Not Just Another Music Venue
New music venue owners may think the way to attract customers is to amplify their noise and modernize their look as a way to distinguish themselves amongst the other clubs on the scene. Joe Cawley, however, has pretty much done just the opposite. In 2010, he turned a 1920s movie house into a uniquely intimate concert venue called Alberta Rose Theatre. And people are really starting to listen.
“I felt Portland needed a mid-sized room for the acoustic based shows and artists that I liked,” said Cawley while explaining what prompted him to open the low-key music theatre. “[Alberta Rose] has fixed seating and is more of a listening room. My inspiration came from musicians who I discovered through venues like the Aladdin Theater and there’s a lot of artists who can’t play there because it’s too big,” he explained. Before opening Alberta Rose, Cawley owned a successful recycling business in Portland for about 25 years. With a passion for music and entertaining, he found himself drawn to organizing small concerts and festivals on the side.
“I was never really a good musician,” Cawley admitted with a laugh, “but I knew how to put a good show on.”
Cawley took 10 years to develop a meticulous business plan for opening a dream music venue of his own. When an unexpected opportunity to buy the perfect piece of property arose in 2010—he jumped at the chance and didn’t look back. “The funny thing is, at the time, I wasn’t even ready to open,” Cawley revealed. “I was going to do some traveling but I just happened to do a property search and this place came up as available…. It all felt like it was really meant to happen.”
Cawley immediately went to work getting the space remodeled and running. He soon discovered that he hadn’t just purchased a typical concert venue. It was a deep well of local history and it had a story all its own. “Starting in the 1920s, it was a movie house and they pretty much kept showing Sci-Fi and Blaxploitation films up until the 70s,” Cawley said. “It used to be run by a gentleman named Harvey Garnett who is still a regular visitor here.” Cawley said the space actually spent its final incarnation as a church. When the neighborhood became derelict and dangerous, so did the building. Its doors were sealed up, leaving a dark stage and empty seats—forced to wait decades before opening to the public again. And although he revived it rather quickly, Cawley says opening didn’t happen easily.
“We had so much work to do in such a short amount of time—nothing had probably been done in here since 1978,” Cawley said. “All the bathrooms, the bar, the stage, the sound system, the green room… and it never would have happened if it wasn’t for my community of friends.” With all that inherited history and timeless design, Cawley says many people assume that Alberta Rose has been around for decades rather than just a few years. And while musical acts are the primary focus, they’ve also added other aspects over the years such as film showings and even circus performances. The venue is also well known as the home for Portland’s radio variety show, Live Wire.
“I like to surround myself with creative and talented people. A lot of my staff are friends I’ve had for many years,” Cawley shared, explaining why he feels Alberta Rose stands out within Portland’s thriving music scene. “There’s a deep connection with artists who performs here, and it really makes a difference for everybody.”