The multi-million dollar renovation of the historic Bethesda Theater is near completion, shows are selling out and an introductory press conference for the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club is set for Tuesday with a tour and food samples from a menu that features entrees ranging from $18 to $35.
The venue says its goal is to become the D.C. region’s No. 1 live music supper club. Residents and county officials have anticipated its opening since last year. Its 1930′s era marquee, sitting prominently on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda, is lit up and 300 table seats and a 40-foot bar await inside.
But can the Club succeed, especially in a place with a struggling live music scene and little tradition of venues of a similar scale?
“I think it’s a visionary idea because if you take a look at the area between D.C. and Strathmore, there’s nothing in terms of being able to present jazz and blues and other types of music like it,” said Charlie Fishman, founder and president of the D.C. Jazz Festival and a friend of Blues and Jazz Club director of operations Ralph Camilli. “So I think it’s a really excellent idea. If it works, who knows?”
Blues and Jazz Club owner Rick Brown, a Bethesda-based realtor, is hoping it does.
Brown, who attended movies at what was then the Bethesda Theater in the 1950′s, couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. The Club website says the renovation cost $8 million. Unlike the Filmore in Silver Spring, which the state and county contributed $11.2 million to build, the Blues and Jazz Club received no public contribution.
The theater (7719 Wisconsin Ave.) went to auction in 2010 with a $4 million debt attached. Built in 1938, a $12 million contribution from developer Bozzuto Group helped re-open the theater in 2007 when Bozzuto built The Whitney apartment complex above it.
But in 2009, the Broadway theater company that had been putting on shows in the theater stopped its operations. A flood caused by malfunctioning plumbing in The Whitney caused it to temporarily close in 2008.
“I do think a Bethesda venue has all the trappings to do well, my question going forward is does Bethesda have something inherently lacking that would make it hard for a music venue to succeed,” said Bethesda-based blues and rock musician Ted Garber. “Nowadays you have these bands playing at places like the Harp and Fiddle and people just aren’t coming out. The turn-outs can be really disheartening.
“The jazz scene is centered in D.C., but for a jazz club like this that maybe caters to more well-off folks, I think people would go out for jazz music,” Garber said. “It caters not only to the urban demographic but also the upper-crust. It’s considered a high art.”
A few shows at the Club are already sold out and the calendar is heavy with acts in March. The club opens on March 1 with a performance from Grammy Award-winning trumpet player Irvin Mayfield. A press release advising of the press conference next week says the Club will also feature national pop, country and comedy artists. In April, the Club will host a gala featuring jazz pianist Keiko Matsui for the D.C.-based S&R Foundation.
“I’ve observed that people who live up around there hate the concept of driving to the city and then parking in the city, etc.,” Fishman said. “From an economic point of view, that’s a plus, the fact that a lot of people who live in Bethesda I would think enjoy jazz music and now have a place to hear good music with easy parking.”
Fishman called Camilli, former manager of the Cellar Door and Blues Alley in D.C., “the best manager of a club I’ve ever met.”
“Between the two of them, Rick and Ralph, energy-wise and with the money they’ve put into the place, they got a chance,” Fishman said. “I think it’s a gamble with potential because there’s really no entertainment up there.”