The club that saved North Collinwood can’t seem to save itself

The Beachland's Waterloo 

The club that saved North Collinwood can’t seem to save itself

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With no money but vast reserves of ambition, Leddy and Barber combined their Rolodexes: He schlepped in the garage and punk bands, she brought the Americana and alternative country acts. They toiled through endless workdays and eventually became a couple, bonding over their time together.

The Beachland's bands were falling in love too.

"It was the coolest venue I ever stepped into," says Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets. The band has played on four continents, but calls the Beachland one of the two best venues in the world. "It had not one great jukebox, but two great jukeboxes, with records on the original label," he marvels. "The stage was perfect."

And the club's owners were perfectly accommodating. Los Straitjackets spent one Fourth of July barbecuing at Barber's home. Word spread among other bands, and soon others were doing the same. Before long, agents started calling.

Around town, meanwhile, hard times were falling on the Cleveland club scene. The Flats had all but bottomed out. Wilbert's, which had been booking blues and roots music, was displaced from its Warehouse District home and had yet to reemerge across town. The Euclid Tavern was no longer booking the hot indie bands that made it a countercultural hub in earlier years, and the Grog Shop was still confined to its cramped quarters in a seedy Coventry storefront.

That left the door wide open for the Beachland, whose main challenge early on was in learning how to deal with surprise success.

"For the first few years, it was just Mark and I," Barber recalls. "One night Mark was playing with his band, Satan's Satellites, in Youngstown, and I was here by myself. We had Man or Astro-man? booked in the Ballroom and sold 20 advance tickets. We had the Numbers Band in the Tavern. And we sold out both rooms: There were 650 people here. We ran out of beer, we ran out of change. I was calling friends to come help me."

The club was chugging along nicely in its early days. And then crisis hit.

"We were only open a year and a half when 9/11 happened," says Leddy. "We had a full fall schedule booked, hundreds of thousands in guarantees, betting you'll make hundred of thousands."

But as the nation buckled down in the wake of the terrorist strike, people stopped going to shows. Almost overnight, the Beachland found itself on the hook with its bands.

"We took on debt to survive," says Leddy. He and Barber racked up club expenses on their personal credit cards and prayed for things to change. He figures they lost at least $100,000 floating the club on their own through those days.

But no sooner had crowds started returning when another body blow struck the Beachland: the opening of the House of Blues downtown in November 2004. Eager to make a splash, the deep-pocketed new club outbid the Beachland for nearly all of its top-drawing bands. Gone overnight were bankable acts like the Cramps and Hot Tuna. The ones they did manage to keep where now commanding more money.

"The opening of the House of Blues probably cost us $100,000 in the first year and a half," says Barber. "It feels like they set out to put us out of business."

Struggling again to make ends meet, the Beachland found help from unlikely sources. Barber recalls one holiday season when they couldn't make payroll. In the mail came a Christmas card from a faithful concertgoer — along with a check for $5,000. Another fan loaned them the money to pay off the costly Tex-Mex band Los Lobos.

"We've carried debt since then and have never been able to pay it down," says Leddy. The realities of life amid Cleveland's crumbling infrastructure often don't help the cause. "In some years, if not for the sewer system going out or needing a new roof, we would have been modestly profitable. We have a building built in 1949, and stuff breaks."

While chaos ruled the Beachland books, a new groove was settling in just outside the club's doors. In 2002, a kindred spirit named Sarah Gyorki moved in down the street. A displaced local who had grown up in Cleveland Heights, Gyorki returned to Cleveland after ten years of travel. She wasn't planning to stay, but she bought and rehabbed a duplex on Waterloo, near where her parents lived. Looking around, she started to see potential. "It reminded me of the Southport Corridor," she says, naming a hip strip of boutiques, bars, and restaurants on Chicago's mid-north side.

Gyorki opened the What Not coffee shop up the street from the Beachland. In short order, it became a gathering spot for artists, poets, and musicians. Although the shop was open for only about a year, a co-op of artists formed there evolved into Arts Collinwood, the nonprofit Gyorki headed from 2004 through 2010.

Arts Collinwood had its own struggles. Launched with a $5,000 grant, it initially ran programs out of a church basement. Councilman Polensek later kicked in $25,000 in city dollars, easing the transition into space that included a former bar at the corner of Waterloo and East 156th. Now the group runs a gallery, an adjoining café, and space for art classes.

"He's not arts friendly," Gyorki says of Polensek. "He doesn't get us, but he always saw how this would benefit the community."

A turning point for Waterloo came in 2004, when the independent record store Music Saves came to town. The place quickly grew into a clubhouse for indie music fans, its walls a riot of concert posters and stickers, its bins crammed with records by the sorts of acts that play the Beachland.

The store's owners, native Clevelanders Melanie Hershberger and Kevin Neudecker, melded a passion for music with a newfound love for a promising neighborhood.

"When the Beachland opened in 2000, Kevin was still living here and went to a few shows," says Hershberger. "We kept an eye on the place. We thought if we opened a store, it should be near a venue. He brought me here one night when there was no show happening. But when we drove down the street, I thought this place is so cool." A sitdown with Leddy and Barber brought their dream to life.

The overall rebirth of Waterloo has taken shape in much the same way. In 2006, Leddy and Barber convinced Pete and Debbie Gulyas, who had recently closed their vintage boutique on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, to form a partnership with them to open This Way Out, a record/vintage collectibles shop in the Beachland's basement.

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