Club Fever owner reflects on club’s legacy as it closes
Katie Galioto | Tuesday, April 17, 2018
In the narrow alley off South Michigan Street in downtown South Bend, Dee Davis watched as hundreds of students jostled their ways to the front of the line, funneling into the fortified wooden fence he put up himself.
He made the fence out of farm gates. They were built to hold back 3,000-pound bulls, Davis said, but they occasionally failed to contain a mob of college students.
It was a scene he’d witnessed countless times before. Girls in wedges and skirts huddled together for warmth. Guys held their cash in one hand and IDs in the other, ready to present them to the bouncer when the moment finally arrived. Cabs and Ubers dumped loads and loads of passengers, and the crowd grew larger and larger.
But this Thursday was different than all the other ones. Davis had announced the pending sale of his building on social media. Club Fever was closing down.
For Davis, the night — the “final Feve” — was bittersweet.
“We’ve been through a lot,” he said. “It’s kind of the end of an era. We just all said we’re going to try really hard not to cry.”
Davis put the building up for sale in December 2014, with an asking price of $1.79 million, according to the South Bend Tribune — partially because his other business, which makes products for the RV industry, is requiring more of his time.
And also partly because the club has never been very profitable, Davis said. Especially in the last year or two.
“Three years ago, we averaged about 1,300 people on a Thursday,” he said before the club’s final night. “We haven’t broken 100 yet this year. They’ve lost interest.”
A club with history
The third floor of Club Fever, closed to patrons, is a graveyard of old equipment, furniture and decorations.
“It’s where barstools and pool tables go to die,” Davis said.
The third floor is wide open, with light from three massive semi-circle windows — windows that came out of the Hancock building in Chicago — illuminating the spoils of years of business in the entertainment industry. It’s the largest single space in the building — which has three levels, each about 16,800 square feet.
There are signs of Club Fever’s predecessors everywhere. Western cowboy decorations from when the club was Heartland, a country-music dance hall, before Davis bought the place in 2005. A fresher-looking slab of concrete, marking the spot a three-story escalator used to be when the building was a JCPenney.
“In 1937, the day it opened, 26,000 people came through this door,” Davis said. “And James Cash Penney was actually here for the grand opening.”
When a mall came to South Bend in the ‘70s, the department stores left downtown. JCPenney became Vogue Beauty College. Vogue Beauty College turned into a nightclub called Doc Weeds that didn’t last too long. Doc Weeds was converted to Meanwhile at the Disco, a club open for several years before it was transformed into Heartland.
The landscape of downtown South Bend has changed simultaneously, Davis said.
“When I started out 20 years ago, there were at least six — maybe seven — large clubs in South Bend,” he said. “But evidently it wasn’t lucrative enough because they all went away, one at a time. This is the last one.”
‘Blood, sweat and tears’
Davis purchased Club Fever at age 42 because he wanted to be a landlord.
He took care of almost all the building’s remodeling and maintenance. With the help of friends and family, he laid 17,000 tiles on the dance floor to cover up the massive Texas flag on it, a relic from the club’s Heartland days. He came in on weekends with his daughter and son-in-law to paint the walls. Each of the six bars, he built by hand.
Now, at age 55, not much had changed. Davis trekked out to the club from his Elkhart home Tuesday evening to fix the drain in the women’s restroom before closing night.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into this place,” he said.
Davis used the skills he’d learned from years working in factories, he said.
Take the dance box in the middle of the dance floor. He welded together pieces of farm equipment he’d purchased at the same time he bought the gates for the entrance.
“All these years, girls have been dancing in a cattle feeder,” he said with a chuckle.
Davis named the venue after the Little Willie John song, “Fever,” which has been covered by hundreds of artists over the years. He’s always liked music.
“My biggest interest, as far as running this place, was always the concerts,” he said. “I have no musical talent whatsoever — but I promoted 196 concerts.”
Club Fever has hosted the whole gamut of musical acts over the years. Grammy winners and local bands. Something from pretty much every genre — rock, country, pop, rap, jazz. A famous 99-year-old blues piano player took the stage once, Davis recalled.
“That’s one of the things I’ll miss the most,” he added. “Promoting the shows. And seeing a thousand students in here.”
The ‘final Feve’
Since he helped turn the State Theater into a nightclub in 1998, Davis has helped host “Thirsty Thursday’s” for students. The tradition moved with him to Club Fever.
The club picked up a moniker: “Michiana’s hottest nightclub.” Somewhere along the road, “Fever” got shortened to “Feve.” Sometime later, “Feve” became a verb in the vernacular of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s — “feveing” refers to the act of going to the club on a Thursday night.
“We never could, no matter what we did, get the students to come down on a Friday or a Saturday,” he said. “We just couldn’t do it.”
Over the years, Davis and his staff have come to know the student populations well.
“I’ve got on my phone the numbers of probably 10 NFL players and at least half a dozen NBA players — guys who used to text me before they came out,” he said. “A couple got engaged right on stage — we’ve had many do that. And then we’ve had many people who have engaged in other things here.”
Yes, running a nightclub certainly gives you a stockpile of stories, Davis said.
“I’ve seen things that you would never believe,” he said.
Davis asked students to bring photos of their own memories of Club Fever on Thursday night. By the early hours of Friday morning, a large white banner hanging by the entrance was covered in snapshots and scribbled notes from patrons.
“It’s hard,” he said. “My staff, we’ve gone through a lot of good times and a lot of hard times together — almost like a family.”
Davis’s next step is to host a sale — which he’s calling the “Bizarre Bar Bazaar” — to get rid of all of Club Fever’s furniture, decorations and other collectibles this Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Then he’ll close the sale of the building in the coming weeks. It’s being sold to a local group, he said, that is going to completely gut and repurpose it.
But first, for one last time, Club Fever opened its door to students. Davis was joined by his mother and aunt, who’d been there the night the club opened 13 years ago.
Over the course of Thursday night, the club let in 1,120 attendees.
“It was a good night,” Davis said. “It was about like what it used to be last year and the year before.”
They swarmed the bars and flooded the dance floor. They took photos to commemorate the club — photos by the logo, photos in the bathroom mirrors, photos by the picture of Kurt Cobain hanging at the top of a staircase that one of Davis’s bartenders painted long ago.
And the crowds stayed until the music turned off and the lights came on in the wee hours of the morning, some still reluctant to leave even then.
“It was nice to see the place full,” Davis said. “For one last time.”