In 2011, Philadelphia-based World Cafe Live first opened in the restored 45,000-square-foot Queen Theater and the marveling began.
It had been 222 years since the Indian Queen Hotel had first opened at the corner of Fifth and Market streets and 52 years since the theater had closed for good.
After a half-century of neglect, it was frankly a hot mess complete with a weather-beaten hole in the roof, allowing sunshine in.
When the re-branded, glimmering World Cafe Live at the Queen’s doors first swung open, longtime Wilmington residents and music fans both were awed by the $25 million public-private restoration project.
It was The Queen as never seen before — a state-of-the-art two-stage music venue complete with a full kitchen and a WXPN 88.5-FM-friendly band line-up that wooed listeners of adult album-oriented rock and folk.
And now, a little more than six years later, mouths are agape once again.
It’s not necessarily because entertainment giant Live Nation moved in, giving the venue access to a wider array of acts and keeping live music rocking in the heart of the city’s downtown.
In fact, the new round of dropped jaws has nothing to do with what’s on stage at all.
It’s all about what’s on the walls.
A still-growing installation of neon-shocked pop art has slowly moved in, most of which feature iconic musicians and other pop culture figures with neon crowns and tiaras atop their heads.
Yes, that’s Madonna behind the bar, David Bowie on the side of the stage and Jimi Hendrix in the hall just before you enter The Queen’s Copeland Theater.
It’s an exciting shot of rock ‘n’ roll-influenced flourish, brought in to compliment the main course on stage.
North Carolina artist/designer duo Louis St. Lewis and Nate Sheaffer are behind the pop culture-fueled decor, which especially pops in the historic theater, where its modern touches are matched with time-worn (and paint-chipped) exposed walls in the main music hall.
Inspired by a mix of champagne, pot brownies and artistic drive, St. Lewis the person is as exciting and engaging as his artwork, stealing the show with his carefree style at a Live Nation press event at The Queen in June.
After toying with themes that ranged from queens from playing cards to queen chess pieces, he and Sheaffer have been busily creating artwork for the Market Street music hall, taking full advantage of The Queen’s iconic name.
“We’re living in 21st century America and our royalty really are the entertainers, so we present them in such a manner,” Lewis says. “That beautiful stage room with the deteriorating walls and gorgeous ceiling comes across in many ways as a basilica. And then you have these pop gods and goddesses from the pantheon.”
The duo have been creating Live Nation artwork and designs for about three years now, a relationship that started when the entertainment giant purchased the 2,000-person Ritz in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Smith, art director for the Live Nation-owned House of Blues chain, just happened to be an old friend of Lewis from their days attending classes at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and suggested him to his co-workers.
When Live Nation officials first met Lewis and asked about what his design process would be for a club, he gave them a double-barreled shot of his swashbuckling style.
“I said, ‘I walk into the room and think, ‘Where would people like to [have sex]?'” he recalls, using a more colorful phrase. ”And they said, ‘You’re hired. You’re hired, you’re hired, you’re hired.’ Nightclubs are supposed to be sexy, right?”
Soon after, Lewis and Sheaffer got to work on The Ritz and eventually more Live Nation work began coming their way, as they added to the decor of eight venues in cities such as Charlotte, Louisville, Atlanta and New Orleans. The pair have just recently begun to work on pieces for The Fillmore Philadelphia as well.
In addition to artwork on the walls, they have expanded into design to cover anything Live Nation needs, whether it’s sculptures and light fixtures to resin-topped bars.
The pair think big and “take it to the extreme,” Lewis says, before the duo are usually reigned in by Live Nation. For example, an idea to use queen chess pieces as urinal handles was one of their thoughts that got shot down.
“They loved the idea, but didn’t want to spend the money,” he adds.
The smallest project they have worked on had a budget of $75,000 and The Queen’s art budget will surpass that, Lewis says.
Michael Grozier, Live Nation’s executive vice president of clubs and theatres, is the corporate overseer of Lewis and Sheaffer, reveling in their indomitable spirits, while also sometimes having to be the one who passes on an idea or two.
