A Conversation with The Ottobar at Twenty Years by Michael B. Tager
I’ve been going to the Ottobar since 2001. It was one of the first bars I went to in Baltimore, and one of the only ones that’s still around. I’ve wondered at the Remington mainstay’s longevity; at its 20-year anniversary, many of its long-time contemporaries have closed, like Club Charles, Dougherty’s, even PJ’s.
Recently, Ottobar has become known for its dance parties, winning multiple Best of Baltimore Awards, even with its roots as a punk bar and show venue. I wanted to know why, so I talked with a few of Ottobar’s staff to ferret out their secrets: Todd Lesser, the main venue booker of live music since it opened in 1997, the co-owner Craig Boarman (with Michael Bowen), and the bar manager/art show curator, Tecla Tesnau.
MBT: What’s the brief Ottobar history?
TODD: Ottobar opened in mid-September, 1997. The original venue was a small location on Davis Street near the courthouse downtown. The move to a larger space [on Howard street] in November ’01 was partly out of necessity and opportunity. The old building was in poor shape, and served our purposes until we just felt we needed more room.
TECLA: We have been at the Howard St. location for 15 years now, and so much has changed since those early days on Davis St. There is that same undercurrent of zany mania, not visible to the occasional concert goer but it is still woven into the fabric of the Ottobar freak flag. You might see that flag flying over such events as Book Burning for Peace, The Salute to Porn, and the Pet Weddings.
MBT: 20 years is a long time! I’ve been coming for at least 15 of those and I don’t feel any different. What’s the difference between now and five years ago? Ten years?
TECLA: One of the truly remarkable things (at least for me) in the two decades of our tenure is that I get to wait on my old customers’ children. People that I have had the pleasure to serve have kids that are now old enough to drink. How ’bout that? Weird, right? Weird but not super awkward…weird awkward/awesome= awksome!
CRAIG: People are more picky about where they are going to go. You have to make the events really special now to get people out and to want to pay a cover charge.
TODD: We’ve noticed patrons today are more selective with their time—they may not stay and see 3 or 4 bands in a night—they’ll come see 1 or 2 and look for the next thing: drinks here, dinner there, a movie, last call, etc. This is one of the main reasons we try to maintain variety, to keep pace with today’s nightlife
CRAIG: The Davis Street Ottobar was like a tree fort. Then, fast forward to 2001, Ottobar moves to 2549 N. Howard Street out of the backyard and into an actual house. Ha! We knew we’d have to probably branch out from the booking umbrella that Ottobar was currently under because we had a bigger location and we’d be attracting bigger acts. We’d have to start bringing in artists who might not traditionally have been considered “Ottobar.”
So, for the longest time, the original Ottobar regulars put up some resistance to some of the bookings or events we started planning. Our crowd was a mix of musicians, artists, art students, and hospitality-industry workers. Style-wise, if you weren’t in black, or tattooed, or a mod, or punk or a rocker, people would give you funny looks. The crowd was protective of their scene and really, really didn’t like newcomers or anyone who didn’t fit that mold.
One time, we turned a basketball game on the TV [and] some people were like “WTF? This isn’t a sports bar. This is the Ottobar.” Now we’re a go-to spot for Ravens games, we have big Super Bowl parties, and we have a big hockey audience, too. We have an Ottobar fantasy football league and baseball league. Crazy, ‘cause that wouldn’t have happened years ago.
TECLA: The funny thing is I think that the people that come through our door have, even though the faces have changed, stayed the same and not in the creeper Matthew McConaughey way; more like “The Creatives” in Baltimore over the years, can always find a friendly face and perhaps some engaging conversation and a home away from home here. A home where they can dance their ass off!
CRAIG: Even with “dance” parties, when we first started them, we only did dance parties that were considered “cool,” like “Underground” (Britpop, Indie, New Wave), “80’s Prom,” “New Wave Battles,” soul parties like “Save Your Soul;” we never thought of anything Top 40. When I did the first Prince-Madonna-Michael Jackson party, we got some crap for that.
MBT: In my experience, Otto wasn’t necessarily viewed as a dance venue until recently (since it won a Best of Baltimore). How have you encouraged it?
TECLA: We’ve showcased burlesque shows, thrown dance parties of so many varieties it beggars the confines of the dance party genre. You wanna dance to…Emo? How about Disco, 80s, 90s, Naughts, in-your-pajamas? Done and done. We don’t discriminate!
CRAIG: We used to NEVER have DJ’s and dance parties upstairs at all. We just had a jukebox for a while. The first big monthly dance night was “Underground,” our Britpop/Indie/New Wave Dance Party that ran from 2001-2007. 80’s new wave was a small part of the playlist at UG. But then, the demand for 80’s new wave at UG started to grow each month. But, we didn’t want [it] to be an “80’s party”…thus the “Pretty In Pink 80’s Prom” party idea was born.
