without a cigarette. This week he's also adding a kitchen to expand his operation.
Watching the interaction among the very different clientele, watching the smile on Jenkins' face, it's easy to see where he made one miscalculation when he shut down the So Fine Club. Jenkins is more than a club owner, more than a bar owner. He is the purveyor of happiness, even in the most unlikely of venues. And if that, along with a cheap beer, is what it takes to share the word of God with those who are down and out, Jenkins might just be downtown's finest preaching bar owner.