Something’s shaking at the Balcony Club, and it ain’t cocktail mixers.
Rumors have been flying about the probable future for the long-standing jazz club, which has been a staple in the Lakewood neighborhood above the iconic Lakewood Theater for 25 years.
Last night, Todd “Cocktail Todd” Buckley, the manager/head bartender at the club, announced on the Balcony Club Facebook page that he was auctioning off everything that wasn’t nailed down, but he later said that didn’t end up happening. What it did do, however, was unleash a flood of curiosity from club-goers.
Today, July 15, he said he “was proud to announce that the Balcony Club will indeed open later this evening with the music of the Robert Miller Jazz Explosion taking the stage at around 10 p.m.” He mentioned that tonight will likely be his last night as the manager at Balcony Club, but at this point details about the future of the club are still pending.
It sounds like everything is about to come to a head, so check back in the next few days for more solid details.
The Advocate has been following the history of the Balcony Club for some time. Below is a story that ran in the April issue of the Advocate magazine about the club and its ever-determined owner Tommy Stanco.
At a godless hour on Sunday morning, thick fog envelops the Balcony Club above Lakewood Theater. At the top of the steps, a small group huddles on the landing, blowing billows of smoke into the cool, damp air as they chat quietly. Even the night seems to have paused and cocked an ear to the muted tones of straight-ahead jazz drifting from the open door of the Balcony Club. Inside, what is left of a previously lively crowd is scattered throughout the narrow room. All is quiet, except for the band, as the remaining audience members warm themselves with half-empty drinks and the company of dear friends, wrapped in the complex, velvety voice of Judy Chamberlain singing Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night.”
“Do you love me, as I love you?” she sings. “Are you my life to be, my dream come true? Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight, with the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill, in the chill still of the night.”
How a jazz club can stay in business for 25 years in Dallas is something of a mystery, but somehow through the ups and downs, owner Tommy Stanco has kept the place alive and turned it into what it is today — a 70-slot-a-month music venue with a mixture of songs during the earlier acts, and always jazz for the last show.
Stanco bought the club in 1991 from its founders, Burke and Jo Barr. At the time, an older gentleman named G. T. Reed played the piano every night until his death at 79. Then pianist and vocalist “Big Al” Dupree replaced him in 1994, and his popularity helped shape the club into a jazz club. Even as Dupree gained national fame, he never forsook the Balcony Club. He considered it his home and played there five nights a week until his death in 2003.
Though the Balcony Club’s association with the landmark Lakewood Theater has undoubtedly been a key factor in its success, it also has played a leading role in its near demise. As the theater cycles through ownership, so does the Balcony Club, and each new landlord brings new changes and new challenges to weather. The club also took a hard hit during the cigarette ban, not to mention the economic slump of 2009.
Pianist Arthur Riddles has anchored Sunday nights since 1998, and Stanco, too, is a performer. His shows usually consist of a little bit of everything from classic rock to jazz to country. “I was a classical guitar major in college, but I’ve started learning jazz,” he says. “My greatest skill is versatility.” And his stance on freedom and evolution doesn’t stop with music; it carries over into his management style. His light-handed approach is arguably the No. 1 reason behind the success of the club. His belief that the club is a process that never stops growing and evolving has allowed the performers the space they need to enjoy the music and let it be.
Now, a new voice has stepped onto the stage at the Balcony Club. In July, Chamberlain began singing here every other Saturday after moving to Dallas from Los Angeles, and she brought a breath of fresh air into the space. Chamberlain, the “woman of 4,000 songs” as she’s been tagged, is a fourth-generation entertainer with an impressive resume.
She started singing in New York, and then, after moving to Connecticut, she stopped performing and opened up an employment agency. In L.A. she combined all her talents as an events coordinator for bands and musicians, as well as a performer, writer, TV personality and radio host.
With the economy gradually picking up pace and a generation of young adults actively seeking all things retro, the time is ripe for a big voice and big personality to hit the Dallas jazz scene.
Stanco is thrilled to see fresh, young faces darkening the door at the Balcony Club, mixing with the older, loyal following that has been warming the seats for decades. “They come for the music,” Chamberlain insists. For all their other choices, college students and young professionals from across the city are donning little black dresses and puffing on vapor cigarettes in the dimly lit jazz club. “And they’re not rowdy. They just sit and talk and listen to the music,” she says.
The Balcony Club is a musician hangout, explains long-time customer Lee Herrera. “You come here for the music,” he says. “Plus, the place has a lot of history.”
“The Balcony Club is the last place in Lakewood that has been able to maintain that classy feel,” Stanco says.
Although Stanco says he has a hard time picturing himself as the owner, rather than just a financially invested super fan, others know better.
“This place reeks of his personality,” Chamberlain says. “He is the Balcony Club, and he can say that he doesn’t think of himself as the owner all he wants to, but no one else could do what he’s done.”
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