STEWARDS Of A Historical Gem
By Dennis Strazulo
Sometime around 2010 a group of people with an insatiable love for Mill Valley and its history of housing legendary music, began work to assure the iconic Sweetwater Music Hall – a homey gathering spot for local and nationally renowned musicians alike – would live to see another day of providing a safe haven for artists. For almost 30 years prior Sweetwater was, in the words of the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, a “playpen” for countless legendary musicians who appeared at the club, including Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Etta James, Carlos Santana, Van Morrison and Weir’s band mate, Jerry Garcia.
Photo by Cameron Cressman Photography
Although the task was to relocate the walls around which these performances would thrive, there was more to preserve. Their mission was to sustain the spirit of a community gathering spot with a worldwide reputation steeped in 20th Century American music history.
The 2007 closure of the original 100-person capacity Sweetwater nightclub, which felt more like a Mill Valley cultural center, has been well documented. From long-time owner Jeanie Patterson’s 11th-hour sale of the business to Becky and Thom Steere in 1998, to the Steere’s successful effort extending the lease for a few years at its 153 Throckmorton location in 2004, there was no shortage of desire to preserve the celebrated venue. After valiant private and community efforts to relocate the venue faded a few years after its closure, it appeared the magic of Sweetwater had finally run out. Enter then a family of individuals not related by blood, but connected by a lifeforce that could only thrive in Mill Valley.
Michael Klein, who spearheaded the group that fell just short of moving the club to a new location after the original Sweetwater closed its doors, came to Mill Valley to retire in 1985 after succeeding in business ventures. Originally from Cleveland, his relocation to the town happened simultaneously to his childhood friend and neighbor from Ohio, Dennis Fisco, also setting roots in Mill Valley, unbeknownst to Klein! Serendipity was again at work in the magical city. Fisco and Weir both had flag football teams competing against each other in a local league in which Klein played. Weir and Klein then forged a friendship and became business partners in TRI Studios and Modulus Guitars, and with time on his hands, Klein had the good fortune to tour with the Grateful Dead for 10 years. Meanwhile, Fisco was building a real estate development business and, now friendly with Weir, was drawn to the Sweetwater scene. Separately, Maggie O’Donnell was first exposed to Sweetwater in 1985 when she travelled across the Golden Gate to see “amazing shows” while a law student at Hastings in San Francisco. Paul Winston had landed in Mill Valley to raise a family in the early 80’s and soon became a regular at Sweetwater which “blew his mind” from the moment he first stepped into the club. Learning of the possible demise of what had become a “town hall” of sorts to him, he was compelled to find a way to revive the venue. While Winston jokes he was hell-bent on assuring the town would not fill the Throckmorton location by adding another nail spa, he keenly recognized the utter importance of assuring Sweetwater remained a growing concern. Local restaurant entrepreneur, Ged Robertson, was also poised to rise to the occasion of finding a landing spot for the fabled nightclub.
While the motivation to maintain the camaraderie and historic aspect of Sweetwater was undeniable, a place was needed to not only house the spirit, but to provide a physical location for it to continue hovering over Mill Valley. By 2010 and after the thwarted attempts to relocate the site, the situation was urgent and this crew of Sweetwater stalwarts unified. Robertson had been organizing pop-up shows at the Old Masonic Lodge at 19 Corte Madera Ave., causing Winston to look around the then-dilapidated hall one night and toss out the idea “this should be the new Sweetwater.” Meanwhile, O’Donnell had been practicing law for about 15 years and fortuitously became acquainted with Winston and Robertson at a Throckmorton Theater event. Klein, with contribution from Weir, raised money to fund a project renovating the Masonic location to house Sweetwater. The pieces were in place. O’Donnell put her skills to use, managing and handling legal work and navigating organization issues around the venture. The newly formed group then called on their connections in the music, business, and construction industries to build a state-of-the-art venue. By 2012 the hard work was completed, a new ownership group of about 20 investors was born, and the new Sweetwater Music Hall opened for business.
Fast forward to March 2020, that fateful month when COVID shut down countless businesses, particularly those in the food and entertainment industry. Sweetwater was not immune, and with no practical outdoor space to assist with keeping its doors open when restrictions were relaxed last summer, the fate of the club was again in jeopardy as the club had to completely close and stayed closed. It was time for the family to reconvene, this time facing an even greater challenge. When the new ownership group was created about a decade prior, the family of citizens who led saving the club became its Board of Directors. During the ensuing years the Board turned over operation of the venue and restaurant to GMs and a capable staff experienced in running such businesses. But COVID and lack of work forced those people to disburse, leaving the hallowed ground, well, hollow. O’Donnell, Klein, Fisco, Winston, as well as Chris Moscone and Rich Robbins who had previously invested and then joined the Board when Robertson stepped down – met every week for over a year, with the fate of Sweetwater again in their hands. They carried a heavy burden to protect a history that could have died in the wake of a pandemic; and, as Fisco reflected, “it almost did.”
