Look at Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy and you wonder why they keep on keeping on with the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, a big, old, troublesome and crankily wonderful building in Cleveland’s struggling Waterloo Arts District. Talk to them for a spell, and you realize that these two, who have had their differences, come together on the Beachland, a place that matters not only to the bands that play there, but also to the neighborhood and greater Cleveland. Some might call the couple worn out; I like to think of them as worn in. They do the Beachland for love, and the place returns the favor often enough that the affair isn’t likely to end anytime soon. The Beachland is celebrating its 10th anniversary the first weekend in March with shows by local underground legends Pere Ubu, storied Texas rocker Roky Erickson, and current sensations This Moment in Black History.
Launched with juggled credit cards and a comfortable buyout from her spot as editor of the Free Times, Barber was ready for something new in 2000. She had known Leddy as the booker of Pat’s in the Flats; he was ready to book a bigger place. When the former Croatian Liberty Home came on the market, she and Leddy bought it for $200,000. It’s nearly 10,000 square feet including This Way Out (named after a sign from Euclid Beach), the vintage store in the basement. The tavern holds 150, the ballroom 500. The Beachland is a favorite of bands like Los Straitjackets and the Detroit Cobras – each has played there a dozen times – country-inflected performers like Jonathan Edwards and Neko Case and Cleveland under-grounders like Pere Ubu and, in one form or another, the Numbers Band (I was one of the lucky at the most recent “Old Home Night,” featuring Numbers king Robert Kidney on visceral, brilliantly bluesy guitar, accompanied by Ubu/They Might Be Giants bassist Tony Maimone and drummers Anton Fier and R. Scott Krauss).
Barber and Leddy admit they’re weary; running a club that books about 600 shows a year is tiring, particularly with a lean staff. “A lot of people do this for a certain period of time and then close the club,” says Barber, whose taste leans toward country and alt-rock. “It’s not a very profitable industry to be in, especially now. But I think there’s enough of an energy out there that people want to see this open. I can’t tell you how many times a week we get thanked for staying in operation. The idea is: Can we create a succession plan? It’s so important to the neighborhood, it’s so important to music fans.”
Meanwhile, Leddy is more interested in garage rock.
“Those two styles have always been like our love, our favorite things that we do,” Barber says. “But we’ve certainly broadened to all kinds.”
The venue has presented everyone from the Cramps to Arthur Lee and Love, the Choir to Los Lobos. “We did Jimmy Scott’s 75th birthday party,” Barber says, name-checking Cleveland’s favorite androgynous son, a legendary soul singer who has moved to Las Vegas.
“The Cramps playing here was exciting to me; X playing here was exciting to me,” says Leddy, noting the Black Keys made their debut in the tavern. “Some bands, like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, sold out the ballroom after starting with 30 people in the tavern, then 70, then 110, then 220 in the ballroom, then 500 people in the ballroom. I can’t say we build the group, but because we have the two rooms, you can see the growth.
“Most of them are too big for us now.”
When bands outgrow the Beachland, Barber and Leddy can present bands at a bigger venue: When White Stripes sold more than the Beachland can hold, Barber and Leddy presented them at the Odeon. It’s also promoting the Avett Bros. at House of Blues, a downtown venue that when it opened in 2004 instantly became a major competitor (it’s now a cooperator, Barber indicates).
Probably the biggest show was the Hives, on June 7, 2002. “It sold out well in advance,” Barber recalls, “and after it had been sold out for a couple of weeks Ticketmaster sold a couple hundred more tickets. People were trying to get in so much that somebody climbed on top of the building and shut our air conditioner off and we didn’t know it. So it was, like, 100 degrees in here; we thought we’d blown a fuse. We learned our lesson: Put locks on your air conditioner.” Other sellouts: Los Lobos, Rickie Lee Jones, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Other performers: plectrist David Lindley, the reunited Zombies, Blue Cheer, Jimmy Webb, and superstar-in-waiting Eli “Paperboy” Reed.
“It’s been a labor of love,” says Leddy. “Our net worth is much less than we started with. We’re all music. To really run a club well and promote shows well and do everything else, you need a big staff.” You also need a functioning building; while Beachland brought in good money in January, Barber and Leddy also spent $12,000 on plumbing repairs. The tavern seats date to the 1940s, when the building went up; they’re shifty, intermittently comfortable. The place is certainly homey.
“We didn’t want to be just another rock club with black walls,” says Barber. “Geographically, we’re not in the center of where people are... so each night has to be an event. We’re not set up well for just hangout nights. But because there’s not a lot of people hanging out and drinking, you can do quieter shows. Because there’s a cover charge and people have to drive here, they’re going to sit and pay attention to the artist.”
The Beachland is hard work, though. “Obviously, it’s taken its toll on us,” says Barber. “It’s like pushing a big rock up a hill,” adds Leddy.
Do you still enjoy it? “Every once in a while,” Barber laughs. “There are some incredible moments.”