“Their work is provocative, interesting and thoughtful,” he says. “And for The Queen, we wanted to celebrate the relationship between royalty and rock ‘n’ roll. We have the King of Pop and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so we wanted to honor some of the queens in today’s culture and from the past.”
After years in the traditional art world, showing his work at small shows in art galleries, Lewis’ partnership with Live Nation has transformed his life in many ways.
He now enjoys a steady stream of income that art galleries no longer get a cut of, along with an unmatched level of visibility.
“In one weekend in one of these venues, more people see my artwork than ever saw an exhibition in a museum or gallery,” he admits.
And instead of working in solitude at a home studio, Lewis now goes to Raleigh and works in a new studio that he and Sheaffer use to keep up with the growing demand from Live Nation.
“It’s a crazy, wonderful, wild studio that we have with a whole collection of hangers-on and freaks. It’s always a party,” Lewis adds.
Lewis and Sheaffer are different peas in the same pod.
On the day of our chat, Lewis (and his Rollie Fingers-style handlebar mustache) is wearing knee-high motorcycle boots, jeans, a pinstriped jacket and a red silk regiment tie. Sheaffer, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall with a shaved head, is a bit more low-key with a black T-shirt and loose-fitting khaki-colored pants. The only flash was coming from his snakeskin sneakers.
As Lewis jokes, “I like going around to places with him because he looks like my bodyguard. I can go in there and act the fool and I know that if a fight starts, he can at least punch them one and give me time to get out the door.”
With Lewis and Sheaffer producing plenty of out-of-state art for The Queen, is there any room for homegrown talent?
Grozier says he’s open to possibly incorporating the work of Delaware artists into The Queen’s plans as well. After all, there’s still plenty to do.
“I’d love to meet some local artists and spread it around,” he says. “We have a lot more things we want to do there, so it will require more.”
Lewis and Sheaffer have also pulled in some other artists they know to help with the projects — but they all have Tar Heel roots.
Designer and fellow University of North Carolina School of the Arts alum Sean Yseult was among those. The co-founder and bassist for heavy metal act White Zombie designed the trippy purple wallpaper that now lines the hall leading to The Queen’s main theater.
That’s right. The bassist for the growling, horror-inspired White Zombie did The Queen’s wallpaper. Just let that one sink in for a moment.
At the end of the purple passage is one of Lewis’ most striking pieces, which depicts guitar god Hendrix with a golden crown.
But take a closer look. Is it Hendrix? Or is it Prince? Or a little of both? Lewis won’t say. He enjoys playing with people’s minds. And considering the venue, why not?
“Most of the people in these clubs are on some kind of drugs anyway and it will mess with their minds a little bit,” he cracks.
Other stand-out pieces include a mirrored portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with a Sex Pistols-esque twist thanks to heavy blue eyeliner and a spike painted through her left eye. Along with Hendrix in the hall, fans will find the faces of everyone from Michelle Obama and Mary, Queen of Scots to Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Once inside the main theater, a pair of spunky illuminated portraits of Madonna stare back at thirsty music fans from behind the bar. And if you look at the towering walls on either side of the stage, you’ll find everyone from Pink to Bowie on mirrored eglomise panels.
Already, about 30 pieces of their work are on the walls at The Queen and they are only about halfway done. They have also been tasked with jazzing up the upstairs banquet space known as the Olympia Room, which overlooks Market Street.
Since The Queen is used for more than rock shows — it can be rented out for weddings and other special events and conferences — the sometimes-provocative artwork needs to be able to be covered up in the main theater. Black sheets covered the work last month during a TEDx Wilmington event.
Sheaffer says he’s currently working on tufted golden curtains that can cover the artwork when needed and are also easily drawn to the side when it’s time to rock.
As Sheaffer puts it, “It’s to make sure all the boys at a bar mitzvah aren’t sitting there looking at Katy Perry’s side boob.”
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