Is Bethesda ready for its own Blues Alley-Birchmere hybrid? We’ll find out this weekend when the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club opens in the old Bethesda Theatre. The new 500 seat venue is a huge departure for the 1938 movie theater, previously known as the Bethesda Theatre Cafe and the Bethesda Cinema and Drafthouse. The old seats have been removed to make room for dinner tables in front of the large stage, while rows of more traditional concert hall-style seating fills the back of the room. Sightlines throughout the art-deco room are fabulous. Director of Operations Ralph Camilli likens the supper club-theater hybrid to “Blues Alley and the Kennedy Center merged together.”
Camilli, who spent decades managing and booking Blues Alley and the Cellar Door before taking the reins in Bethesda, says that while the name is “Bethesda Blues and Jazz,” the club will be booking country, comedy, salsa and Motown acts as well. Example A: Up-and-coming country singer Maggie Rose is booked to play on March 8 and 9. (The club says the Friday show is almost sold out.)
There are also plans to clear tables off the hardwood floor to host regular dances with salsa and swing bands, such as the Tom Cunningham Orchestra, which performs on March 29. Every Monday night is given over to the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Orchestra, the 18-piece house band featuring former Airmen of Note leader Peter BarenBregge. A new projector and movie screen will allow the theater to show films, too.
But for the most part, the opening schedule is heavy on the kind of artists you’d see at Blues Alley, such as Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (Friday), the Butch Warren Sextet (Tuesday) or the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet (Wednesday). In keeping with the jazz supper club theme, chef Scott Mullen’s menu is a hybrid of creole cuisine and more accessible steakhouse fare. And there are amenities that competitors such as Blues Alley or Rams Head can’t much, including 340 public parking spots in the building, offering free parking all weekend and every night after 10 p.m.
The ticket policy is a little confusing at first. Three hundred seats are at the dinner tables arrayed on two levels near the stage. These are not assigned seats, so audience members claim them on a first-come, first-seated basis on the night of the show. Once these 300 seats are filled, the 200 theater seats, which are assigned, go on sale.
One thing to consider: This is not a cheap night out. Concerts by local acts start at $20, going to $35 to $40 for touring artists. (Mondays cost $10.) This is before you add a $2.60 per-ticket processing fee and a $15 food and drink minimum for anyone seated at a table. The club justifies this two ways: One is that touring artists are becoming more expensive to book, especially when you have someone as renowned Grammy-winner Irvin Mayfield bringing a large ensemble from New Orleans. Also, they say the food and beverage minimum is priced so that ordering an appetizer and a drink – say, a bowl of chicken gumbo and a pint of Dogfish Head beer, or mushroom and walnut beignets and a glass of wine – will cover it. (Appetizers, soups and salads run from $8 to $12; beers are around $6, and wines are mostly $8 or $9.) But no matter how you put it, you’re looking at a minimum of $70 per couple before you walk in the door most nights. That’s putting it into special-event-date territory for some folks.
Owner Rick Brown runs a property management and investment company — “My dad was a jazz drummer. My mother was a singer and a restaurateur. That’s why I chose real estate as a career.” When he picked up the theater in foreclosure two years ago, “I saw a piece of land I thought was undervalued. I wasn’t planning on being the operator – I was planning on being the landlord.” But after his brother Larry – a Wammie Award-winning jazz pianist – introduced him to Camilli and others in the music business, Brown decided to keep the club in the family.
He has big plans to be involved in the community, hosting events for the Yellow Ribbon Fund; a battle of the jazz bands between Walt Whitman and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools; and hosting the benefit Reel Water Film Festival in June.
The Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club might not turn Bethesda into the hip nightlife mecca that county leaders are hoping for, but for those looking to see good live music in a venue smaller than Strathmore or the Fillmore – and for people who’d rather drive to Bethesda than Annapolis or Alexandria – it looks like a win for the county.