March-April 2013 | Features

Retro Fit

A local landmark harks back to another era in its new incarnation as the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club

As you drive along Wisconsin Avenue, the Bethesda Theatre rises like a gleaming beacon on an otherwise drab shoreline. Bright white lights illuminate the marquee, and a rocket-shaped tower juts toward the sky with “Bethesda” emblazoned in baby-blue neon. There’s a timeless grace to the design, making the iconic building look simultaneously like a bygone throwback and a futuristic emblem.

Since its 1938 debut as the Boro Theatre, this eye-catching landmark has hosted thousands of Hollywood hits, headliners and stage productions. Now the storied space is entering a new era as Potomac real estate developer Rick Brown and a group of investors (including Bethesda Magazine publisher Steve Hull, who holds a minor stake) transform it into the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, which was set to open at the end of February.

Ticket-holders will see a diverse roster of performers putting on one or two shows seven nights a week. “We’ll have everything from blues to jazz to country to comedy to Motown to salsa to Celtic,” says the 64-year-old Brown. Right now, the venue is looking into booking top-tier acts such as Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and Branford or Wynton Marsalis, but for March, mostly area performers have been booked.

Ralph Camilli, a former booker and director of operations at Blues Alley in Georgetown, is in charge of bringing talent to the freshly minted space as director of operations. The 63-year-old industry veteran wants guests to feel as if they’ve taken a step back from the 21st century.

“There’s a chance to embrace a bygone era with a historic space like this,” he says. “I’ll be very happy if our first review is: ‘Bethesda Blues & Jazz takes you back to another time.’ ”

Real estate developer Rick Brown (right) is the man behind the new-old idea, while Ralph Camilli is director of operations. Photo by Michael Ventura Whoever takes the stage, audiences are in for a treat. Following a $2 million, top-to-bottom restoration and the installation of a state-of-the-art sound system, the bi-level Art Deco space has been transformed into a dinner theater-style venue. Many of the rows of flip seats have been removed, and candlelit tables fill the main floor with enough seating to accommodate 300 concertgoers. That number goes up to 500 with the additional bank of seating behind the main floor. Brown calls the setup “Copacabana style.”

The theater’s interior has been repainted in its original color scheme—rich burgundy with dusky blue accents—giving the room a fresh, yet retro, sensibility. There’s even a 40-foot bar in the lobby, where ticketholders and passersby can grab a drink or bite.

Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club is sleek, svelte and sexy—good reasons for The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and The Howard Theatre and The Hamilton, both in D.C., to watch their backs.

“There’s room for us all to coexist,” Brown says of those established venues. “And we don’t see ourselves in competition with the 9:30 Club or The Fillmore Silver Spring, since we’re not a rock ’n’ roll club.”

Camilli is much more blunt when he takes a look at the competition. “You go down the list: Food stinks; service sucks; sitting behind a pole; acoustics are off; no parking; sketchy neighborhood,” he says. “[Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club] could hit all the right notes.”

That might especially be true when it comes to food. Bethesda Blues & Jazz has a secret weapon in Executive Chef Scott Mullen, who comes to the venue after a long career at a number of restaurants along the East Coast, including Cedar Hollow Inn in Malvern, Pa., and the River Wilderness Golf & Country Club in Parrish, Fla.

“Usually when you go to a jazz club, you’re a captive audience and you eat whatever’s available,” Brown says. “We want to have first-class food.”

Working out of a new, two-level kitchen, Mullen will oversee an American-inspired menu that includes comforting fare such as lobster mac ’n’ cheese, orange marmalade-glazed chicken, and soft shell crabs with tequila-lime butter, alongside salads and starters.

Several Cajun-style dishes will make an appearance, as well, including mushroom and walnut beignets with honeyed goat cheese, shrimp and smoked chicken jambalaya, and blackened grouper. Passersby will be able to enjoy a taste of New Orleans, too. Fried-to-order beignets will be sold on weekends through a Dutch door that opens onto Wisconsin Avenue.   

Brown is hoping that fine food done well, with entrées in the $17 to $35 range, could be the pathway to success for the fledgling venture. “We felt that the reason why this space failed in the past is because they always brought food in,” he says. “It was a hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn and sandwiches-in-shrink-wrap kind of place.” This is the first time the theater has had an on-site kitchen, which will help it transition from merely a performance space to a multiuse facility that will be available for private parties and corporate events.