The Panorama Music House: Coming Soon To Downtown
Jay Ecker’s Got A Brand New Bag
By Justin Morris
I’ve worn many a hat over the years. I’ve booked and managed entertainment for a casino, been a reporter and news director, co-hosted a radio talk show and spent many years as a tobacconist. I even worked in a brewery and brew pub many moons ago. These days, the lone wolf on the brewery front is flying high on East McNeese. But the first microbrewery to come to the Lake City was Jackson, La.-born Rikenjaks Brewing Company, which arrived at 329 Broad St. the better part of 20 years ago.
The first time I went there was some time in 2000 or 2001, when I acted as a cigar host for an event, schmoozing potential distributors for a recently relocated brand. I wasn’t even old enough to drink at the time. So it was some time before I revisited. By the time I did, it was then on, I believe, its third owner. That owner was long-time local high school band director and musician Jay Ecker.
If anyone you know has ever talked about the heyday of the original Rikenjaks, it was during this time. In fact, it was not only its heyday, but it really was one for downtown and for its live music scene, which, in many ways, was largely nonexistent before that point. Not only did you have a music venue owned and run by a professional musician, but it was also a brewery. And this was even before the real tide of microbrewery madness started sweeping the nation. You drank a pint of E.S.B. or Hardhead and you listened to bands like The Sly Letter or The Fondue Monks or dug in for a midnight Sunday reggae fest with Carlton Pride and Zion. (And yes … that is Charlie’s son.)
These were the days of beer, bands and a burgeoning music scene that would only continue to grow and flourish until Hurricane Rita changed it all dramatically.
But even before that time, Jay had moved on from Rikenjaks, and it, frankly, was never the same thereafter. From there, it began a three-year decline that eventually ended altogether in 2006.
Since then, Jay has retired from the Calcasieu Parish School Board after many years of serving as the Westlake High School band director. He started to make a little buzz a few years back as he started hinting about bringing Rikenjacks back. And bring it back he did. This time, it was a restaurant and bar on Ryan Street, and he had two new business partners: Frankie Randazzo and Buck Maraist. Maraist had a Southeast Texas location of the woodpecker-festooned brand open soon. And that was the latest such development from the guys …
As it is wont to do, the local rumor mill has been churning for the last little while about some potential happenings on the downtown nightlife scene in the coming weeks, with a few variations on the theme having reached my ears over the last several months. The news that the locale most recently the home of Sloppy’s Downtown would soon be taking the name of Panorama Music House confirmed what I had heard to be true. Also true, it turned out the owners were this selfsame trio of guys, one of which is, obviously, no stranger to this specific space.
I went over to meet with Jay one dusky afternoon fresh after the time change. After greeting me with a handshake and a cold beer, he walked me through the place, showing me what was to be.
The stage and surrounding space shows the biggest visible change from the Sloppy’s Downtown setup. It’s bigger, with staggered electrical drops. The stage will soon have a see-through roll-up door behind it that can open to the back patio area, This space will feature a patio bar, outdoor seating and a small covered seating space.
The kitchen is largely unchanged from the Sloppy’s setup. But, it, too, is undergoing renovations. It’s all still very roughed out. But the concept is visible, and only became more so when Jay and I sat down in what long ago was the Rikenjaks Brewery itself and talked about what the Panorama Music House is going to be and what he hopes it’s going to mean.
Jay Ecker: Rikenjaks (on Ryan Street) opened in late May of 2016. So we’ve been open two and a half years. I (and my partners) got together on that project because I’d known Frankie (Randazzo) from years ago, and I played for him at his restaurant Madison’s, and he had come to the old Rikenjaks. We’d always talked about doing something. And when the time was right I said, “Hey, come over here, and let’s build a restaurant.”
Actually, Rikenjaks was just going to be a bar, originally. But then it just turned out (to be) a whole huge thing — restaurant and all that.
Frankie and Buck own several things in Texas — Madison’s and Bar Local in Beaumont; they have The Library in Fort Worth and Buck has Dylan’s in Port Arthur.
So (when Rikenjaks opened), the Vidor location opened up about a year later. Of course, as soon as they opened, they had a big hurricane incident with Harvey, so they had to shut down for a while. But they’re rolling again.
