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A quiet finale for Masquerade

The dark, funky music hall at E Seventh Avenue and N 15th Street has seen its share of characters through the years - punk rockers and bluegrass pickers, hip-hop artists and head bangers, salsa dancers, jazz musicians and Goths, tattooed teenagers and yuppie 30-somethings, homegrown local bands and widely known international acts.

But on Saturday, the party ended. The Masquerade closed its doors for good. The venue's Web site, usually packed with information about upcoming concerts, had only a simple message:

"The Masquerade. October 24, 1987-February 25, 2006. R.I.P," it read. "Thanks for all your support through the years. We'll miss you all. . ."

And the regulars will miss the joint, too.

"It's kind of like a piece of Tampa is dying," said David Phan, 26, who started visiting the club 11 years ago. He has been there through '80s nights, foam parties and scores of concerts.

"You see clubs come and go. But the Masquerade . . . has a special place in my heart."

It had become a special place to Joe Tolley, too. He spent many nights inside the Masquerade, some as a spectator and some as a performer during the 1990s with his band, Infix.

"It was a great atmosphere; it definitely had a great vibe," said Tolley, 35. "It's really a shame to see it go. It's definitely a landmark."

Since the mid 1990s, the Masquerade has been located in what used to be the Ritz, a decades-old upscale theater. When the club opened in 1987, it was a few blocks up the street and was primarily a dance club. Two years later, the second Masquerade opened in Atlanta, and both clubs started presenting live shows.

In 1995, the Masquerade moved to its current location, 1503 E Seventh Ave. Management gradually began booking more live shows, but the Masquerade always maintained its dance club element.

Calls to the club's general manager, Tom DeGeorge, and its owner, Dean Riopelle, were not returned. People associated with the club have suggested that the closing was prompted, at least in part, by the latest version of a noise ordinance passed in January by the Tampa City Council.

Under the new rule, those who exceed legal noise limits would receive a warning. If they break the rule again within the next year, they would receive a misdemeanor citation and could be fined as much as $500, be jailed as long as 60 days or get probation for six months.

The noise limit for most of the city from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. is 55 decibels for high sounds and 65 for bass sounds. In entertainment districts, such as Ybor City, the legal limit is 85 decibels for high noise and 87 for bass from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.

The level of normal conversation is 50 to 65 decibels, and lawn mowers generate 85 to 90 decibels, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Masquerade was one of several Ybor City businesses that hired an attorney to fight the ordinance, claiming it unfairly targeted club owners and would hurt business.

But Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said officers have issued no citations so far under the updated noise ordinance. She said authorities never intended to use the ordinance to shut down businesses.

"As more people call Ybor home, the businesses have to adjust. That doesn't mean closing their doors; it just means changing with the times," McElroy said. "We'd much rather come to agreement with businesses than have to enforce the ordinance."

The Masquerade no longer must worry about noise ordinances. The old hall has fallen silent, and it saddens those who have grown to love it.

"It's going to be a very empty corner right there," Phan said.