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By David Staba

Editors' note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories profiling local night life. So if your favorite spot or neighborhood isn't mentioned below, don't fret -- we'll be there soon.

The sweet sounds of an alto saxophone swirl through downtown early on a Friday evening, as traffic in and out of the night spots along Third Street, Niagara Street and Ferry Avenue begins to build.

"You're in the middle of everything," saxophonist Vernon James says. "You've got every kind of person walking around here on a weekend night -- all ages, all ethnic groups."

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Besides stopping to give James verbal encouragement, or drop a bit of the economic variety in his tip box, more than a few passersby join in the music-making, with James providing the backing for impromptu outbreaks of karaoke.

"I let them take over the mike," James says. "They're just having fun."

Not long ago, there was little of what most might consider fun to be had downtown. Two Niagara Street landmarks, the Arterial Lounge and Player's, always did a fairly steady weekend-night business, and places like Bragg's and Unc's drew the after-midnight crowd. Earlier in the evening on Third Street, though, you were more likely to see a tumbleweed than a group of early-evening revelers making their way from one watering hole to another.

That started to change when Steve Fournier Jr. opened Cafe Etc. two years ago, converting the bar formerly known as Rockwell's into a martini lounge, with jazz replacing filling-rattling dance beats as the musical backdrop.

Dan Vecchies' Shadow Martini Bar and Restaurant followed last fall, offering downtown's first fine-dining option. Like most Fridays, this one saw a burgeoning Happy Hour crowd.

The diverse crowd of people still dressed from a long day at the office and those dolled up for a lengthy night out, whether sitting down for dinner or sipping a martini, creates an audible buzz throughout the early evening hours. Shadow recently added several items suitable for eating at the bar, like an array of well-crafted burgers, to its assortment of steaks, pasta dishes, flatbreads and trademark crab cakes.

Downtown's other primary dining option is right around the corner at Dell's Arterial Lounge, where Kevin and family serve up perfectly juicy steak sandwiches, pizza, burgers and absolutely exquisite wings. And, this being Friday, more than a few fish fries disappeared.

A few doors down on Niagara Street sits Player's Bar, the gateway between the Seneca Niagara Casino and downtown. As a favorite post-shift stop for casino workers, Player's is one of the few businesses to see much of a bump since Seneca Niagara opened on New Year's Eve, 2002.

Like the Arterial, Player's also offers self-entertainment in the form of a creatively stocked juke box, as well as booking bands periodically. And there's no place else downtown to see high-profile boxing matches, including Saturday's middleweight superfight between Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins.

As the Happy Hour crowds start to disperse, some stop by Third Street Liquors to choose from the extensive wine selection.

For those not ready to call it a night, there's downtown's newest tavern -- the Third Street Tap Room. Featuring, appropriately enough, an extensive selection of draft and bottled beer, the thoroughly refurbished and refinished Tap Room draws a blend of post-college up through creeping-up-on-middle-age patrons, often with an acoustic guitar player providing the entertainment.

Up the street at Cafe Etc., the crowd rebuilds to get a weekly fix of live jazz. Fournier books national and local acts whose repertoires range from ultra-traditional to cutting edge. On this night, a youthful foursome known as Sapori -- Italian for flavor -- makes another triumphant appearance, issuing creations both smooth and danceable.

At one point, a woman in a bright red dress and a man clad in black shirt and slacks dance with both skill and fury, drawing their own round of applause at number's end.

With midnight approaching, downtown's traditional base -- the late-nighters -- starts pouring in.

At Bragg's, just off Third on Ferry Avenue, a healthy gathering enjoys what figures to be one of the last patio-worthy evenings of summer. Some bounce back and forth to Unc's, while others settle in for the evening on one patio or dance floor or the other.

While Bragg's and Unc's keep doing what they've been doing quite successfully since the glory nights of Third Street in the early 1990s, when hundreds of Americans and Canadians packed the thoroughfare every weekend, downtown's late-night life steadily grows and changes.

At Club 427, new management strives to make over the image of the nightclub formerly known as Bedrock's. Last summer, entrepreneurs farther up Third worried that 427 was becoming a barrier to customers coming off Niagara Street. Gunfire was heard in the wee hours several times, and at least once, what amounted to a riot wound up literally blocking the street.

But now, the place has been thoroughly scrubbed, security tightened and the beat -- while still meant to inspire gyrations -- has noticeably softened. On a dance floor once notorious for blatant blunt-smoking and questionable transactions, there's now only dancing.

At the other end of Third sits the newest late-night destination. Already the site of high-profile events such as a 10th anniversary party for Buffalo morning-radio hosts Shredd and Ragan, Malibu has steadily moved beyond its original college-age target demographic.

The cavernous club, which was once home to the legendary blues haunt The Imperial Garage, now surrounds patrons with a tropical decor, and is big enough to hold a sizable crowd -- which it does every Thursday through Saturday night -- without feeling crowded.

Pete Nastasi of Malibu remains optimistic about downtown's future, even though the spin-off traffic from the casino many of his peers had planned on hasn't materialized. He said projects such as the widening of Third Street, scheduled for next spring, should help the area continue to grow.

"Once the street is widened, and people realize how much there is to do down here, it should help everybody," Nastasi says, standing between his club and its next-door neighbor, The Woodshed, which primarily draws an older crowd

There's no small amount of skepticism about that street project, given the tendency of projects involving New York State to get wildly botched, and whether it will be completed in time for next summer's tourist season, as promised.

A street festival drew throngs downtown a year ago. A second rendition, scheduled for the weekend of Sept. 18 and 19, wound up getting scrubbed due to planning and logistical complications.

Still, several businesses, including Cafe Etc. and Bragg's, had lined up bands meant to attract people looking for something to do after the festival, and those shows will go on as scheduled.

It's worth noting that downtown's resurgence hasn't resulted from governmental schemes or handouts to out-of-town corporations, but through the hard work of local business owners, most of whom you see when you stop in the above establishments.

And that growth should continue. The sales of at least seven properties in the area have closed, or are scheduled to close in the coming weeks, and negotiations are taking place on a number of others. (Vecchies emphasized that, contrary to the conclusions drawn by some who saw a picture in a political advertisement in last week's Niagara Falls Reporter that included Shadow among a gallery of properties that have sold recently, his building and business have not been, are not and will not be for sale.)

In the meantime, the people keep coming and -- at least until it gets too cold -- Vernon James will keep playing.

"I'm just having a good time, man," he says.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 14 2004