On its fourth anniversary, nightclub struggles with success
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 14, 2003) – This weekend marks four years since Club Helsinki opened the doors to the first downtown nightclub of its kind in the Berkshires -- really the only one ever consistently to present touring acts of national stature several nights a week.

In the last four years, Helsinki audiences have enjoyed performances by an eclectic array of artists, including living legends like Janis Ian, Graham Parker, Mose Allison, Leo Kottke, Steve Forbert, Michelle Shocked, Odetta, Tom Tom Club and Levon Helm, and plenty of up-and-coming performers in the intimate, cozy confines of the coffeehouse-style venue.

Even Norah Jones graced the small stage at Helsinki several times when she was still an unknown backup singer in the band Wax Poetic.

At a time when small nightclubs across America are struggling to keep their doors open -- when they’re not nailing them shut for good -- Deborah McDowell and Marc Schafler, the proprietors of Club Helsinki, should be celebrating the success of their venture, an outgrowth of McDowell’s popular Helsinki Café.

And indeed they will be celebrating their fourth anniversary this weekend with a typically eclectic lineup of performers, including soul-rock group the Holmes Brothers on Friday, young jazz phenom Hiromi on Saturday night, and country-blues singer and storyteller Guy Davis on Sunday night. On Wednesday night, always-popular Jewish world-beat group Pharaoh’s Daughter returns to the club for an encore engagement, and on Thursday night, bluegrass outfit King Wilkie makes its Great Barrington Debut.

But what may look like success from where the audience sits is in fact a struggle behind the scenes. In some ways, Helsinki is a victim of its own artistic success. Its defining characteristic – its intimate size, allowing for unique artist-audience interaction -- makes it nearly impossible for the club to turn a profit.

It has become enough of a struggle that the owners are considering an offer from a would-be investor to open a similar operation in a much larger building in Hudson, N.Y. What that would mean for the future of the downtown Great Barrington club remains to be seen.

“There are wonderful things about Helsinki because of the size,” said McDowell, “but it would be much easier if the venue were bigger. On the nights we can sell out the house now, there’s a cap on how much money we can make.”

“We wish that something like that would happen here,” said Schafler, referring to the Hudson initiative, “a silent investor or someone who wanted to see us stay here – someone who had more of a business head or a site” for a larger venue.

The loss of Helsinki would be a blow to downtown Great Barrington. “It brings a certain cachet to the town, and brings entertainment to a portion of our community that is not served as much as I believe it should be,” said local businessman Steve Picheny, who sits on the board of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, where Helsinki occasionally presents larger concerts.

“People walk away from every one of those concerts and say the Berkshires are the most wonderful place to live,” said Picheny. “The fact that we can have something like that in this town is wonderful.”

But wonderful doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a risky business, one that longtime nightclub owner Mort Cooperman, who ran the Lone Star Café in New York City for 15 years, called “riding on a razor’s edge.”

Performers are generally guaranteed a fee ranging from the very low hundreds for up-and-coming and lesser-known bands to upwards of $3,000 for some of the better-known, national touring acts. On average, bands or headlining solo performers don’t leave town without $1,500 in their pockets.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that a club the size of Helsinki needs to consistently fill the room at between $15 and $35 a ticket just to pay the performer, before selling enough food and drink to cover all the other expenses associated with running a nightclub – hospitality and lodging for the bands, advertising, production costs, staff wages, rent and utilities -- to say nothing of turning a profit in what is, after all, a for-profit business.

“It’s a tough gig,” said Cooperman, who ran two short-lived, Berkshire concert clubs – the Night Shift Café at Mass MoCA in North Adams and The Studio in downtown Pittsfield – in the mid-1990s, and who currently works as an independent TV producer from his home in North Pownal, Vt. “What they’re doing is courageous. Anyone who’s doing it on that kind of margin is doing it for love.”

“What Marc has done is an enormously difficult thing to do,” said Jordi Herold, who should know, having founded the Iron Horse in Northampton nearly 25 years ago and weathered the course of ups and downs in the music business since then.

A Berkshire native, Herold, who now books acts into Northampton venues including the Iron Horse, Pearl Street, and the Calvin Theatre, as well as in other venues throughout New England, said, “The community has to realize that in the end it’s a community asset, and if they want it there they have to use it. If you want a corner market to sell you ice cream and fruit, you can’t just go to Stop and Shop. You have to make it a part of your life.”

“Even the word ‘club’ implies a series of relationships among the artists, the audience, the press, and the clubowners,” said Herold. “As long as there’s a passionate, prudent person at the helm, and an audience that appreciates it as a community asset, then it can last a long time.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 16, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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