Indeed, the work of angels is never done. We’re not talking about angels in terms of investors, though that could certainly be said about this group and the other generous souls who endowed the original project. While they will be the first to admit none of them are angels by any stretch of the imagination, they do accept they are the vehicle responsible for retaining the spirit of Sweetwater, organically spawned in Mill Valley many moons ago. As Robbins so deftly put it, they are “stewards of a historical gem.” Charged with recognizing and honoring its history, they were also tasked with showing deference to the future of individuals who will carry on whatever naturally flows from maintaining this community asset. It was a responsibility motivated by a thirst for survival.
Like so many families did while facing the challenges of COVID, the Board used the time during their weekly meetings for reflection, trying to balance financial realities with the importance of their undertaking. As the group ruminated on the journey leading them to their current crossroads, there was strong sentiment to use the break as an opportunity to critically examine how successful they had been in carrying out their stated mission “to educate and further the appreciation of music, particularly American music of the 20th Century, and to present performances reflecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of Marin County and the San Francisco Bay Area.” They had often kicked around the idea of Sweetwater operating as a non-profit company to achieve that goal. Such a structure would have the essential purpose of furthering a social cause and providing a public benefit. This, as opposed to a traditional business aimed at generating a profit.
Surely, the reincarnation of Sweetwater was not consistently running as a profitable business, and frankly was never expected to. Despite the global notoriety of the club under the ownership of Patterson, she faced the same issue. As Klein illustrated, “you could walk into this little, hundred-person club, and my God, if they were at capacity she would lose money because no one could get to the bar.” Reflecting on the time they sought to raise money to save Sweetwater in 2010, Klein told us, “I turned to about 20 friends I knew loved the community and what Sweetwater meant to them and told every single one, they would never see a penny of their investment.” From that standpoint, Klein said, “Sweetwater was a community project at its inception, and during the few years we were lucky enough to make cash flow positive, we gave that to our employees or put it back into the club.”( See our separate piece in this issue about Sweetwater’s incredible staff, an important part of the “family” responsible for the venue’s success.) Meanwhile, the investors were very happy to be part of it, knowing they contributed to sustaining what O’Donnell calls “a community treasure.” Preserving that treasure was “the whole point of rebooting the Sweetwater in 2010,” according to O’Donnell. “It was a passion project. No one made any money or expected to, and the people of Mill Valley were incredibly generous.”
To further that goal within the dynamics of financial truths (after the March shutdown O’Donnell recalled it was immediately apparent “how much it costs monthly to keep the doors closed”), the decision was then made: Sweetwater would create a not-for-profit business. To the extent the Board was on the fence regarding this decision over the years, recognizing such a change in structure would have a negative financial impact on the generous original investors, “COVID made the decision a heck of a lot easier.” To carry out this edict, O’Donnell went to work again, this time exploring how operating as a non-profit would work in their industry. After all, a night club is not the first business that comes to mind when one thinks of a non-profit. After speaking with representatives from other similarly situated non-profits, such as the UC Theater in Berkeley and SF Jazz, she concluded “we can do this.”
The Board’s decision to pursue the non-profit model, though, was not limited to financial considerations. There was still the matter of what operating as a non-profit would mean to the community and how Sweetwater’s approach to this would benefit from it. There was a strong desire to use the opportunity to focus on providing education and programs for adults and children, especially those underserved, while also making some changes that would jive with the etiology of the club’s music history and create a succession plan for a new generation of Mill Valley residents to carry on the spirit of the club in a way appropriate for their time.
Accomplishing all of this would be no easy task and was certainly going to require a GM not only aligned with these goals but possessing the experience to carry them out. Finding such a person would also not be easy, but Sweetwater nailed it by hiring Maria Hoppe as its new GM and Executive Director of the nonprofit. Hoppe has been working in the music industry for her entire career in various roles, most notably as an Artist Manager, who first made her name in the business working for former longtime Journey manager Herbie Herbert, but also spent five years managing the popular Teatro ZinZanni dinner theater in Seattle and San Francisco. “This is a legendary place, and I get to bring it back to life after the pandemic” Hoppe said. O’Donnell told us, “Maria has the perfect blend of experience running a venue combined with strong connections in the nonprofit world. She is very passionate about that, about music and culture…she’s exactly what we wanted. She is fantastic! Fisco added, “Maria’s vision is incredible.”
