The new hardwood dance floor at The Cardinal is "so beautiful, you almost hate to go in there and dance on it," says owner Ricardo Gonzalez.
Fat chance it'll stay so pristine. After closing abruptly in July, The Cardinal is reopening this weekend with a focus on dancing and giving Madison back a downtown institution that dates to 1908.
The City Council approved a liquor license for the establishment on Tuesday.
Council President Tim Bruer expressed pleasure at the prospect of the reopening of what he called "a piece of Madison history."
"In my 10 years on the ALRC and in all my years on the Council I've never heard more outpouring of support from former patrons," Bruer said.
In its 101 years at 418 E. Wilson St., it has been a hotel bar, a gay nightclub and a hotspot for Latin dancing. Gonzalez opened The Cardinal Bar as a dance club in 1974 and kept it running 30 years before selling it in 2004 to new owners.
Now he's back in charge (and has dropped "Bar" from its name). Actually, he never really ever cut ties with the nightclub entirely: a clause in the 2004 sales contract determined that the business would return to him should the new owners default.
But it's not just a contractual bond he has with the place. "When they went down, I felt an emotional, spiritual need to come to the rescue and bring it back," said Gonzalez.
The Cardinal is celebrating the reopening on Friday evening, starting at 5 p.m. with free appetizers and live Latin jazz from Mambo Blue. At 9 p.m., DJ Nick Nice's kicks off the first weekly "Rebirth" dance party.
Nice says Rebirth will "connect the dots" between all genres and decades, disco to house. It's his first weekly residency at a Madison nightclub in 10 years, he said, and he's excited to help bring back a "consistent place to dance downtown." The music mix will have substance and longevity, his response to the "hipster stuff" that's disposable and fad-driven.
"It's a night for the dancers, with more of a European-style vibe, more of a focus on dancing," he said.
The new hardwood dance floor is also dancer-friendly. Buried underneath is the old cracked tile floor, built in 1986 to evoke the club's past, a pre-World War II mixture of Art Deco and Art Nouveau aesthetics.
"If you had heels on, you could twist your ankle on the tiles. Dancing on wood is what you want, especially on Latin nights," said Nice. Plus, the old tile floor gave the room abrasive acoustics. "Even at a quiet volume, it was ear-piercing."
Gonzalez has rest of the week at the Cardinal planned out. Tuesdays, the club is closed. Every Wednesday is "BOOMERang Night," a mix of '60s, Motown, and early '80s music by DJ Trini, co-host of the "PanAfrica" show Saturday afternoons on local community radio station WORT 89.9 FM. The club will host a college Latin dance night on Thursdays, and Latin dance parties geared towards couples on Saturdays, with a revue at 11 p.m. by local salsa troupe Dando Mambo. Sundays will see the return of local mainstays the Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet.
On Mondays, Gonzalez is paying homage to the recently closed Cafe Montmartre with a half-price wine and champagne night.
"We're sort of picking up where Cafe Montmartre left off," he said. "We miss Cafe Montmartre. They really made wine drinking popular in Madison and developed a wine culture."
This kind of consistency week after week combined with a strong partnership with the community -- like hosting early-evening benefits -- were missing from the previous incarnation of The Cardinal, said Gonzalez.
Former manager-turned-co-owner Corey Rogers has blamed the club's demise on the 2005 smoking ban, harsh winters, the bad economy and changes in the way the city regulates bars and nightclubs. By allowing more bars to get cabaret licenses, the city increased competition for people's entertainment dollars downtown and and squeezed The Cardinal, agreed Gonzalez.
But, in the end, Gonzalez said it was the previous owners' inability to "come up with creative solutions" that hurt the club. They cut links to the community until "they only had two or three links."
"The smoking ban was not the cause of the demise of the Cardinal," he said. To avoid that demise, he's focused now on making the club "a destination point" with regular programming.
Getting back in charge doesn't seem to be ruffling him, but then again, it's hard to imagine Gonzalez not involved in The Cardinal. Not only is he part-owner of the building, he's able to remember historical details from a time before many of the club's patrons were born. The landscape painting of Yosemite National Park he hung on the wall in 1975 is still there.
"For 30 years, I nurtured that place. It was my baby," he said. "I never really left The Cardinal."