The Drake, Downtown Amherst’s First Performance Venue, Set to Open This Month

AMHERST — For the first time in downtown Amherst, a venue dedicated to live performances, featuring a range of musical styles, open-mic nights and poetry slams, will open this month.

Beginning April 26 with Northampton Jazz Workshop’s Green Street Trio, followed by jazz violinist Regina Carter on April 28, the Drake’s opening will mark the beginning of a vision established through the Downtown Amherst Foundation at nonprofit to attract local, regional and national artists, and create a year-round destination several days a week.

“It’s an arts and culture builder,” says Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, who was instrumental in coordinating the creation of the site at 44 North Pleasant St.

Gould sees the Drake as tapping into the cultural and artistic community already created by the University of Massachusetts and Amherst and Hampshire colleges, and building ties with those institutions of higher learning.

“It’s a great opportunity to participate in the culture and diversity of Amherst and bring the city and the dress together,” Gould said.

Located in the heart of downtown in the space most recently used as part of the High Horse Restaurant, The Drake takes its name from the famous 1960s and 1970s hotel and bar that has survived in memories and physically in graffiti on part of the nearby Amherst Cinema building.

These phrases — “Save the Drake” and “For Willy, for humanity,” in white paint on red brick — will be transformed into neon signs and greet visitors to the new location, along with a metal dragon made by local artist Kamil Peters. This dragon, which held the taps of the former bar, will be hung on the same entrance wall; Lincoln Allen, general manager of the Drake, calls him their mascot.

Inside, 240 guests will be welcome when the dance floor is open, with a capacity of 170 when the theater seats are installed, and a variety of other configurations are possible depending on the performance, such as placement of tables and chairs.

At the front of the space is a 20-by-16-foot stage with state-of-the-art Klondike sound and lighting. Nearby will be a Steinway piano donated by Amherst College.

A bar opposite will serve alcoholic beverages and mocktails for shows for all ages. But no food will be sold, with the expectation that those who come will either bring meals they have had at the restaurant or have dined at the restaurant before. Gould said the idea was to have the Drake support other establishments, not diminish them.

Construction was a long process, in part because of the thick concrete floors that serve as a reminder that the room is carved into what was built as the First National Bank.

Kuhn Riddle Architects carried out the design work, including the addition of three new bathrooms.

Work remaining to be done includes lacing acoustic panels on the dark green walls with black accents and the ceiling. This green theme continues in the aptly named Green Room, where new sofas and rugs will welcome performers.

Up-and-coming interior designer Heather Hamel handled the designs, while local contractors carried out much of the work in the building owned by developer Barry Roberts, including Shepard Electric, Pickering Plumbing, Shumway Painting and NGT Carpentry.

Gould said for those hesitant to venture out during the pandemic, the building has a state-of-the-art HVAC system and HEPA filtration system. Masks and proof of vaccination are not required.

The Downtown Amherst Foundation and Allen are programming some of the artists, with Laudable Productions looking for bigger numbers. Laudable’s Cassandra Holden said in a statement that her company believes in the power of the arts to enrich lives and unite communities.

“We are thrilled to introduce a lineup of entertainers to The Drake that will appeal to the community’s diverse population and also attract culturally curious and savvy travelers from outside the area, to benefit Amherst’s many restaurants and other businesses. “Holden said.

City manager Paul Bockelman said he looks forward to performing at The Drake in the near future. “It’s going to be a spectacular venue,” Bockelman said.

A ribbon cutting is scheduled for May 2.

Meanwhile, the foundation is working with the art and music departments of Amherst College, UMass, and Amherst Regional High School to provide students, faculty, and former musicians the opportunity to perform live at The Drake. Additionally, once a month, proceeds from the new “Freedback Live” series will be donated to a local non-profit organization.

The Drake is part of a post-pandemic recovery plan that includes building a performance shell on the Town Common. The foundation is investing $1 million in a $1.3 million capital campaign for the Drake, after initial seed capital came last summer from a $175,000 regional pilot project grant from Massachusetts Office of Business Development; in addition, more than 200 donors contributed. Amherst College also donated $100,000.

With the new Drake being the first of its kind in Amherst, Gould said the goal is to put on shows that will encourage guests and performers to return.

“It’s really important that people get out of here and say, ‘I want to come back,'” Gould said.

Allen said all shows, once announced, will be posted on the website at thedrakeamherst.org, where tickets are also available.

Scott Merzbach can be contacted at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

James C. Tibbs