By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
What started in 1966 under owner Gary Oelze as a bar that served fried food and beer celebrates a significant anniversary April 4, as legendary Alexandria music venue The Birchmere turns 50 years old.
At its first location in Shirlington, The Birchmere had capacity for between 150 and 200 seats, then moved to its first location in the Port City in 1981. That site on Mount Vernon Avenue was once a pizza parlor and a laundromat, and when the lease there expired in 1996, it moved to 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., where it has been ever since.
Kentucky native Oelze explained that initially, music programming started on only Wednesday and Saturday nights as new housing developments in Northern Virginia threatened to drive away customers. Before becoming a music venue, the bar and restaurant served mostly members of the military and government workers.
He began by booking bluegrass and folk artists, but looked to do things differently from some other venues, where the music was almost secondary to other distractions on offer to the audience.
“There were half a dozen places playing bluegrass music [in the area],” Oelze said. “But they would have a pool table, a pinball machine, leave a TV on at the bar if there was a football game, that kind of thing. I wasn’t a champion of bluegrass music, but I thought, ‘Well, it’s a legitimate thing. People want to listen.’
“So I started having no talking, and we’d ask people to leave if they were rowdy and such. It brought in more people as opposed to running people off. We put the little cards on the table, and it worked, and people found that they can bring a date or their wife and kids and hear some music.”
Bluegrass band the Seldom Scene played almost every Thursday night at The Birchmere from 1975 until 1995, while the venue has welcomed notable performers like Jerry Jeff Walker, Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris to name just a few. Legendary R&B singer Ray Charles also played one of his last ever live concerts in the Arlandria music hall.
Other notable guests included former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who visited in 1993 and 1997 to take in concerts by Jerry Jeff Walker. Gore was a regular at the club as he had a residence on Ridge Road in nearby Arlington, and they brought their wives Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore to see the performances along with their Secret Service security details.
“The crowd had no idea,” said Oelze. “I remember there was one table right next to where they sat, and a bunch of regulars asked who the reserved table was for because we don’t reserve tables. I told them the president’s coming, and they were shocked. It was really something.”
As for the future, Oelze said he has no plans to further expand the music venue, especially as its size remains appealing to artists touring in the area. It also diversified in 2012 with the opening of the Flex Stage, a second area with a capacity of 1,000 that allows it to stay competitive alongside the likes of the nearby Fillmore, Hamilton and Howard Theatre.
“We’re very comfortable presenting our acts in an atmosphere where you feel like you’re right there next to them, and that’s our market,” he said. “It’s been copied and tried and whatever, but we’ve just got to keep it fresh. There are major acts that between coming out with a new album or new projects that they don’t want to play a room of 2,000, they want a smaller room and to ply their trade.”
Oelze said that he would like to see many of The Birchmere’s old favorites return to help celebrate its 50th year, although there is no one event scheduled as an anniversary party.