Even with the front door locked, the stage only half-built and the room a general shambles, the cash register just inside is still plugged in and lit up.
Other than that telltale sign, no one passing by on East Lancaster Avenue would think that the Ardmore Music Hall is ready for business. But in a matter of weeks, the already-powered-up register should start seeing serious action.
When this iconic rock club is reborn as a new home for original music, it will signal the latest in a string of historic reinventions for what’s possibly the Main Line’s most consistent address for live, loud entertainment. Recent suburban transplants might know it only as Brownies 23 East, but it was the 23 East Cabaret through the ’80s and mid-’90s, and the Sly Fox before that. Through those years, it hosted some of those decades’ most serious heavyweights, both local—like the Hooters, who inspired the kind of hometown pride you can’t describe if you weren’t there—and non-local (Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Blues Traveler, Red Hot Chili Peppers—in most cases, before they were famous). And not just bands that went on to become megastars, but acclaimed talents like Pinetop Perkins, T-Bone Burnett and Levon Helm played there as well. In 1990, the Inquirer wrote, “as Asbury Park’s Stone Pony was to Springsteen, the 23 East has also served as home base for a number of area bands.” Even in Philly proper, you can count on one hand the number of consistently operating small to midsize venues with such a pedigree.
Now, as a reinvented room, it’s opening with some of those very same names.
There’s still a long way to go, of course. On a recent walk-through of the space with project partners Joe Rufo, who owns the building, and Rich Kardon, who’s handling much of the venue’s booking, the two described the heavy lifting still to come, including bringing in all new furnishings and replacing the walls behind the stage, not to mention finishing the stage itself. But the biggest alterations will be less about the physical space and more about changing the whole vibe from the bro-rock cover bands of Brownies 23 East—the venue’s last incarnation—to a venerable neighborhood spot that presents original live music.
“It’s a total reimaging and rebranding, which is why we went with the name change and upgraded the sound,” says Kardon. “We had to change the whole look and feel of the place.
After Brownies folded, the need for change was obvious for Rufo. “The cover band scene wasn’t going too well,” he says. “The audiences that used to come out to see cover bands kind of just went away. The bands’ following dwindled, and once that happened, it became a no-brainer for me because this is what I always wanted to do anyway.”
“Cover bands have fallen out of favor, and original bands and DJs and EDM are bigger,” says Kardon. “You see that transition in the music scene. It’s cyclical.”
Rufo first bought the building in late 1994, and after a round of much more significant renovations—he still has photos of construction crews working on the gutted building through ’95—he opened Brownies 23 East in January ’96. At the time, given the Main Line audiences’ tastes, it made sense.
“I went to Villanova, and this was a venue I always liked,” Rufo recalls. “When the opportunity arose to purchase this building when it was vacant, I jumped on it.”
Of course, the live venue at 23 E. Lancaster Ave. that Rufo attended as a college kid was fairly different as well, with a decade-and-a-half-long parade of important artists, many of whom would go on to superstardom. Now, bringing original music back in this latest incarnation of the Ardmore Music Hall, the team is looking to bring the Main Line’s tastes back full circle. And with the new venue’s first acts, the circle couldn’t be fuller: Billy Price and the Holmes Brothers—both with a history from the 23 East Cabaret—will kick things off on Fri., Sept. 20, and the next night, none other than the Hooters will grace the brand-new stage in a grand homecoming.
The current partnership goes back almost a year, to when Rufo, Kardon and Bryan Dilworth of Bonfire Booking decided to take a club tour to survey what was happening around town. “We went to Johnny Brenda’s; we went to Underground Arts. We went to the Electric Factory,” says Kardon. “Knowing we had to create a new look for the space, we said, ‘Let’s get an idea of what some of the other venues are doing.’”
“We had tried to hook up quite a few times, and it ended up being the right time and place,” says Dilworth. “I moved out to [the Main Line] four years ago from the city, and it took me a while to warm up to the idea that there was enough to go around, as far as people who want to see shows.”
But as the demographics of the Main Line change, so does the neighborhood appetite for live music.
“Younger kids had fewer options in the mid-’90s, and they were going out to where the party was,” says Rufo. “Now there are so many things to do for young people that the thought process is to go after an older crowd—say 30 and up. We’re looking to go after that crowd that appreciates music, that’s a little bit older, that may spend a bit more money, but is also a little more discerning.”
The numbers back him up. From 2000 to 2010, the median age in Lower Merion Township ticked up by more than two years, from 41.2 to 43.4. Over the same time period, the (still very white) township got a little more diverse, with the percentage of white residents inching downward from more than 90 percent to 85.7 percent—owing largely to a near doubling of the Hispanic population.
Even more than demographics, though, are the shifting attitudes toward music among different generations.
“Everyone loves rock now,” says Dilworth. “My dad is 70 and loves rock, and my son is 10 and loves it. It runs the spectrum.”
All of which made it seem like the right time and, more importantly, the right place for a new venue. Visitors can tumble off the Paoli/Thorndale Line directly into the Ardmore Music Hall’s back door.
PW's Music Issue 2014