Michael Murphy could have perhaps been a comedian, if he’d wanted to be: He’s a great conversationalist who likes to make people laugh. In his words, he lives “to make you happy.”
This spirit extends to his approach to operating Bart Lounge, his Cathedral City bar and nightclub, which Independent readers have made a frequent finalist in the Best Nightclub and Best Bar Ambiance categories of the Best of Coachella Valley readers’ poll.
Before opening Bart with an assist from his father, Kelly, Murphy spent a couple of years working at clubs in Las Vegas, aspiring to “do his own thing.” He wanted to do something decidedly un-Las Vegas like, where “the cover is $100, and a vodka-cran costs $20,” Murphy said.
Instead, he took inspiration from clubs he would go to in Riverside, Redlands and Los Angeles. “My favorite spots were hip, chill spots like Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, EightyTwo and Boardners. In California, bars tend to be more elegant and subdued, and that’s what I wanted to go for. Before opening Bart, I asked myself, ‘What am I into? What do I like?’”
Murphy aspired to create something for himself and for others like him, hip 20-30-somethings. Murphy opened the bar in his late 20s—he’s 33 now—and intended to create a place he would enjoy.
“I went to college to study art. I know about art, and I know about drinking, but I’m also a younger guy, so I know about video games,” he said. “Everything that I enjoy, I brought out here. I intended for Bart to be a place where people like myself—cool, hip people—can go alone if they wanted to, and not be bored. You could walk around and look at art or play video games.”
Additionally, the bar features pool tables, a photo booth and outdoor patio.
Over the years, the venue has exhibited art by locals including Sofia Enriquez and Adam Enrique Rodriguez, in addition to larger names like Alex Pardee and Sweet Toof. Murphy also displays some of his own art at Bart—he describes it as having a “Tim Burton/Nicktoons/Dr. Seuss kinda vibe”—and he’s also an avid art collector: Bart features some of Murphy’s own Tim Burton works, which Murphy has been collecting for years. Murphy considers art an integral part of Bart; after all, the name is a portmanteau of bar and art.
“I originally wanted a neon sign to say ‘BART’ with the ‘B’ and ‘T’ alternating on and off, but I guess you can’t have that,” he said.
Being limited by technology is not something to which Murphy, an Upland native, is accustomed. He majored in innovation at The Arts Institute, and he has the right kind of attitude to succeed in the nightlife scene: Repeatedly during our conversation, he said things like, “Let’s go!” or “Just do it!” It is this attitude that allowed him to leave the Vegas clubs and move to the desert to launch Bart.
“It was kicking around in my brain for a couple of years to do my own thing,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to put your money where your mouth is. I was 27. I told myself, ‘You don’t have kids; you might as well just do it,’ instead of living with regret about it. I finally moved to the desert, and moved in with my mom like a loser, and focused all my attention on starting Bart.”
Murphy said getting the word out about events is a challenge—a common complaint these days among event and party organizers in the desert. When Bart first opened, getting the word out that the bar was open was also a challenge. Bart occupies a space that has seen many bars come and go—it was previously Level 2, Elevation and Sidewinders—and it took effort to draw a crowd and create a scene in the newly repurposed venue. One way in which Murphy built his brand is by connecting to local performers.
“I’ve heard of pay-to-play venues, and we’re the opposite of that,” Murphy said. “We’re really about creating an environment for people to perform and showcase their art among young, hip, cool people like themselves. And we’ll pay you to play.”
Almost five years in, Murphy said that working at Bart is literally a dream come true. “I meet cool, interesting people every day,” he said. “It’s so awesome to be among creative, like-minded people every day. I’m living my dream. It’s pretty cool, right?”
As Bart approaches its fifth birthday—it opened in May 2015—Murphy hopes to plan something special for the anniversary. He said he hopes Bart is remembered as “one of the first hipper, younger bars to come to the desert.”
I asked him if he’s yet checked out The Alibi, another hip bar that recently opened, in downtown Palm Springs. He said he hadn’t. “I actually have severe anxiety, ha, and I don’t leave my apartment unless it’s to go to work. I like to sit at home and stare at the wall. Know what I mean?”
For Murphy, some of the more memorable events the venue has hosted include performances from the local cumbia band Ocho Ojos, the rapper Speak! (Mexico City), and the Emo Nite tour. Murphy said that every weekend, there is something interesting and new at Bart. As for regular programming, the bar hosts goth nights twice a month, in addition to Latin nights on Sundays, video-game competitions on Thursdays, and 2-for-1 on Mondays. For New Year’s Eve, Murphy has a huge party planned, with three DJs and a cash balloon drop.
Looking ahead, Murphy said plans for expansion are always appealing. “I’ve always got my eyes open. But you know, the universe gives it to you whenever it’s ready. You just put the line out, and wait ’til it answers.”
Bart Lounge, at 67555 E. Palm Canyon Drive, No. F-124, in Cathedral City, is open daily from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. For more information, call 760-799-8800, or visit www.bartlounge.com.