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Dowunder Columbia, 1332 Main Street: 1975   12 comments

Posted at 11:53 pm in closing

I finally was able to get up with a tour of Downunder Columbia on 17 November 2016 after having missed a number of opportunities in the past due to being out of town or other scheduling conflicts. This one was co-sponsored by the USC Alumni Society and the Historic Columbia Foundation and was a guided tour with some specific notes about various Downunder buisnesses.

The tours were in medium sized groups, and while waiting for your turn, you could watch a slideshow on the development or have a few drinks at the cash bar. I've included some of the slides here, though I have not included the ones of identifiable people dressed in embarassing 70s gear. (As for the people with me on the tour, well, we were encouraged to post our shots to social media, so perhaps I'm in someone else's pix as they are in mine).

Downunder Columbia was a nightlife venue built below the historic Equitable Arcade Mall at 1332 Main Street (and 1216 Washington Street). This building was Columbia's first indoor shopping mall, and was built in 1919. It is still an impressive space, if now largely vacant other than a number of artists' studios and a deli. Downunder Columbia was inspired by Underground Atlanta and was new construction, under one ownership, specifically for the purpose of a mini entertainment district.

This surprised me a bit as I always assumed that it was simply the case of various business owners repurposing the Arcade basement, but in fact while there was a small, unimproved basement, Downunder was largely new excavation and construction. One interesting tidbit we were told is that the excavators found a deep pit full of oyster shells -- apparently the remnant of a restaurant known to be on the location before the construction of the Arcade Mall.

Even at this short historical remove, it seems many facts about Downunder Columbia are already fuzzy, but the place opened in late 1971 and closed in early 1975. There doesn't seem to be any single reason why what was such a hotspot at one time could not sustain for any longer than that, but a few possible reasons we were given included the overall decline of downtown during the period, and the change in nightclub culture from the brownbag era to the mini-bottle era.

Here we are about to go down the stairs on the Main Street side of the mall. As it turns out, the former Downunder is largely unlighted, so if you take the tour, I advise you to bring a flashlight, as I did not.

Here is the main corridor of Downunder. As you can see, it is really quite narrow, and as you can imagine at one time, it was full of people trying to go both ways, not to mention clouds of cigarette smoke, loud music and various cooking smells.

Here we are going into the former Jim's Place bar. Our guides informed us that this joint had a two item menu: Chili & a 35-item salad. Note the plush red wallpaper. The area where the guides are standing was the bar.

The next area we checked out was the former Trolley Pavillion. Apprently this spot was pitched as a "swingles bar" at one point. The area has been largely stripped (and somewhat tagged) but some of the woodwork remains as does the dumbwaiter though I could not really get a good look at that.

Next was Soho Place, with its mildly risque bathroom wallpaper. Apparently local blues radio personality Clair DeLune was a waitress here, and we were told a few of her remembrances of the place. The "new" partitions in the place (and others) are the result of building management creating dedicated, locked, storage areas for the building's current upstairs tenants (though they seem now unused for that purpose).

I believe this was Pizano's though we did not formally go into this space:

As any animation fan knows, The Scarlet Pumpernickel was a spectacular Daffy Duck star vehicle, but it was also a Downunder nightclub and music venue as you can see from the poster for the longtime SCERN Jazz host. It was not jazz playing on the miniscule Pumpernickle stage however the night an epic wild-west bar fight broke out. As the chairs and tables began to fly, the band, we were told, tried to leave, but management required them to play on like the dance band on The Titanic.

Finally, back up again:

12 Responses to 'Dowunder Columbia, 1332 Main Street: 1975'

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  1. It was surprising to see the Scarlet Pumpernickel poster featuring Terry Rosen. During the 60s he played guitar in the Las Vegas clubs with the Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr.) and during the 90s he had a Sunday night radio Jazz show on a local Columbia station.

    Joe Shlabotnik

    29 Nov 16 at 3:49 am

  2. How small were these clubs/bars? It seems like they may have only been able to fit about 30-50 people in each one. From a safety stand point, I just don't see how they got away with this. Just think if there was a fire down there.

