Bethesda Theater’s next act: A blues and jazz supper club


Larry Brown plays the piano at the Bethesda Blues and Supper Club, which opens this week at the Bethesda Theater. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Rick Brown didn’t mean to open a music venue. The real estate developer just wanted to invest in a building.

Somewhere along the way, though, that changed.

Last January, Brown bought the Bethesda Theater, an art deco movie house, for $2.85 million, with every intention of renting it out.

“But I realized very quickly, over the first few months, that I should set this up myself,” said Brown, a principal at B&B Realty Investments in Bethesda.

Brown, 64, grew up in Silver Spring. His father was a jazz drummer and two of his brothers are musicians (one, Larry, is the director of entertainment at the new venue). His mother’s family was in the restaurant business. A supper club with musical acts seemed like the perfect venture for him.


The Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Last week, Brown opened the doors to Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club, a music house that harks back to an earlier era.

“We want people to feel like they’ve been transported back to a time when candlelight and music went together,” Brown said.

The club will host performances about five nights a week from a range of artists, including country singers, comedians and pop stars. Tickets for most shows will range between $30 and $40, Brown said, with a $10 cover for Monday performances by the club’s 18-piece house jazz band.

“People do value a closer, more intimate experience with someone they really admire,” said Ralph Camilli, director of operations.

The theater, which was built in 1938, was most recently renovated by the Bozzuto Group in 2007. Since then, the historical building had a short stint hosting off-Broadway productions, but has mostly remained idle.

“It just sat vacant for a couple of years,” Brown said. “No one seemed to know how to make the building work. We were blessed to find a property that was in very good shape to begin with.”

Once he bought the building, Brown applied for a Small Business Administration loan — he received $4.2 million in all— and added a kitchen, bar and dining area to the theater. An additional loan from Main Street Bank in Arlington for $2.63 million helped fund the renovations.

Today, dining tables near the stage seat 300. Theater seating in the back accommodates another 200 people.

The decision to serve dinner and drinks was as much a financial consideration as a matter of convenience, said Camilli, who used to manage Blues Alley and the Cellar Door.

“As the cost of contract entertainment goes up, venues need to find other ways to generate income,” he said. “Of course, food and beverage is the way.”

Brown and Camilli are considering other ideas for bringing in money, as well: Live-streaming performances on the Internet, hosting a lunchtime speaker series, establishing a weekend bakery that would sell the kitchen’s beignets.

Brown has long had ties to the Bethesda Theater. He grew up watching movies there during the 1950s, and his mother received her high school diploma on its stage in 1947.

“It’s a building with a rich history,” Brown said. “Our intent is to make artists feel so at home that they pick our venue as where they want to play when they come to Washington.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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