The Vaudeville Mews of today doesn’t sound a lot like the venue that opened Dec. 5, 2002.
On almost any night of the week you can walk into the Fourth Street music venue and see three to 10 bands performing, both local and national acts, in genres ranging from rock to hip-hop to country.
A 2002 Des Moines Register article about the Vaudeville Mews’ opening described it as “a home for fiercely independent films, cutting-edge plays, even an acting school.” It sounded more like the mission of the Des Moines Social Club than a hotbed of live music.
“When I think of the word vaudeville, I think of a variety of entertainment,” co-owner Amedeo Rossi, 43, said. “We tried to do a lot of theater and film, but we weren’t getting enough revenue to get by. Music increasingly became what we depended on.”
Over the last decade the 230-capacity Vaudeville Mews has hosted shows by The National, Of Montreal, The Decemberists and thousands of other bands.
It’s been the launching point for things like The Wild Rose Film Festival, The 48 Hour Film Project and the Des Moines Music Coalition.
It was an early supporter of local ticketing agencies Iowatix (precursor of Midwestix and Red Truck Tickets) and Tikly.
It regularly holds around 400 shows a year and has been the scene of countless first concerts for young music fans.
The venue was founded by current partners Rossi and Jim Tough, the late Frank Burnette and former partners Brian Zwaschka, Kimberley Busbee and James Serpento.
It was envisioned as a multipurpose venue, and it filled that role for years with a split between film, theater and live music. While the Mews has become a standard bearer for indie rock today, in the early days the venue featured more blues, alt- country and world music.
The shift began when alternative venues like Frank’s House of Rock closed and the Botanical Center stopped hosting shows.
Bookers like Ladd Askland and Sam Summers were suddenly looking for a new place to house their shows, and the Vaudeville Mews started to sound a lot more like it does today.
“When the Botanical Center (stopped hosting shows), all these edgier, indie bands started contacting me,” said Busbee, who handled much of the programming with Serpento at the time. “There was some resistance to booking those kinds of bands, which is ironic because now it’s their bread and butter.”
Busbee and Serpento first brought Askland on board in April of 2003, when he was still an 18-year-old high school student. Nine years later, he’s the only booker on staff at the Mews and schedules the majority of the shows at the venue.
“It was trying to work as a creative outlet for a lot of people in the city of Des Moines,” Askland, 27, said of his early days at the Vaudeville Mews. “There would be weird load ins for bands because of play stuff, and bands couldn’t always do sound checks when they wanted. It was kind of bizarre what we were trying to do, and not completely focused, but it usually came together in a pretty memorable way.”
Summers, 29, owner of Wooly’s and the concert promotion company First Fleet Concerts, had been booking shows at the Botanical Center and the underground venue The Fall Out Shelter, where he met Askland. In 2003 he booked his first show at Vaudeville Mews, Fall Out Boy, paired with the Des Moines band The Lifestyle.
“(The Vaudeville Mews) showed me a lot of what a rock club was: really raw. The only shows I had gone to in actual clubs at that point were Gabe’s in Iowa City, Hairy Mary’s and The Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan.,” Summers said. “It had that vibe, and I thought it was a pretty cool place.”
While Summers books most of the shows at Wooly’s now, the 700 capacity room is too large for many bands. He continues to book shows at Vaudeville Mews when the band is right for the space.
Busbee and Serpento left the Vaudeville Mews in 2004 to focus on opportunities in theater and film. Burnette continued producing theater at the Mews until the venue transitioned those projects to the Fourth Street Theater space. He produced more plays at the Des Moines Social Club until his death last year.
While the Mews does host occasional stand-up comedy nights and the rare film showing, live music has been its primary focus for the last five years.
“It became apparent to get where we needed to be, the space needed to be completely music,” Rossi said. “Lots of times when you open a business you don’t know what will bring in the revenue. You see how things go and you adjust to it. It just made sense to concentrate on being a music venue.”
Not that the non- musical side of the Vaudeville Mews didn’t prove to be fruitful.
Busbee and Serpento hosted the first two years of their Wild Rose Film Festival in the space, bringing filmmakers like Lloyd Kaufman and Max Allan Collins to Fourth Street. The festival celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, at the Fleur Cinema.
