At the ripe young age of 82, the historic Tally Ho Theatre in downtown Leesburg has reinvented itself as a serious live music venue. Well, not by itself. It was actually done by its owner, Leesburg native and commercial developer Don Devine, with major help from his 22-year-old son Jack Devine.
The giant wall that separated Theater 1 from Theater 2 was torn down, and the old seats ripped up and given away, creating a standing capacity of 750, or 350 with chairs and tables. A new sound and light system was installed, the lobby was refurbished and two bars installed. The floor was scrubbed clean from years of soda syrup and popcorn gunk. High quality food is now available from La Lou Bistro next door, and it is some of the best eats you will ever find at a rock and roll show.
And from the start, the Devines have pursued and booked quality original performers and tribute bands, such as singer-songwriter James McMurtry, the Nighthawks, emmet swimming and the Led Zeppelin tribute band Zoso, who told the Devines they liked the Tally Ho more than B.B. King’s on Times Square in New York. Decent sales have enabled the Tally Ho to turn a profit in its very first quarter.
“My dream,” Don Devine said, “is to make this place into the Birchmere or the 9:30 Club West.” And in the boomtown that is Loudoun County, with no similar venue in western Fairfax, Prince William or Fauquier counties, that is not an unrealistic expectation.
Opened as a movie theater in 1931, Devine bought the Tally Ho for a song in 1999. A really cheap song. (He won’t say on the record.) “We enjoy very little debt on the project,” Devine said, which is “a great safety cushion allowing us to make mistakes, and also enables us to open and close the venue when we desire rather than having to resort to opening daily as a bar. It also gives us the ability to adjust our rental rates downward for non-profit productions and charity events.”
That’s a safety cushion that most aspiring club owners don’t have. Devine rented the theater to various operators over the next 13 years, until finally taking it over himself last fall.
Devine then began quizzing music industry types for help and hints, and said the Birchmere’s longtime booking agent, Michael Jaworek, was encouraging. He urged Devine to mine the territory of the western suburbs, away from the competition of the State Theatre, the Birchmere and Wolf Trap. Between western Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier, there is roughly a population of one million, for whom Alexandria or D.C. is a long haul.
“There’s nothing to do out this way,” said Jack Devine, a recent Hampden-Sydney College grad with a physics degree. “I had to drive all the way to 9:30. I wanted to make it special here, so people didn’t have to drive so far, and get the younger crowd energized again. All my friends.”
To fill the calendar, “we started looking at ’90s bands,” Jack Devine said. “We cold-called bands.” And they found that if they could get to the actual agents for bands, they could book them. They advertise in the two Loudoun weeklies, as well as Facebook and Twitter and in various online listings, and they immediately began getting crowds. They hosted the annual Jingle Jam on Dec. 8, and the first unique Tally Ho concert on Dec. 29.
The theater has also been used for charity functions and other gatherings. There’s a well-lit parking garage next door that is free on nights and weekends. There are plenty of dining choices in downtown Leesburg. And every show is all ages.
Miriam Nasuti, a Leesburg entrepreneur and marketing executive, noted that young families helped fuel Loudoun’s explosive growth, and now the kids in those families are teenagers or college students. The Tally Ho “has a lot of demographics to draw from,” Nasuti said, including the parents of those teens and students, who will be attracted to shows by ’70s bands like Ambrosia (newly resurgent on Jimmy Fallon’s show) and the Marshall Tucker Band, or ’90s bands like the Gin Blossoms, all of whom are on the way. Tribute band shows on back-to-back nights last month featuring Michael Jackson and Beatles soundalikes drew big crowds, and a Lynyrd Skynyrd band next month is likely to pack the place. Original acts such as Cabinet and Indecision, a popular Charlottesville jam band, as well as Allman Brothers and James Brown (!) cover bands are also booked.
Devine, 51, grew up in Leesburg, raised on the Beatles and Stones, Skynyrd and Zeppelin, like everyone of that age. He moved away and said he’d never come back, then returned to raise his family here. When his kids started going to shows in Richmond and Washington, he said, “Why don’t we do it at the Tally Ho? We have the opportunity, the capital and the energy.”
And they are making a serious shot at establishing the rejuvenated theater as the Birchmere West.