Built in 1938, the Bethesda Theater was one of the area’s biggest cinemas. Many years and many dollars later, the theater has been restored, renovated and turned into one of the area’s biggest blues and jazz hot spots.
The Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club officially opened its doors on March 1 to the sounds of Grammy award-winning musician Irvin Mayfield.
Walking into the doors of the Bethesda Theater, patrons will notice one of the upgrades to the facility — a fully-stocked bar.
Just to the left of the bar is the kitchen, yet another addition to the theater. The menu available to guests offers everything from appetizers (hushpuppies with sweet chili dipping sauce and seared crab cakes), soups, salads, and a mix of steaks, fish and chicken. Executive chef Scott Mullen, who comes from the renowned Philadelphia Restaurant School, said he hopes the menu changes every couple of months.
Realtor and Montgomery County native Rick Brown is the proprietor of the club. Brown was raised in a big, musical family. His father is a jazz drummer and his mother was a singer and dancer.
“I’ve spent the past 40 years in the real estate business and about two years ago the opportunity to buy this theater came up,” Brown said. “I looked at it simply as a potential landmark — to take a beautiful, old building that had a lot of family history in it and bring it back to life.”
Before buying the property, however, Brown had a little talk with his father.
“When I first asked him, ‘Dad, what do you think about me buying this theater and turning it into a jazz and blues club?’ He’s 87 years old and he still plays,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Well, Rick, where’s the parking?’ I said, ‘Right out that door, Dad. There’s a 340-car public parking garage right under our building.’ He said, ‘You’ve got a winner there.’”
Brown didn’t realize before speaking with his father that the theater had personal memories for the family.
“[My Dad] said, ‘By the way, your mother graduated from high school right there on that stage in 1947,’” Brown said. “I didn’t know that when I bought the property.”
Even though Brown has a rich background in a musical family, he knew he would have to bring someone on board who knew the ins and outs of working the club. That job fell to Ralph Camilli. Camilli has 35 years’ experience, working mostly with The Cellar Door and Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
“I guess my first musical contact is my grandfather, who was a drummer in Vaudeville,” Camilli said. “I went to college at Georgetown. My sophomore year, I need a job to help support myself, so I worked at The Bayou on K Street. A couple of months later, some people were telling me about this place called The Cellar Door. I walked in there and stayed there for four and a half years. When you walk into a place like that and you get hit by Miles Davis, Richard Pryor, Carly Simon, on and on … it was really quite an experience.”
Camilli worked with Brown’s brother, Larry, at Blues Alley. It was Larry who introduced Camilli to Rick.
“[Larry] introduced me to his brother and this wonderful project here,” Camilli said. “So I’ve been here since the beginning of last year. It’s really a great experience when you have a place like this that works really well for the audience and the artist.”
The artists are starting to line up. Already on the list are Mark Mosley (March 7), Afrobop Alliance (March 12), Cloudburst (March 13) and Potomac native and country music up-and-comer Maggie Rose (March 8).
“Even though we’re known as Bethesda Blues and Jazz, we certainly do not feel constrained to limit our programming to those two genres,” Camilli said. “We have a great acoustic little setting where almost any type of live performance would fit well in here.”