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Gary Oelze, who made the Birchmere a local music staple, dies at 80


Gary Oelze, who helped transform the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va. — once a quiet neighborhood venue for folk and bluegrass musicians — into a major stop for world-renowned acts including soul and country performers, died Jan. 23 at his home in Alexandria. He was 80.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Susan Oelze. Mr. Oelze (pronounced OL-zee) also had two strokes last year but continued working until early December.

In recent years, Mr. Oelze’s 500-seat performance space has featured a wide range of national and international acts from bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs to contemporary soul singers Raheem DeVaughn and Lalah Hathaway and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. The parent company also occasionally books acts into larger halls.

The venue has long been a D.C.-area home for country performers, including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, and two of Mr. Oelze’s personal favorites, Mickey Newbury and Rosanne Cash. In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore took their spouses on a White House double-date to hear Jerry Jeff Walker at the club.

Ray Charles gave one of his last public performances at the club in 2003. And there were often surprises at the club, such as Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys commandeering the stage for an impromptu 45-minute set. Or the moving but unannounced appearance by an ailing Pete Seeger on a tribute to Woody Guthrie by local folk performers.

Mr. Oelze began with bluegrass groups. Though enormously popular in the D.C. area, the style had been largely relegated to neighborhood taverns, many without even a raised stage. By contrast, the Birchmere presented the largely acoustic genre with good sight lines and a sound system that was constantly upgraded.

More importantly, Mr. Oelze made the musicians feel comfortable by posting “Quiet Please” signs on all the tables. That was an idea he appropriated from the Cellar Door, a Georgetown club. He enforced it, too — once throwing out 12 people on a night when he had only 24 patrons.

“Right at the time we went to full-time music in 1974, I said we’re going to do it right,” Mr. Oelze told The Washington Post. “But you couldn’t do a ‘listening club’ with bluegrass music, because a lot of bluegrass fans don’t like to go somewhere and behave.”

The venue’s first success came in 1974 when Mr. Oelze hired the Seldom Scene away from the Red Fox, a dive bar in Bethesda, Md., with pool tables. “They made me a legitimate club, started giving me national recognition,” he told The Post of the band. “Out-of-town people would come to see them, especially out-of-town pickers.”

The Seldom Scene played the club on Thursdays for the next two decades. As proponents of “newgrass,” they broadened the bluegrass repertoire with selections from contemporary folk singer-songwriters. Touring performers such as Linda Ronstadt would often sit in with the group, and the Birchmere’s reputation soared.

In 1982, the New York Times called it “the area’s premier bluegrass club,” populated “not by blue-collar workers only, but by members of Congress and their aides, Washington lawyers and journalists, Government officials and tourists from as far away as Japan.”

Mr. Oelze and his club also nurtured fresh talent. Future bluegrass luminary Alison Krauss performed there while still in her teens. He gave singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, who first appeared at the club as an opening act, a down payment on a new guitar and later passed her demo tapes onto CBS Records executives in Nashville. That act of generosity, she said, resulted in her first record contract.

Gary Hagan Oelze was born in Owensboro, Ky., on Aug. 24, 1942. His father owned a grocery store and later ran a roofing business. Mr. Oelze took up guitar in his teens and performed with local musicians at square dances.

After a youthful hitch in the Air Force, Mr. Oelze came to Washington and managed a drugstore before opening the first Birchmere location — in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood — in the early 1960s with co-owner Bill Hooper. Initially, they went into live music as a way to boost the restaurant’s nighttime business. The club relocated to Alexandria in 1981, a year after Hooper died.

Mr. Oelze’s marriages to Imogene Williams, Linda Lee Smith and Georgia Mechlin ended in divorce. Survivors included his wife of 10 years, the former Susan Pilchard; three children from his first marriage, Carrie Oelze of Boca Raton, Fla., Cheryl Oelze of Centreville, Va., and Vick Oelze of Sanford, N.C.; a stepdaughter, Kelly Pilchard of New York City; three brothers; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Oelze started working with Michael Jaworek, then of Chesapeake Concerts, to diversify the club’s bookings. By 1997, Jaworek joined the Birchmere staff as a full-time talent buyer while it expanded to a larger venue two blocks down the street.

“He has always been a sharp businessman in terms of doing what needs to be done,” Jaworek said. “As he liked to say, ‘You can’t play with scared money.’ And in our volatile business, that’s always the case.”

The new location had two rooms, a supper club and a dance hall with a seated bar.

Mr. Oelze adorned it with several emblems of the club’s past: a statue of deceased doorman William Edwin “Pudge” Tarbett in the dance hall and a mural of the dobro played by the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge on the outer wall. Both were designed by Clarence Schumaker, who also illustrated the club’s detailed monthly calendars. Signed photographs from performers lined the walls of the hallway.

In the past two decades, the club has also branched out into stand-up comedy and made inroads with the LGBT community by presenting comic Suzanne Westenhoefer and filmmaker John Waters, whose annual holiday monologues explore the “erotic possibilities of Christmas.”

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