Then there was this thing. When I found out that Sloppy’s Downtown was going out of business, we started the negotiations for this building. At first, we were going to lease, but we didn’t like the terms of the lease. Then we were actually able to purchase the building outright from the Shearman family.
Justin Morris: That’s very much like Dave Evans finally being able to buy the Luna Bar and Grill building after all these years. That’s what led him to close Luna Live. Once Downtown Properties moved out and started selling off some of these buildings, that seemed to be kind of changing the scene up here a bit. This particular property and many others up here have been owned by one entity, one small sphere of influence, for forever.
Jay Ecker: If you think about it, there’s been really only two property owners downtown for the most part: Rick Richard and Tom Shearman; a little bit of Tim Vaughn, too. But for the most part, two people have owned all the property up here. Now, finally, they’re starting to let go of some of the buildings.
Justin Morris: And that certainly diversifies things. So how does it feel to be getting back in here after … how many years? When was your departure from the Broad Street Rikenjaks?
Jay Ecker: I got out in 2003. I sold it. When did it finally shut down — like, ‘07? I don’t know. But to me, whenever it stopped having the quality variety of live music and the brewing, it just wasn’t the same anymore.
Justin Morris: Does it feel good to be back in here?
Jay Ecker: Yeah, but it’s kind of surreal, you know? Especially like switching sides (of the divided building), and this is the main side now. Where we’re sitting right now, there were tanks here, you remember …
Justin Morris: Yep. From the kettles, to the fermenters to the bright tanks …
Jay Ecker: But it feels great because this building has so much history, and to me the coolest thing is the history of these old buildings. This building’s probably over 100 years old. (The coolest aspect of it) is the history of adaptive reuse. At one point it was a warehouse; at one point it was a newspaper office; at one point it was a print shop; at one point it was a restaurant and a pizza place and a bar and a brewery … Each person that occupies the building brings their own history to it. And the building still has that history. But everything just kind of adds to it. So that’s become kind of the theme for this … to embrace the history of Lake Charles, and downtown Lake Charles especially.
Justin Morris: And you took a bit of that inspiration in the naming of this newest venture.
Jay Ecker: Honestly, that just kind of worked out. I wanted to get the (Panorama Burger House) sign, you know. And I found the people that owned it. And it went for a couple months where they didn’t really communicate with me at all. I tried to offer to take the sign and preserve it and put it up and they would even still own it. (There was) no response for a couple of weeks. So I said, “Would you take 500 bucks”? and they said, “OK, send us a check.” (Laughs.) But I’m probably going to spend close to $10,000 to have it renovated all fresh and new.
Justin Morris: It’ll cost that much?
Jay Ecker: It will. It’s the last old school, porcelain sign in Lake Charles. So, dig this — I called Acme Signs to come take it down and restore it. Laura McDaniel, who is the manager of Acme Signs, her great-grandfather built that sign. I don’t know if it was Acme Signs at the time or whatever. But I think that’s a really interesting part of the story.
Anyway, we were looking for a way to honor Lake Charles’ history. First, we were looking at naming it something about newspapers because (the building) was once part of the Lake Charles American Press. Then we thought we might name it something about one of those long-gone downtown theaters like The Lyric.
But then when I was able to get that sign, it just fell into place. You know, where it says “Burger House” on that sign? The “burger” actually covers up where it used to say “steak.” It was originally the Panorama Steakhouse and then … and I don’t know the timeline of this … I do know that the sign’s been there much longer than the building ever was. But some time, I assume in the ‘70s or ‘60s, they switched it to a short order thing and put “burger” over “steak.” So, we’re going to take that piece off and put “music” right there. So again, it’s adaptive reuse. A lot of people know about that sign, and it all just fits together so well.
Justin Morris: So, with the bar, the food, the music, the patio kind of vibe … It’s kind of the same thing that you’ve done with Rikenjaks. But it’s also a model that I know was established, at least in this camp, with Madison’s. I knew about Madison’s on Dowlen for probably at least a decade before I ever darkened the door of the place …
Jay Ecker: Yeah, I think they’ve been there 14 years. That’s why I partnered up with these guys — because they have that experience. They’ve been running restaurants for, well, Frankie’s been running that for 14 years, and Buck’s been running restaurants and bars since he was a teenager, really. It’s just in their blood.