Hoppe presents with a calm demeanor steeped with passion and confidence. Discussing hers and the Board’s ideas was both exciting and inspirational. Maria’s vision for the future of Sweetwater is twofold: honor the original music that built the Sweetwater – such as roots, Americana, blues, folk, rock, bluegrass and country – while cultivating exposure to new forms of music influenced by these genres; and offer cultural education and programs with messages rooted in music, particularly messages of social justice and history that touch on so many relevant issues of our time.
Sweetwater is already poised to convert its teaching and curriculum concept into reality commencing with its longtime affiliation with the California Film Institute and Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), having hosted MVFF films and complimentary music events at the club over the years. See our insert highlighting the documentary film, Song for Cesar, which will premiere at Sweetwater during the MVFF, as an example of how the new non-profit will advance its mission of supporting education and programs through connected events based in music.
Additionally, Hoppe has had preliminary conversations with local music educators who have asked for support in creating a place where kids can come to experience music, not necessarily just at an auditory level but by picking up an instrument. She also hopes to create opportunities for special needs kids by creating a safe space to “go off on drums, play a flute or try out a keyboard, to see what any of that feels like”. Ideally, she would commission bands interested in advancing causes such as special needs or mental health and engage them to perform at a show these kids could attend.
Hoppe also envisions an educational component on a smaller scale tied to the mission of fusing the time-honored music historically hosted by the Sweetwater with a generation appreciating more contemporary sounds. She muses about creating a curriculum for youth based on 20th century music. “The reason why there’s such a story behind the Grateful Dead or other music of that time is that it was rooted in social justice”, she said, “and that’s what makes it different from, say, just straight-up commercial pop rock.” Conversely, she identified other genres such as “psych rock” influenced by music associated with Sweetwater that are rarely booked at the venue. This dovetails with the idea of partnering with other non-profit venues such as the UC Theater and the Guild Theater in Menlo Park to offer artists two-week residencies, playing 3 or 4 nights at each venue. In recent times local musicians account for 80% of Sweetwater shows, but packaging an offering with other venues creates an interesting opportunity for artists and for fans to see national acts at a 300-capacity venue.
While music will always be the primary draw at Sweetwater, the guardians of the club also went to great lengths to assure the dining experience at the club will soon be a destination for foodies. The hiring of acclaimed Executive Chef, Rick Hackett, to oversee their newly named, on-premises restaurant, The Rock & Rye, signifies the group is serious about this goal. (See our story in this issue’s “Business profile” for more details on Hackett and The Rock & Rye.)
As good as the food will be at The Rock & Rye, there is no doubt the important history behind Sweetwater and what it means to the community will always take center stage when talking about the venue. It seems there could never be a more important time to focus on that as the club embarks on what Moscone calls “Sweetwater 2.0”. A transition is clearly in place and the stewards of this historical gem have not missed a beat, or a note, identifying their role as they dust of this jewel and prepare it for the future. Reflecting on this, Klein had a similar spin to Hoppe on fusing the old and the new. “I think there’s a positive benefit to educating people about the particular music we like,” he told us, “but I don’t think of it in those terms as much as allowing them to have a venue for their music. I look at my partners now, and they are really beautiful people… but they’re getting old!” Part of what becoming a not-for-profit does is it institutionalizes ownership to the community.”
Very simply, Klein declared “the music at Sweetwater has to change. We must create a succession path because the owners of this business, soon enough, aren’t going to be here to listen to the music. The one thing about Sweetwater that really separated it, is that it became, as Weir put it, the playpen of local great musicians. They knew they had a place they could go where they would be safe, respected, bring anybody they wanted, and play any way they wanted. My vision for Sweetwater is that in 20 and 40 years it is still the playpen for local musicians, whatever that music is. Whatever that place is where people get together to celebrate the joy and music of the community is what Sweetwater should be. The goal for the new operation is to meld it into the right direction, keep it rolling, and gracefully get out of the way.”
Indeed, a path has been created and operations are underway. The Rock & Rye opened on August 2, serving lunch and dinner; and the polished-up music hall is scheduled to re-open on Labor Day weekend with shows booked through the end of the year. The overseers of this special place have assured the magic will continue!