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Life of the Party
MODE Interviews Ron Kamionka

by Lisa Hummel

The man doesn’t sleep. Or he sleeps very little. On average, his day begins at 8:30 and ends well after most everyone else is in bed, seven days a week. His mind is constantly turning: what to put where, how to market his product, how to appease the masses, how to draw the crowds — and keep them. He’s not the life of the party; he’s the life behind the party.

Originally from the Wilkes-Barre area, Ron Kamionka made his way to Harrisburg in 1992. He came on-board as the food and beverage director at Holiday Inn West and oversaw Wanda’s. It was under Kamionka’s helm that Wanda’s earned its current reputation; its wacky, attention-grabbing stunts and attractions make for ideal water cooler fodder. Plain and simple, it’s a high-energy meat market, and it was done by design.

With one club rejuvenation under his belt, Kamionka set his sights elsewhere. He teamed with a group of other interested parties, formed a company, and opened Odyssey, an under-age nightclub located in Twin Ponds East. Last December brought 5:01 Downtown, the first new nightclub to enter downtown Harrisburg in years. This week, he is opening the doors of his latest venture, Eclipse Nightclub, located in the former home of The Vault. What’s more, Kamionka hopes to open an additional nightclub in the area some time next year.

Thus far, he has had the Midas touch, turning all of his endeavors into successful establishments. But a life in the nightclub business was not always in the cards for Kamionka. He claims it was all an accident. “Anybody in this business ends up in this business by accident,” he said. “This business is the Island of Misfit Toys —have you ever seen Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and how all of the misfit toys end up somewhere? That’s everyone in this business.”

Kamionka graduated from Bloomsburg University with a double major in accounting and psychology. Upon discovering that life as an accountant wasn’t for him, he deciding to explore different avenues. He worked at a convention center, tried his hand at catering, and worked as a food and beverage director before finding his way to Wanda’s. “In each hotel, I was developing a nightclub product,” he said. “I decided at the end of the day that, in this market, there is definitely a need for good nightclubs. A lot of what this market used to consist of were just places that opened up and got default nightclub business.”

According to Kamionka, the nightclub business isn’t hard. The secret is merely in pinpointing what the consumer wants.

“I think Harrisburg has the wherewithal to be an entertainment city, definitely. Do I think that it’s going to be like a New York or a Miami, on the cutting edge of things? Definitely not,” he said. “A lot of people say you have to dumb things down for Harrisburg as far as music goes and things like that — that’s not true. It’s just that the musical tastes are different; certain things don’t work in Harrisburg. Bands that work everywhere else don’t work in Harrisburg. It’s got its own unique flavor, its own unique feel. The main thing to me is that it’s not rocket science: you take the market and find out what they need, instead of taking something that you want to put in a market. If there’s a need for it, people are going to come to it.”

The opening of Eclipse comes during a renaissance of sorts in downtown Harrisburg. Since 5:01’s opening, Second Street has welcomed more than a handful of dining establishments, a nightclub in the former Zephyr’s location, and a third club that is set to open in the coming months. Is there ever too much of a good thing?

“In the Harrisburg market, there’s talk about ‘brain drain’ — well, we suffer from ‘night drain’ and that’s basically people at night going to Baltimore or New York or Philly because there’s a whole lot of choices,” Kamionka said. “Well, if we can create that same thing in Harrisburg, we’re going to stop people from going to Baltimore or to Philly or to wherever it is and spending their money there. Instead, they’ll be spending it here; so realistically, the more the better and the more the merrier, because it brings more people.”

Slated to open the day before Thanksgiving — a huge night in the industry — Eclipse will be everything The Vault was not. The site was completely altered, with the walls painted vibrant hues, the bathrooms brand new, and the floor space large. It is nearly unrecognizable when compared to its former self. “We went in there, we gutted everything and if we didn’t tear it out, we covered it up, so it’s going to have a completely different look, a completely different feel,” said Kamionka. The third floor will be a dance club, and the second floor will be eclectic, housing everything from Karaoke to live bands. It will also be vastly different from 5:01. While 5:01 will cater to an older crowd with a casual, though cosmopolitan, feel, Eclipse will be a Top 40 dance club. A single cover charge admits goers to both clubs. Kamionka hopes the masses will be happy.

As for himself, Kamionka is currently grooming individuals to take away the need for his constant on-site presence, though he admits that his mind is never far from the business — even when he tries to get away. Be it in a bar on a late Sunday night or on a beach in Cancun, his mind is always working, plotting the next move or designing the next dance floor layout. He doesn’t even take time off for his birthday, which is, fittingly, New Year’s Eve.

“I can’t even get away then,” he said, laughing. “I think I was born to be in this business, just for that simple fact. But it’s okay. Every year I throw a big party for a couple thousand of my friends.”

And then, and perhaps only then, he allows himself to be the life of the party.

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