Gary Oelze, who made the Birchmere an area music staple, dies at 80

Gary Oelze, who helped rework the Birchmere Music Corridor in Alexandria, Va. — as soon as a quiet neighborhood venue for folks and bluegrass musicians — into a serious cease for world-renowned acts together with soul and nation performers, died Jan. 23 at his residence in Alexandria. He was 80.

The trigger was congestive coronary heart failure, mentioned his spouse, Susan Oelze. Mr. Oelze (pronounced OL-zee) additionally had two strokes final 12 months however continued working till early December.

Lately, Mr. Oelze’s 500-seat efficiency area has featured a variety of nationwide and worldwide acts from bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs to modern soul singers Raheem DeVaughn and Lalah Hathaway and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. The guardian firm additionally often books acts into bigger halls.

The venue has lengthy been a D.C.-area residence for nation performers, together with Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Ray Value, and two of Mr. Oelze’s private favorites, Mickey Newbury and Rosanne Money. In 1993, President Invoice Clinton and Vice President Al Gore took their spouses on a White Home double-date to listen to Jerry Jeff Walker on the membership.

Ray Charles gave considered one of his final public performances on the membership in 2003. And there have been typically surprises on the membership, equivalent to Invoice Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys commandeering the stage for an impromptu 45-minute set. Or the shifting however unannounced look by an ailing Pete Seeger on a tribute to Woody Guthrie by native people performers.

Mr. Oelze started with bluegrass teams. Although enormously fashionable within the D.C. space, the type had been largely relegated to neighborhood taverns, many with out even a raised stage. In contrast, the Birchmere introduced the largely acoustic style with good sight strains and a sound system that was continuously upgraded.

Extra importantly, Mr. Oelze made the musicians really feel snug by posting “Quiet Please” indicators on all of the tables. That was an thought he appropriated from the Cellar Door, a Georgetown membership. He enforced it, too — as soon as throwing out 12 individuals on an evening when he had solely 24 patrons.

“Proper on the time we went to full-time music in 1974, I mentioned we’re going to do it proper,” Mr. Oelze informed The Washington Publish. “However you couldn’t do a ‘listening membership’ with bluegrass music, as a result of a whole lot of bluegrass followers don’t prefer to go someplace and behave.”

The venue’s first success got here in 1974 when Mr. Oelze employed the Seldom Scene away from the Purple Fox, a dive bar in Bethesda, Md., with pool tables. “They made me a official membership, began giving me nationwide recognition,” he informed The Publish of the band. “Out-of-town individuals would come to see them, particularly out-of-town pickers.”

The Seldom Scene performed the membership on Thursdays for the following twenty years. As proponents of “newgrass,” they broadened the bluegrass repertoire with alternatives from modern people singer-songwriters. Touring performers equivalent to Linda Ronstadt would typically sit in with the group, and the Birchmere’s status soared.

In 1982, the New York Instances known as it “the world’s premier bluegrass membership,” populated “not by blue-collar staff solely, however by members of Congress and their aides, Washington legal professionals and journalists, Authorities officers and vacationers from as distant as Japan.”

Mr. Oelze and his membership additionally nurtured recent expertise. Future bluegrass luminary Alison Krauss carried out there whereas nonetheless in her teenagers. He gave singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who first appeared on the membership as a gap act, a down cost on a brand new guitar and later handed her demo tapes onto CBS Information executives in Nashville. That act of generosity, she mentioned, resulted in her first report contract.

Gary Hagan Oelze was born in Owensboro, Ky., on Aug. 24, 1942. His father owned a grocery retailer and later ran a roofing enterprise. Mr. Oelze took up guitar in his teenagers and carried out with native musicians at sq. dances.

After a youthful hitch within the Air Pressure, Mr. Oelze got here to Washington and managed a drugstore earlier than opening the primary Birchmere location — in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood — within the early Sixties with co-owner Invoice Hooper. Initially, they went into dwell music as a method to increase the restaurant’s nighttime enterprise. The membership relocated to Alexandria in 1981, a 12 months after Hooper died.

Mr. Oelze’s marriages to Imogene Williams, Linda Lee Smith and Georgia Mechlin led to divorce. Survivors included his spouse of 10 years, the previous Susan Pilchard; three youngsters from his first marriage, Carrie Oelze of Boca Raton, Fla., Cheryl Oelze of Centreville, Va., and Vick Oelze of Sanford, N.C.; a stepdaughter, Kelly Pilchard of New York Metropolis; three brothers; 4 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.

Within the late Eighties, Mr. Oelze began working with Michael Jaworek, then of Chesapeake Concert events, to diversify the membership’s bookings. By 1997, Jaworek joined the Birchmere employees as a full-time expertise purchaser whereas it expanded to a bigger venue two blocks down the road.

“He has at all times been a pointy businessman when it comes to doing what must be executed,” Jaworek mentioned. “As he favored to say, ‘You possibly can’t play with scared cash.’ And in our unstable enterprise, that’s at all times the case.”

The brand new location had two rooms, a supper membership and a dance corridor with a seated bar.

Mr. Oelze adorned it with a number of emblems of the membership’s previous: a statue of deceased doorman William Edwin “Pudge” Tarbett within the dance corridor and a mural of the dobro performed by the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge on the outer wall. Each had been designed by Clarence Schumaker, who additionally illustrated the membership’s detailed month-to-month calendars. Signed pictures from performers lined the partitions of the hallway.

Prior to now twenty years, the membership has additionally branched out into stand-up comedy and made inroads with the LGBT neighborhood by presenting comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer and filmmaker John Waters, whose annual vacation monologues discover the “erotic potentialities of Christmas.”

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