Before it closed down last month, Gezellig was Burlington's arts incubator - an under-the-radar rehearsal space, black-box theater, meeting place, nightclub and cinema that hatched all kinds of inventive stuff. Operated by Lee Anderson, who owns Radio Bean Coffeehouse, the place lived up to its Dutch name, which translates roughly, "the situation and aesthetic that would facilitate the best possible vibe being created."
But Burlington police had a different take on the place when they shut down a loud party there last month at 2 a.m. "The cops thought they were onto a meth lab or something," suggests Anderson, who sublet the space for the night. Although he was not on the premises at the time, Anderson got slapped with noise and code violation fines totaling about $700.
He raised the necessary funds with a Radio Bean "Benefit for the Incident." But the larger problem hasn't gone away. The North Winooski Avenue storefront, where Old Spokes Home once was, is not zoned for entertainment. Currently, "It's illegal for me to be using it for anything," he says. So he filed a zoning application to turn it into an art studio and rehearsal space. The city turned him down, citing inadequate parking.
"I can appeal the decision," says Anderson, "but that's another 140 bucks."
They're trying to avoid that sort of hassle in Middlebury, where a loose association of artists and musicians have created the Great Falls Club in the alley at Frog Hollow. By organizing as a private club, Addison County's newest music venue gets around some of the regulations that make presenting the arts prohibitive. Performing members pay $50 a month in exchange for putting on two gigs. The public buys single-day memberships: $3 per day to hang out, or $10 per night for art, music, recitation or whatever is happening in the space. There's no alcohol, but coffee and cookies are free.
"It's slightly subversive to the whole concept of how things are supposed to be," says painter Doug Lazarus, 60, who is the "non-dictatorial" leader of the project. "It's kind of Zen. Instead of doing it for money, you do it because it's worth doing."
In this case, the real benefit of being a private club is being able to leave the funky building alone. Originally a print shop, the former arts-supply store hangs dramatically over Otter Creek and with a view under the Middlebury bridge. The building's industrial history, as evidenced by exposed brick and pipes, is part of its creative appeal. "We don't have to have two bathrooms. That's $10,000 right there," says Lazarus. The barn-board floor is warped with age. "If it was public, you'd have to put in a new floor."
Prior to its new incarnation, the Great Falls Club was a group art gallery that hosted occasional musical events. Lazarus and a bunch of artists split the rent and the wall space in the 2400-square-foot room. They ran it that way for about a year, during which time numerous people commented that it would be a great place for a café. But the regulations were daunting. "Fifty thousand dollars later, you're pouring your first cup of coffee," Lazarus observes.
He recalls, "One day one of the artists was in the bathroom, washing out a cup. He said, 'All I ever wanted was a place to hang out, a club.' So we changed it from the art gallery to a private club in which the artists would work during the day and at night it would be a venue for music." Lazarus sees Great Falls as a prototype for similar happening places. "Find the funkiest, most far-out building and make it a club," he recommends. "All you have to worry about are the aesthetics."
"It's completely legit," Lazarus assures, proudly proclaiming he's filled out all the necessary paperwork with the Secretary of State's office. "On the blank where it asks 'purpose,' you put down 'social club' . . . I defy them to come down here and give me a hard time."
On the contrary, people seem to be rooting for the place - from Frog Hollow, where the employees willingly deliver a message to their phone-free neighbors, to a guy who donated 20 pounds of Costa Rican coffee. The 28 chairs are Middlebury College cast-offs. A rusty I-beam provides additional seating on the water-side wall.
Performers appear to be pulling for the place, too. The "opening" two weeks ago lasted two days and featured 10 local acts, including jazz musician Art Brooks, bluesman Donald Garside and old-time fiddler Yannig Tanguy. This week, storytellers Tim Jennings and Leanne Ponder have a St. Patrick's Day gig. Ripton Coffeehouse founder Richard Ruane is booked for Friday night.
Music entrepreneur Jim Lockridge of Big Heavy World is also on board. As a performing member, he'll be presenting "diverse artists" at the Great Falls Club twice a month. "We feel lucky to be involved," says Lockridge. So lucky, he came and cleaned the bathroom.
Even the law appears to be sympathetic. One night, prior to the official "opening" two weeks ago, a rock 'n' roll band from the college played too loud, too late. The cops showed up to shut down the show. But with two songs left, "they let the musicians finish," Lazarus reports incredulously.
"I'm from New York. Greenwich Village didn't have a more bohemian spot than this." For more info, call Lazarus at 388-0239.