But it’s such a perfect partnership, because Buck is the “builder guy,” Frankie is the “numbers guy” and then I’m the “operations guy.” So, there really has been a symbiotic relationship.
But, to compare this to Rikenjaks, it’ll be similar, but the vibe here is going to be more live music, you know … the bands we can’t fit in Rikenjaks, like regional and national touring acts. We’re going to keep our schedule flexible, so if we have a touring act that has a night off on a Thursday, we could pull them in.
With a name like Panorama Music House, music is going to be our focus. With the decor, we’re describing it as a retro Vegas kind of vibe. It’ll be bright colors, kind of retro-looking stuff, you know; lava lamps and cushioned bar stools; (that) kind of thing. There’ll be some booths in here. And upstairs will be VIP and overflow. We’re also going to do a thing called the Goldband Club, which, if you buy a yearly membership, then you never pay a cover, and if you want to be a VIP, you just call 24 hours in advance, and say, hey, I want VIP seating for this event, and you’re in.
Justin Morris: That’s hip. That’s kind of a new concept for Lake Charles.
Jay Ecker: I think so. But it’s really cool, because we’re also tying into the history of the Goldband Recording Studio with that.
Justin Morris: And a lot of that collection is housed here now. I knew about the agreement between Sloppy’s and the SWLA Music Museum that made this the home for that (Goldband music) collection until they found a more long-term location. But I didn’t know that was (connected with your project).
Jay Ecker: Their goal, of course, is to have their own space. But until that happens, we’re going to house them here. And it’s such a great relationship, because we’ll be bringing our customers to them. But their customers … they’ll be bringing theirs to us. So it makes it a draw and totally fits in.
Also, on the decor … Blaine Bourgeois has hundreds of photographs of different musicians in concert. So part of the decor will be pictures of live music over each booth. There’ll be four different shots of a band. And this might be the B.B King table or this might be the Aretha Franklin table, and stuff like that. So that’ll be really cool, too.
Justin Morris: So what’s your ETA? What do you think?
Jay Ecker: Well, I’ve hired a band for New Year’s Eve, so I’ve got to be open for New Year’s Eve. We will be soft then. We might not even have the kitchen open yet. I’m sure we’ll have our liquor license, and everything in place. But I’m not sure we’ll have all our staff in place and trained. So we’ll probably have the official grand opening some time in January, once we get through New Year’s and a few weeks of doing lunches under our belt. But we’ll be kicking it off in some capacity by New Year’s Eve with The Cards as our debut act. In fact, we’re already taking reservations for New Year’s Eve via our Panorama Music House Facebook page. So folks can already reach out to us there.
Justin Morris: So, what excites you most about this venture, as opposed to everything that you guys are vested in?
Jay Ecker: The whole reason that we’re downtown is because we want to help to create that critical mass. It was happening when you had Luna and Luna Live, Crystal’s, Sloppy … You know, that’s kind of fallen off, and especially now, when there’s so many original bands that could be playing. They need places to play. So we’re excited about being part of that critical mass. (We want to) make it to where when you come downtown, you park, you walk around (thinking) “What kind of food do I want? What kind of music do I want?” That’s what downtown is supposed to be.
The other thing is to be able to offer the kind of musical acts that we can’t do at Rikenjaks, just because of the size. Here we can do just about anything. And we’re looking forward to doing that and then some.
While we sat and sipped our brews, as we had done in this space oh so many times before, Jay told me a few other tidbits I thought were pretty interesting. One item of note was the recessed front door. Apparently, the front windows of the building are getting replaced with shutters to create an open-air front patio in the space that was originally set up as the Happy Hippie Pizza kitchen, making for both a front and back covered patio space. He also may or may not have told me about some top-secret VIP amenities that you’ll just have to go see about for yourself.
Regardless, what you’re going to have is a big dose of old downtown coming back in a hip new way. With the entertainment powerhouse that Rikenjaks was in that very building back in the day; and the current vacuum left with the departure of both Luna Live and Sloppy’s Downtown; Ecker has a great opportunity to relight the spark he lit all those years ago with new ideas, new possibilities and two incredibly accomplished, capable and creative partners dug in with him, making some downtown magic happen again. I, for one, wish them all the absolute best. And I very much look forward to seeing what’s in store.
I look forward to seeing you all at Panorama.