ALEXANDRIA, VA – Located in Del Ray, The Birchmere is widely known as one of the DC area’s most prominent music venues. Living on Music host Steve Houk interviewed the venue’s founder Gary Oelze and booking maestro Michael Jaworek, both sitting in the famed poster-laden hallway at the Birchmere itself.
The interview was an opportunity for Houk to look at the past, present and future of this legendary venue, and what’s in store as they move forward after surviving (at least for now) the impact of the pandemic.
Dealing With Turmoil
After a brutal shutdown that had far-reaching financial shocks, The Birchmere re-opened on July 10th, 2020. Due to Covid regulations, the venue can only seat about 200 people currently which is 40% capacity.
“Some artists are very accommodating, [they] understand that the old line ‘we came over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now’ still holds,” said Jaworek. “We try to work out deals that can be financially viable for both parties. There are some where they feel they cannot afford to take the date. I don’t get into an argument with them because that’s a very personal decision.”
Alternatively, there are some artists who originally were apprehensive about even playing at an indoor venue. Jaworek noted that they are seeing fewer of those artists now as the weather is getting colder.
The Interview (push play and enjoy)
“It’s taken off very slow[ly] because Michael moved the schedule backwards four or five different times, it was unbelievable. Nobody in the beginning thought it was gonna be this long,” said Oelze. He also added that he regrets taking an early stimulus loan from the government, but that the real reason the Birchmere opened back up was to “keep the team together.”
When asked if he had developed any new hobbies during the quarantining, Oelze responded, “Worrying.” Still, the Birchmere is carrying on with shows booked through the fall and winter.
How a Kentucky Drug Store Clerk Conquered the Music Scene
Oelze hails from Kentucky and got out of the military in 1963. He was working at a People’s Drug Store in Northern Virginia when a fellow employee, impressed with his management skills, offered to give him stock in a restaurant in Shirlington that was being sold.
The restaurant re-opened in 1966 and with little competition in the Shirlington neighborhood, it sustained a successful lunch business. In order to boost the night time part of the business, Oelze decided to create a music vibe in the evening. He also noticed a lively local blue grass presence, then decided to court that genre and the Birchmere’s music legacy began.
Despite trying to create a lively musically-focused atmosphere, he would put a “quiet” sign on each table, the same one that rests on every table today. Oelze admits he “stole” the idea from legendary DC club The Cellar Door. He labels his club “a listener’s club” where being able to hear the musicians is the top priority.
“I heard you got rid of half the crowd one night,” said Houk, which prompted Oelze into telling the story of an unruly crowd during a snowstorm and how asked half the crowd to take off when things got a bit out of hand.
“We’ve stuck to it religiously. We’re a dinosaur now. There became a lot of good listening clubs back then,” said Oelze.
“You may be a dinosaur, but like Jurassic Park, you’re also full of modernity,” said Houlk.
Houk showed a live clip of one of the Birchmere shows in the early days with musical guest and eventual Birchmere mainstay The Seldom Scene. That clip also gave the Birchmere the honor of being part of the first live WETA broadcast that was ever shot outside the studio; it helped that the Birchmere was located near WETA’s headquarters in Shirlington and many WETA staffers were regular lunchtime customers at the Birchmere.
Expanding Beyond Bluegrass
Michael Jaworek approached the Birchmere in 1988 about becoming their gig promoter and booker, and at some point, diversifying their bookings. Eventually, Jaworek wanted to expand based on “the geography of the room.” but to do it in an organic way.
“I also knew that organic growth would be the firmest and the best way, so starting with bluegrass and folk, which we had in the room already, we then expanded the concentric circles like a pool of water when you drop the rock, to move out to say, country rock or country, and a fusion jazz to the more R & B-type jazz,” explained Jaworek.
Remembering the legends of some close-to-final performances at the Birchmere by Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Glen Campbell, Houk showed a clip of Campbell during his last performance and asked Jaworek and Oezle to regale with behind-the-scenes stories.
One of the Most Treasured Places on Earth
Houk referred to the Birchmere as not just one of his favorite venues, but among his “most treasured places on Earth.” Over the years, Houk has been such a regular that Oelze once told him jokingly that he should have a cot in the back. It’s through the generosity of his connections here that he has had some of the highlights of his life meeting and hanging out with lifelong legends like Peter Frampton, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, Herb Alpert, David Crosby and more. As a songwriter, he’s gotten to learn from such a great variety of acts.
“In some ways, it’s like family. The relationships that I’ve fostered with these people is a highlight of my life and hope that it will continue to do so.”
The Birchmere is located at 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, Virginia. Click here for upcoming events.