The Drake, downtown Amherst’s first performance venue, set to open this month

  • Gabrielle Gould, the executive director of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, stands in the Drake during its last phase of construction before it opens on April 26. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Downtown Amherst Foundation, and Lincoln Allen, the Drake’s managing director, stand in the Drake during the last phase of construction before it opens on April 26. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The stage at the Drake during the last phase of construction before it opens on April 26. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2022 9:06:38 PM

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

Starting April 26 with the Green Street Trio of the Northampton Jazz Workshop, followed by jazz violinist Regina Carter on April 28, the Drake’s opening will mark the beginning of a vision established through the nonprofit Downtown Amherst Foundation for attracting local, regional and national acts, and creating a year-round destination several days each week.

“This is an arts and cultural builder,” says Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, who has been instrumental in coordinating the creation of the 44 North Pleasant St. site.

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 making connections to those institutions of higher learning.

“This is a great opportunity to have a hand in the culture and diversity of Amherst, and bring the town and gown together,” Gould said.

Located in the heart of downtown in space most recently used as part of High Horse Restaurant, the Drake takes its name from the famed hotel and bar from the 1960s and ’70s that has lived on in memories and physically in graffiti on a portion of the nearby Amherst Cinema building.

Those phrases — “Save the Drake” and “For Willy, for humanity,” in white spraypaint on the red brick — will be crafted into neon signs and greet visitors to the new venue, along with a metal dragon made by local artist Kamil Peters. That dragon, which had held taps in the former bar, will hang on the same entrance wall; Lincoln Allen, managing director of the Drake, calls it their mascot.

Inside, 240 guests will be welcome when the dance floor is open, with capacity at 170 when theater seats are set up, and a variety of other set-ups are possible depending on the performance, such as placing tables and chairs.

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

A bar on the opposite end will serve alcoholic beverages and mocktails for the all-ages shows. But no food will be sold, with the hope that those who come either bring meals they have taken out from restaurants, or have already dined out before. Gould said the idea is to have the Drake support other establishments, not diminish them.

Buildout has been a long process, in part due to the thick concrete floors that are a reminder that the room is carved from what was built as the First National Bank.

Kuhn Riddle Architects handled the design work, including adding three new bathrooms.

Work still to be done includes lacing acoustic panels on the dark green walls with black accents and the ceiling. That green theme carries over into the appropriately named green room, where new couches and rugs will greet performers.

Heather Hamel, an up-and-coming interior designer, has handled designs, while local contractors have done much of the work at the building owned by developer Barry Roberts, including Shepard Electric, Pickering Plumbing, Shumway Painting and NGT Carpentry.

Gould said for those who are cautious about venturing 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 being required.

The Downtown Amherst Foundation and Allen are scheduling some of the performers, with Laudable Productions seeking out bigger acts. Cassandra Holden of Laudable said in a statement that her company believes in the power of arts to enrich lives and knit communities together.

“We’re excited to present a range of artists at the Drake that will appeal to the community’s diverse population and draw culturally curious and savvy travelers from outside the region as well, benefiting Amherst’s many restaurants and other businesses,” Holden said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he is looking forward to being at shows at the Drake in the near future. “It will be a spectacular venue,” Bockelman said.

A ribbon-cutting is set for May 2.

Meanwhile, the foundation is collaborating with the art and music departments of Amherst College, UMass and Amherst Regional High School to offer students, faculty and alumni musicians the opportunity to perform live at the Drake. Also, once a month, proceeds from the new “Freedback Live” series will be donated to a local nonprofit.

The Drake is part of a recovery plan from the pandemic that includes building a performance shell on the Town Common. The foundation is $1 million into a $1.3 million capital campaign for the Drake, after the initial seed money came last summer from a $175,000 Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project Grant; additionally, more than 200 donors have contributed. Amherst College also made a $100,000 gift.

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

“It’s really important that the audience comes out of here and says, ‘I want to come back,’” Gould said.

Allen said all shows, once announced, will be posted to the website at https://www.thedrakeamherst.org/, where tickets are also available.

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