Off Broadway’s new owner keeps the beer selection and chucks the old carpet

For nearly three decades, Off Broadway has provided a comfortable night’s home for bands usually, but not always, of the rock variety. Nestled in the shadows of the old Lemp Brewery complex, the club has won a reputation as a good-sounding room, with warm, natural acoustics. Its size, which allows for close to 300 patrons but feels reasonably busy with half that number, has proven a nice steppingstone for bands on both the way up and way down in popularity. Even the look and feel of the room has drawn praise from concertgoers, who’ve found all the best sightlines, all the nooks and crannies (like the fun mezzanine level) of this otherwise boxy venue.

But with the law of real estate – location, location, location – working somewhat against Off Broadway, the club’s long had to compete as a pure destination room, rather than a spot that attracts any kind of pedestrian traffic. Though the place has always been on the radar of local concertgoers, the club’s third owner is now trying to build the space into the kind of must-visit venue that attracts casual fans, as well as diehards seeking a specific performer.

Stepping into the ownership void just this year is Steve Pohlman, a St. Louis native who’s taken the lead role in what’s truly a mom-and-pop operation. When interviewed recently on a muggy, overcast Saturday afternoon, his wife, Kit Kellison, was dusting off the bar while sons Stevie Pohlman and Patrick Kellison were rearranging chairs several hours in advance of that night’s bill and just before the arrival of the club’s staffers.

Optimistic about his venue’s chances for success, Pohlman pointed to a certain degree of civic pride, saying, “I wanted it to continue to be an original music, live music room.” And to do that, “I want more shows. I would like to be open five, if not six, nights a week. I think our plans are to develop a core of people who’ll come to see whoever’s playing.”

Pohlman said that he and his wife, after a “15-year road trip,” began to simply and regularly show up at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups after resettling in St. Louis a year ago. Drawn by the food, the comfort factor and the reliable knowledge that top-quality blues could be heard on any given night of the week, Pohlman’s hoping to re-create some of that feel at Off Broadway. In effect, he wants to draw the music fan who’s at loose ends and wants a place to catch a show or even grab a bite.

To the latter point, there’s a kitchen, which was added by the last owners. Simple fare, like sandwiches, dot the menu now, though increased attendance could always broaden that out.

The selection of libations has always been a strength at Off Broadway. Though located just a short walk from the world’s largest brewer, Off Broadway’s known to stock 100 different beers, a somewhat staggering total considering the club’s size and patron base.

“It’s a real expense, carrying 100 different kinds of beer,” Pohlman said. “Especially when you don’t have the constant, steady customers, where you know just what they’ll drink. One night, everyone’s drinking Negra Modelo. The next it’s nothing but Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stag. But there’s no shortage of beer.”

Though Pohlman has maintained the large beer list and the kitchen, he toyed with other parts of the operation. The changes range from subtle (tearing out the well-worn “classic” carpet) to dramatic (hanging the PA system from the ceiling, rather than using stacks, which proved a remarkable, room-altering decision). He’s still eyeing some projects, like the removal of the strange window cutouts that have been a back-of-stage fixture at the club.

Because some of the fans of the room have been attending two decades’ worth of shows in the venue, they had something to say about each move, especially the removal of decades’ worth of kitsch and memorabilia from the walls, which aren’t spartan now but are free of the primary clutter. And, yeah, that carpet.

“The carpet had been here since 1981,” Pohlman joked. “We took it out after 25 years. And people commented on that; they liked the way it made the room sound.”

But the ultimate test for Pohlman will be making sure that the booking stays competitive with other rooms. Mixing in some blues, lots of singer-songwriters and other acts into the basic rock mix will be the trick, along with developing local bands that bring their best crowds to his club, rather than the one across town. In a business given to fluctuating tastes, that’s always the hardest part of the nightclub business, the anticipation of what shows will keep his seven-person staff humming on a weekday night.

“I don’t think people that listen to music limit what they listen to,” he said. “They’re not afraid to listen to something new.”

That’s true of his existing audience. And if he can translate that idea into a few dozen more regulars, a few hundred more occasional guests … then Off Broadway’s third life might be the brightest yet.