Saturday, January 22, 2022

Former dinner-theater spot transforms into ‘tiki noir’ adventure club, with Disney Imagineer touch

Alfred Wheatley will be working with Disney Imagineer and former coworker Brandon Clay to bring to life the space of an adventurer’s club/tiki bar in the old TheatreNOW building, slated to open this fall. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of The Sorrow Drowner)

WILMINGTON — When thinking back to early- or mid-century tiki bars, icons like Oakland’s Trader Vic’s and San Francisco’s Tonga Room likely pop to mind — exotic drinking establishments that highlight island culture and live entertainment, a la Copacabana. Wilmington will be getting its own incarnation when The Sorrow Drowner opens at 10th and Dock streets this fall.

Special-effects makeup artist Alfred Wheatley, who worked in the film industry over the last decade or so, has been transforming the old TheatreNOW space into an entertainment-based drinking-and-dining establishment. It will focus on all the delights of a tiki bar but with a more mysterious theme less heavy on Polynesian culture.

“There’s a lot of concern nowadays about cultural appropriation versus appreciation when you deal with a big traditional tiki bar,” Wheatley told Port City Daily Monday. “And we’re like, ‘No, we really love the aesthetic, but we want to get away from just smashing a bunch of Polynesian culture together.”

Instead, Wheatley is centering it on global adventure — like Steve Zissou meets Don Beach, if you will. He said the real appeal of a tiki bar, in his opinion, comes from its escapism. 

“People go to these places because it’s basically a vacation at home — a place you can go to get away from the 9 to 5,” he said.

Wheatley made connections with high-end talent throughout the years from working at Disney and in film and decided to use them to his advantage with his business concept. He reached out to an old coworker, Brandon Kleyla, a.k.a. “Trader Brandon,” who built Walt Disney’s Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in Anaheim, as well as Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto and Tiki Bar in Florida.

“Before the Sorrow Drowners, Brandon was working for Universal as one of their lead designers for the new Universal park in China,” Wheatley said.

But Wheatley is clear: Don’t expect animatronics or theme rides inside the building. “That would take a $10 million budget,” he said. 

Wheatley is working in the six-figure range to transform the space (The Lemurian Institute, run by Wheatley and his family, bought the building for over a million in 2020 from TheatreNOW owner Alisa Harris, according to the Wilmington Business Journal). The Sorrow Drowner will consist of four rooms when completed, possibly five when the outdoor patio is enclosed. All will be thematic of an adventurer’s club, featuring worn regalia and antiques that Wheatley has been scouring from markets, swap meets and yard sales over the last year. 

“I have been in every antique shop in Selma, North Carolina, at least 10 times now,” he said.

When entering the space, diners first approach a lobby that Wheatley said will likely remind Disney vacationers of Tower of Terror combined with Haunted Mansion combined with Trader Sam’s. Wheatley said it’s a nod to a current trend the West Coast is seeing with tiki bars.

“The name ‘Sorrow Drowner’ comes from what is known as ‘tiki noir,’” he explained. “It’s a movement that’s been happening out west that hasn’t really caught on anywhere else. There’s bars like The Last Rites that have got this dark, cursed mystique to them. We basically wanted to do a funny version of it.”

He thought back to one of his favorite bars in Pleasure Island, which was located in downtown Disney until 2008. It had a storyline based around a fictitious owner, Merriweather Adam Pleasure, an industrialist and explorer who opened The Adventures Club.

“People were all in character, walking around interacting with the guests,” Wheatley explained, “and they had a big stage and different rooms around the building, really geared towards this golden age of adventure — like it didn’t really have a time of when it was taking place and what was actually going on. It was a place where, at the end of the day, adventurers could come together and gloat about the glories that they found out in the field.”

The main room of The Sorrow Drowner will be outfitted like a library, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with field guides, maps and exploration journals. The idea is to welcome diners to the hub of a large exploration group that took over a tiki bar as its headquarters. 

Flush left in the main room will be a stage anchored by 10-foot tikis. The bar, which normally was positioned toward the entry of TheatreNOW, has been moved to the back of the dining area. In its place will be an enclosed separate room, filled with wonderment of the bizarre: Fiji mermaids, Tijuana devils, Jenny Haniver.

“Jenny Haniver was an old sideshow gag that was sold to tourists in port towns made from a dried sea ray,” Wheatley explained. “They would claim it was a sea devil or some other mythological creature.”

Upstairs will be additional dining, with the intent of eventually expanding it into a museum. It will be filled with “artifacts from the last civilization and things like that,” according to Wheatley. “There will be a lot of skulls everywhere, some dark rooms where you can just go sit and hang out with a drink if you don’t want to eat.”

Tiki flavors

Though the restaurant will be a whole vibe and experience unto itself, it will be elevated by a high-end rum menu, Wheatley said — “craft cocktails, all freshly squeezed, no pre-mixed anything.”

He’s sourcing rums worldwide, including Two James Doctor Bird Jamaican rum and Real McCoy, the latter produced by Foursquare in the Bahamas. “It’s an American-owned brand, but it is also single-pot, and it’s some of the best currently made rum in the world . . . We’re still in the midst of working with ABC right now, to see what we actually can get.”

Though the bar will offer a wide array of spirits, wine and beer, Wheatley is focusing on the small-batch rum inventory, especially to make one of his favorite cocktails: Jungle Bird. Created at the Hilton’s Aviary Bar in the 1970s, it contains dark or black-strap rum, Campari, pineapple juice, lime juice, and demerara syrup (simple syrup made with demerara or turbinado sugar).

TheatreNOW is located at 10th and Dock streets in downtown Wilmington and will become a new entertainment and dining spot, The Sorrow Drowner. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The Sorrow Drowner menu will concentrate on finger foods only — at least at first. TheatreNOW’s kitchen was smaller than most commercial kitchens, Wheatley said, since it only dished out weekend dinners. As a full-service restaurant, the kitchen has to be expanded to store more inventory and foodstuff.

Huli huli chicken skewers, SPAM musubi, traditional pupu platters, with Sichuan and Polynesian flavors, will show up on the menu. Wheatley said he also hopes to add purple samosas — a popular item from a Hawaiian bakery that fills samosa pastries with purple sweet potato. 

The food business is not foreign to Wheatley, who got involved with The Sorrow Drowner after his retired parents and brother asked for help in upstarting the business. Wheatley actually attended culinary school but eventually decided it wasn’t a career for him. 

“I’m not going to be the chef,” he clarified. “I dropped out about halfway through culinary school because it was just nothing like I expected. I respect anyone who can work in a kitchen — more than I respect anyone else.”

Though he hasn’t hired a chef yet, Wheatley said he will be looking to do so soon, along with all personnel, including performing waitstaff. Servers will act, sing and dance — even fire-dance — while doling out meals and cocktails. Some may even do acrobatics. It all will be part of a Vaudeville-style lineup. 

The Sorrow Drowner’s shows aren’t ticketed events; they’re open to anyone who walks through the doors to dine or drink at the restaurant. “This is an experience,” Wheatley said. “At the end of the day, we want diners to walk around and experience a space and then interact. So finger foods really fit — it’s like a party held in a private club.”

Wheatley is planning for the venue to host some special events. As of now, he said he’s looking toward a fall 2021 opening, especially because he wants to throw two lavish Halloween balls. He also is toying around with the idea of keeping TheatreNOW’s Bacchanalia event hosted every New Year’s Eve. 

“It fits with our theme really well,” Wheatley said. “We need a few months to get into the swing of things because what we’re doing is so different from what everyone else already does in Wilmington.” 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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