By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Laura Watilo Blake
“Mike and I, in an odd sort of position, wound up being out with a neighbor who is a commercial realtor,” she says. “One thing led to another and we found ourselves standing inside the building of what will now be Music Box Supper Club. We thought, ‘Wow, this would be perfect for exactly what we want to bring to Cleveland.’”
The couple, who moved from Chicago to Mike’s native Cleveland in June 2012, had been talking about pooling their talents in a professional venture. The notion was not so far-fetched. Back in the early 1990s, they owned Biddy Mulligan’s, a roadhouse blues bar in Chicago.
“We were young and Mike was tired of working in advertising,” Miller says. “We had trial by fire learning to run a club, but it worked out well for us and got us started on this path.”
The idea for Music Box Supper Club grew out of Miller’s 2009 visit to City Winery in New York and eventual tenure as program director when the company expanded to Chicago. She was enthralled with its combination of listening room and table service.
Now, she and her husband are putting their own riff on the concept with Music Box Supper Club and are jazzed about contributing to the revitalization of The Flats, an area that has seen its fair share of success, decline, and rebirth. This is the right time to invest in the riverfront area, she insists, citing the East Bank’s surge in residential construction and the high occupancy rate of the EY Tower, as well as the resurrection of the once-popular water taxi. The West Bank, where Music Box Supper Club is located, remains strong with the presence of Jacobs Pavilion, Improv Comedy Club and Restaurant, Shooters on the Water, and the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
Back in the 1990s, The Flats “snowballed into a permanent spring break,” Miller says. “It started off being a really great scene, then somehow it snowballed out of control. Everyone is aware of that and nobody wants it again. This is very much a different strategy.”
The couple declines to reveal how much they are investing in refurbishing the 15,000-square-foot venue, which, by its soft opening in August, will feature two distinct spaces: a downstairs restaurant with a separate private dining room for 50 people, deck seating, and a stage for more informal performances; and an upstairs concert hall with event rental space and a rooftop deck. Because little was up to code, the couple gutted and refurbished most of the building. They added an elevator and hired an acoustical engineer to design and install soundproofing and acoustics equipment, where needed. They also will rebuild the front entrance with a corrugated steel awning.
Left intact, however, is the original staircase, which was “unearthed” under a layer of drywall. “It’s reminiscent of the late 1980s, so we’re fixing it up and keeping it because it’s just too cool to get rid of,” Miller says.
Colleen Miller serves as president and program director, while Mike Miller oversees marketing and operations. Chef Dennis Devies, formerly of Canton’s Brookside Country Club, manages the kitchen; his menu features Americana fare with seafood and some Caribbean flavors. The Millers expect to hire 50-60 employees the first year.
Among the artists already booked are Mavis Staples, Polyphonic Spree, Iris Dement, John Pizzarelli, Allen Toussaint with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Mary Black.
Several corporate events are already scheduled for the upstairs rental space, which has full audiovisual capabilities; can be configured for meetings, conferences, or meals; and offers spectacular year-round views.
“In the winter, there are giant chunks of frozen ice or you can see the ice breakers working so the freighters can get through,” Miller says. “For a couple of weeks, it’s the center of the bird migration.”
The Millers embrace corporate networking. Mike is a member of BizCon, Sales and Marketing Executives, and other groups. Colleen belongs to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and several informal concert promotion groups.
“Mike is Mr. Uber-Connected and his networking has brought together a lot of our investors and people interested in renting space,” Miller says. “His connections and my informal connections have made up the base of our email list, which is strong considering we haven’t opened yet.”
For more information: musicboxcle.com
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