Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Norman Jones has owned the nightclub Discovery since 1979. So far, the venue has weathered six presidential administrations, four recessions, several remodelings and countless trends in dance music. In that span, Discovery has morphed from a small space that served a mostly gay clientele into a 22,000-square-foot late-night behemoth, where remarkably diverse crowds dance and drink till dawn.
But at age 63-and-change, Jones isn't merely pondering retirement when he turns 65.
“I am counting down the days until I can retire,” he said. “I've worked my ass off for 30-something years and I think after that you deserve to retire and take a lower profile in your business — if it's still my business. Of course, anything I've got is for sale to the right person at the right price.”
To commemorate his decades in the disco trenches, Jones and company will host a 30th anniversary bash at Discovery on Nov. 21, with throwback drink and door prices starting at 9 p.m. DJs will pump out a chronological array of dance floor classics, starting with the late '70s and wrapping up in the wee hours at the end of the aughties.
Though there are older clubs in Arkansas, Discovery is the only one in the state to have been under the same ownership for so many years, Jones said.
He got his start in the business in 1975 with a club in Hot Springs called Norma Kristie's, named after his stage persona. Jones earned a substantial following on the female impersonation circuit, including the honor of winning the first ever Miss Gay America competition. Soon after that, he bought the rights to the pageant from the founders. He hosted it at clubs all over the country for many years before divesting himself of the competition in 2006.
Before he was a club owner, Jones served in the Navy as a dental technician in Bethesda, Md. He performed dental work on much of the military's top brass, and even cleaned Spiro Agnew's teeth once.
“I cleaned his teeth, but somebody should've cleaned his plow,” Jones said.
After his military service, Jones finished college, and then worked for the state for 12 years. There were several years of overlap when he had to pull double-duty, getting home from the club at about 2 a.m. and back to the office by 8 a.m.
Over the years, Discovery became a larger club and its crowds more diverse. Though he was very happy to serve a mixed clientele, Jones still felt the gay community needed more nightlife options, so in the mid-'90s he opened Backstreet in the same building as Discovery. He also owns the downtown bars Six Ten and Off Center.
As it grew in capacity, Discovery also grew in importance. Though it's only open on Saturday nights, the club serves an important function for late-night revelers.
“Believe me, I wouldn't want to wait tables all night and not have a place to go relax,” Jones said. “The 5 a.m. clubs definitely serve a purpose.”
At more than 20,000 square feet with three rooms, patrons also have options. The techno room and the lobby are dedicated to music and dancing, while another large space has plentiful seating for patrons to enjoy drag shows and other performances.
“Discovery is the cornerstone of the Little Rock club scene,” said Jason Haynie, who performs as DJ Balance. “Other clubs plan their events around Discovery's schedule.”
The crowds are large, diverse and respectful of one another, Haynie said.
“On the really special nights, you look down [at your watch] and it's 4:45 [a.m.] and you look up and the room is still packed out. That's about as good as it gets,” he said.
While Jones said he has enjoyed owning nightclubs, he's excited to take some time for other pursuits, such as travel.
“I've done my time in the honky-tonk prison,” he said. “But I've loved it. I've had boyfriends and when I was younger I had girlfriends — why I don't know — but Discovery and Backstreet have always been my lover.
“Sometimes they've messed me over and sometimes they've been good to me, just like boyfriends and girlfriends. Most of the time they mess you over, but sometimes they're good to you.”