The venue was also home to Des Moines’ first go-round for the 48 Hour Film Project in 2005.
The Mews also was the home of many early Des Moines Music Coalition meetings and events when that group kicked off in 2004. Almost all the local bands that play DMMC’s Gross Domestic Product and Little Big Fest events have played regular gigs at the Mews, and many of the bands from the organization’s signature 80/35 Music Festival have played on the Mews’ stage in the past.
Patrick Fleming has been playing the Vaudeville Mews for years with his band The Poison Control Center. He has spent time working sound for shows, doing some bartending, and he has spent plenty of nights listening to music as a fan.
Despite the fact that Poison Control Center was born in Ames, Fleming said “The Vaud” is the band’s favorite place to play; it feels like they have home field advantage there.
“When you go you never know who will break out and blow your mind,” Fleming said. “Look at Of Montreal, they played there twice and six years later were headlining one of the biggest festivals in Iowa (80/35). Every night you have a really good chance of falling in love with whoever is playing.”
The Vaudeville Mews is a long, dark room with a bar on the right as you enter, a balcony with a staircase leading up to it, just past the bar. The staircase was moved there when the Vaudeville Mews was being remodeled in 2002; it was previously located in the center of the balcony and would obstructed the view of the stage.
On the south wall there is a concert painting that was once housed at the original Hairy Mary’s location (now home to el Bait Shop/High Life Lounge) and on the northern wall there is a painting of musicians from when the space housed the Up and Under night club.
The stage is located at the back of the Vaudeville Mews.
A ramp runs beside the stage for access to the bathrooms and on crowded nights is often packed with concert-goers trying to get a better view of the stage.
Bartenders Clint Curtis, 40, and Bradie O’Neal, 32, are two familiar faces for patrons of the Vaudeville Mews. Curtis has been serving drinks for nine years at the venue, O’Neal for eight.
The early/late show split means Curtis and O’Neal have to work a lot of all-ages shows, where the majority of the crowd might not be old enough to drink. That means not many tips, but the two both think that if the Mews can turn someone into a music fan at 15, it can pay off someday.
“You can sit there and be negative, or be happy these kids are coming out to see shows,” O’Neal said. “Someday they’ll be 21 and if they don’t leave Des Moines they might come back to the club they grew up watching shows at.
“At the Mews I feel like I’m doing something important for the music scene. No one else is going to have a show for a bunch of teenagers. Here people can grow up watching music.
“I’ve watched young bands come in that were god-awful, then three or four years later they improve and everyone loves them. It’s a great opportunity to be involved in a place like this.”
Curtis said he has worked during shows he considers great that only had two people in the audience, but the band still played its heart out.
The Vaudeville Mews puts local bands on a bill with nationally touring acts, and often times it’s the local acts that are bringing in the fans.
“It makes me feel so good, to this day, when people tell me they’ve lived in Des Moines for years and it’s their first time at the Mews,” Curtis said. “I talk to people who might not come downtown, but did for a show.”
When Vaudeville Mews opened in 2002, it was one of the few options for live music downtown, especially for bands playing original music. That has changed over the years, with the House of Bricks moving to the East Village in 2005, People’s downtown from 2007-October of this year, the Gas Lamp taking over the Blues on Grand space in 2011 and Wooly’s opening this year. Live music is now thriving downtown and the Vaudeville Mews has endured despite the failures of some and the new successes of others.
“I think we play an important role of exposing bands to a bigger crowd, and then they can graduate to a bigger room,” Rossi said. “Other well- run music clubs don’t hurt us, if anything it helps us and the music scene. There are so many more music fans than we have capacity for.
“What people are finding is there’s nothing that matches the live experience. You can listen to music all you like, but when you see someone live it translates differently than any recording can. There are often nights where we’re doing well and the other clubs are as well. That’s the way it should be.”
Vaudeville Mews 10 Year Anniversary Party
With: Eternal Summers, Land of Blood and Sunshine, Love Songs for Lonely Monsters
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Vaudeville Mews, 212 Fourth St.