We went on to host 10 80’s Prom parties after that. The success lead me to focus on the key players of the 80’s: Prince vs Madonna vs Michael Jackson Dance Party…again awesome success…won a Best of Baltimore award…and we hosted for many years! This also led to us tweaking the artists (thus Madonna vs Gaga vs Britney) meanwhile, all of this success had us add DJ nights upstairs…FREE nights.
We started playing some Top 40 artists on Two for Tuesdays, we started “Girls Rule” dance party. So, what happened was we started to see the downstairs “ticketed” events not doing so well. UG had long retired. Our crowd was getting older and younger—the old heads were done dressing up like Molly Ringwald for 80’s prom, and the younger crowd felt Madonna was more like their mom than a dancefloor diva.
So, we really stopped hosting downstairs dance parties for a few years. I think we just had that little window of where our current crowd got older but we hadn’t secured our younger crowd yet. I feel an upswing now with the dance parties. The “Now That’s What I Call A 90s” dance parties have been huge! And, we’ve done 2 “Take Me Out-2000’s Indie Dance” events! Both to sell out crowds! And our recent “Beyoncé vs Rihanna” party? Big numbers.
Baltimore Magazine just awarded Ottobar with “Best Dance Parties” award. I think it’s def earned!
What I saw from DJing our original dance parties [and even] Two-For-Tuesday, is that even the cool kids wanted to dance. They didn’t want to go to Power Plant nightclubs, they just wanted to come as they are. As a result, we started getting approached by other area DJs and promoters through direct emails, phone calls, Facebook, Event Request forms and more. We’ll always listen to ideas.
MBT: Is that how Ottobar evolved? How did Two-4-Tuesday come about? That’s been a regular mainstay, and popular!
CRAIG: We [were] DJing at The Sidebar, having a blast drinking and playing tunes. And we were loving it ‘cause we were able to play tunes we couldn’t play at Underground. At UG we had to play stuff people could dance to. Here at Sidebar we could play anything! I tell Matt, “We should do what we were doing at Sidebar but at Ottobar.” I say, “Let’s do cool indie and britpop and new alt tracks. AND, since it’s a Tuesday, let’s do what rock radio stations do and let’s do 2-4-Tuesday…and, we’ll make it ‘2 DJ’s spinning ‘2-fers’ and the drink special will be 2-4-1 drinks, all on a Tuesday!”
Then other nights started upstairs ‘cause of 2-4-Tuesday. This October will be 13 years!
TODD: It’s never been our philosophy to stick to just one thing—we like leaving all ideas on the table and seeing what works, what patrons like and what people want to see. We definitely listen and take opinions into consideration, because we know that variety keeps it fun and exciting. Over the years, we’ve gained momentum and notoriety for live music obviously, so that evolution happens on its own as more acts want to come through and play.
TECLA: We booked renowned and un-renowned comedians. Local musical luminaries such as Wye Oak, Beach House, Dan Deacon and Future Islands have called our stage home. We are a like a giant extended family of creative types in the Baltimore scene. A wonderful, talented city of amazing people. And everyone is welcome to join the Ottobar family…a family that has a common interest: Keep the fun going!
TODD: When Ottobar started, it was a tiny room that we thought up with just about any idea that would bring people in, or at least talk about (wet towel fights, drum solo contests, theme nights etc.) but we had our obvious limitations. When bands were coming through we didn’t have much ability to do anything else—the current location allowed for live music to expand, while gaining another bar to run with. Up there we still work up comedy, art shows, films and theme nights—in a way, it’s sort of the “old” Ottobar upstairs, with live music under it. Every night is different up there, and the variety of music really keeps it unique.
CRAIG: We’ve evolved because we’ve booked events that cater to all of Baltimore, rather than just a core group who may live in Hampden or Charles Village. We wouldn’t have been able to stay open 20 years if we never started to listen to what the majority of customers wanted. I don’t think we ever sold out—we just evolved with our customer base. Interests started to change over the years and we try to reflect those changes with what we book.
MBT: How do you book events and bands?
TODD: We work closely with national agencies that route their acts through the area, which comprises much of our monthly calendar, so where we have the ability, we definitely look around for input, absolutely.
TECLA: The best Ottobar events, in my opinion, are all the wack-a-doodle harebrained ideas that were the progeny of late night drunky-talk to “Ohmigosh we’re actually going through with this dumb idea?!”…such as the Drunk Talk Show, Book Burning for Peace, the Wet Towel or Pillow Fight Competitions.
Most of the time when people have been a little deep in their cups the “irrigated” ideas that are hilarious, outrageous and totally brilliant at that time wither and dry up in the harsh daylight of a sober morning. We never let sobriety stop us! Instead of letting prudence quell our enthusiasm for the ridiculous or marginally dangerous, we popped a couple of aspirin, put on our shades and carried on with those best/worst ideas.
They were brutal and glorious. Have you ever been in a serious pillow fight? Well let me tell you it is no joke! There are no weight divisions in Pillow Fighting, and when you are staring across the ring from a six-foot-one tattooed Amazonian mamma with a fifth of Southern Comfort sloshing around in her veins, well it may be all “fun and games” but that pillow turns into a bag of sand by round 2!