    Sidney

    29 Nov 16 at 9:00 am

  3. Very interesting post, Ted. I've also always wanted to do one of the tours but am always out of town for work or at some other event when they're scheduled.

    Justin

    29 Nov 16 at 12:52 pm

  4. @ted - how do you find out about upcoming tours? I never seem to hear about these until after the fact.

    Homer

    29 Nov 16 at 10:04 pm

  5. @Sidney: Jim's Place & the Pumpernickle were very small. The Trolley was a good bit larger. It's hard to say about Soho because they have partitioned off the original space.

    @Homer: In this case the note came from the Alumni Association

    ted

    29 Nov 16 at 11:17 pm

  6. My wife and I attended the tour a few months back......it was intriguing but I was also a bit disappointed. I had heard about this for thirty years, even had a friend hit the bars just before it closed in 75. I'm hoping that the Historical Columbia Society will do a tour of the Columbia Hydro facility down by the museum, or a tour of the tunnels under Columbia.

    scott johnson

    29 Nov 16 at 11:46 pm

  7. I'll bet brownbagging was, for lack of a better term, unique. By the time I was drinking liquor in a bar the minibottle debacle had started.

    Also, I can't get over the term 'swingles'. for some reason Columbia and 'swinging singles' just don't seem to go together. It's scary that we used to dress like the ad for Ridout Bostrum. Dude looks sort of like David Hasselhoff.

    Homer

    30 Nov 16 at 12:16 am

  8. Believe me, some of the pictures taken inside the place (I'm thinking with "Instamatics" + "Magicubes") of real people at the time were pretty 70s scary.

    The 70s: What were we thinking?

    ted

    30 Nov 16 at 12:22 am

  9. Speaking of the mini-bottles. I hate that I voted them out. We are now getting less liquor per pour but paying the same or more. BRING BACK THE MINI-BOTTLES!

    Sidney

    30 Nov 16 at 9:20 am

  10. The story I have always heard is that the main problem was that soldiers from Ft. Jackson and anti-war students from USC often clashed there. My father worked in the Barringer Building at the time and said that "there were too many weird people" that went to Downunder.

    Tom

    2 Dec 16 at 10:21 am

  11. I read that this would probably be the last tour that they would have. Something about the new owners of the mall.

    Homer

    4 Dec 16 at 1:16 pm

  12. Downunder Columbia was an amazing and fun place in its heyday. I worked at several of the establishments, including the top hot spot in the Midlands, Soho Place, LTD as a waitress (later also bartender - Lord did we sling some Singapore Slings, Tequila Sunrises and White Russians!) and at The Scarlet Pumpernickel as a waitress. I was so clueless that I didn't even catch the humor of the Pumpernickel's name until much later.

    We had so much fun, and made money hand-over-fist because the prices were very high and people were on expense accounts for the most part. My customers tipped 25% as a rule. We had darling British MilkMaid costumes and I worked lunches because I could pay my monthly rent and house bills in just two lunch shifts - the rest went to pay for college and my horse bills. It was the job everyone wanted. My colleagues and bosses were great and we had so much fun. The physical atmosphere was like being in another era; and my tour recently was so nostalgic.

    Worked there for several years, then moved on to other opportunities as the fickle crowds waned and went elsewhere, I did, too. It is always a fond memory and thanks to John and Historic Columbia for allowing a revisit to this amazing place, which was so evocative of my youth.

    I will never forget Sir George, Duke of the Discs, playing Candy Man for the umpteenth kazillionth time one night. I asked him to lay off and he didn't, so I marched down the long hallway (with the club patrons following me like I was the Pied Piper), stomped up the steps to the ground level and sailed the 45 RPM vinyl record down Main Street like a Frisbee and it shattered into pieces. Done in love for the sake of sanity! Too much candy(man) is not good for anyone.

    BTW, what is the statute of limitations on littering? LOL.

    Clair DeLune
    Host of Blues Moon Radio and author of the book, South Carolina Blues

    Clair DeLune

    5 Dec 16 at 5:52 pm

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