The crazy stupid events might not have been the most well attended and the production quality was total garbage but it had the spirit of unfettered independence. I think that is actually what I love most about Ottobar, we never let a good idea languish and we’ll certainly try anything, even if it’s a bad idea.
TODD: At the old location, there were a lot of risqué, tongue-in-cheek events put together, partly as a joke, but also to see where the night would go. Why else would we do wet towel fights, knife-throwing spelling bees and drunken talk shows? We did some comedy and theme night stuff that was definitely off the wall (Salute to Porn, for example) since there were regulars that enjoyed seeing what would happen from night to night.
Karaoke really started at the current location, with themes again, but even they were pretty loose. Punk Rock Karaoke was a perfect creation—sing what you wanted, in front of a real backing band. It’s less karaoke and more a covers show.
MBT: How do you encourage new acts and styles of entertainment to come to Baltimore?
TODD: We still love considering all styles and projects to come perform. We know the artists want a successful show as much as we do, so there’s always a conversation here. Typically, it’s a combination of representatives contacting us, fans reaching out to book a really cool act that’s gaining attention, or simply directly contacting acts and figuring out how to get them to Baltimore.
TECLA: At our Howard St. location we have had so many events grace our stage…let’s just say that I have seen over 10,000 bands, worked hundreds of dance parties, and witnessed some of the weirdest events during my 20 year tenure at Ottobar and that is a pretty conservative number.
MBT: I’ve been to a few of the weird events over the years; art showings that turn into leather night, Matchmaking games. Does the variety of art that Ottobar showcases help keep it popular and a “destination?”
TECLA: We have a staggering amount of variety when it comes to our events, and it takes a huge amount of effort from our amazing staff to be able to pull off the sheer volume of events we do every month. Some faves that stick out are The White Stripes, Unsane, and Dinosaur Jr…but there are soooo many more. In my 20-year tenure at Otto, picking favorites would take up paragraphs and I am unwilling to turn this into a never ending Buzzfeed-esque listicle!
CRAIG: Everyone is always looking for new and interesting things to do and we try very hard to keep that balance of offering variety, while still nurturing events that people enjoy and do well. There’s a lot of variety with the live music—newer and younger bands come through that bring out similar fans—but we definitely work with a lot of “old school” stuff that the older patrons like as well. When it comes to events upstairs, it’s not so much “what works for the new or old school crowd” but more doing different things of interest. We try to mix it up, doing comedy shows, film screenings and DJ nights, things that would make going out for a drink a little different, or something an out of towner might be curious about.
MBT: Sounds like you’ve really touched upon a lot of genres. What kind of performance or music would you like to feature that you haven’t?
TODD: I can’t really say there’s something that we haven’t tried before in 20 years—having done spelling bees, towel fights, band demo review nights and pet weddings, we really do try to consider it all.
CRAIG: Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing some more low key, “EDM” (for lack of a better term) artists play Ottobar, like Autograf, or Goldroom, or The Midnight.
Years ago we tried tried doing super retro with an event called “The Disco Ball”…all 70’s disco and funk. The event was a bust, but in hindsight I’m not sure if it was because we didn’t properly promote. There was a time we could just make a MS WORD DOC flier about a dance party and 200+ people would come. We didn’t have to promote!
Coincidentally, I’ve had few inquiries from customers about a disco night.
MBT: I’d definitely come to a disco night! How’s Ottobar dealing with 20 years of this craziness?
TECLA: I personally feel pretty grateful that we have made it to the 20 year mark! Amazed and truly grateful. It has been a wild ride & I am looking forward to hopefully many more outrageous years of music and fun!
CRAIG: No one involved ever set out to make 20 years a goal. So, it kind of snuck up on us….we almost didn’t realize it.
But, now that 20 years is a reality, I am kind of interested to see if we can make it to 25!
TODD: We’ve got a stellar upcoming schedule of celebratory events to celebrate 20 years and beyond—we’ll just keep plugging away!
Throughout the Summer [we announced] a variety of great shows: bands reuniting, national bands returning, and a few cool events from the past resurrected. More is in the works, but we’re rolling them out as they fall into place.
The anniversary shows are definitely a little bit of everything—some old school Baltimore acts are getting back together to play a show for both the old fans, and their new friends and families. We’re also doing some larger acts playing special shows back in Ottobar as a way of celebrating where they played earlier in their career—they’d otherwise be playing larger rooms now, but there’s a relationship with them and they wanted to be a part of the milestone.
TODD: Looking back at the old calendars and flyers and I remember a LOT of [the events]—20 years sounds like a long time—it actually doesn’t feel it though!
CRAIG: Celebrate 20 years this fall with some reunion shows from some classic Ottobar bands and some cool events like a 3-night run from J.Roddy Walston & The Business!
Who knows after that?!?!
To find out more about Ottobar, check out their website.
Photos Courtesy of Ottobar.