If you were a patron of Alexandria’s longtime music venue the Birchmere Music Hall, you saw Gary Oelze. Night after night after night he roamed the front of the house, always in a crisply pressed dress shirt, making sure everything was ideal for the fans and the performers until it was time for him to read off the numbers to let patrons inside the dining room in the order of their arrival.
Most likely you did not realize the gentleman calling your number was the founder and owner of the self-proclaimed “America’s Legendary Music Hall,” the place that over three different iterations across 55 years helped establish performing careers, develop fan bases, and delight up to 500 music aficionados a night with live music. That’s more than 13,000 nights of music. Astonishing.
Not shy but a bit unassuming, Gary genuinely liked not being the center of attention. In fact, the headline of the foreword I wrote of the 2021 book, All Roads Lead to the Birchmere, is, if I must say so, perfect: “A Few Words About Gary Oelze — and He’s Going to Hate Them All.”
Gary died Monday, January 23, at age 80, of an undisclosed cause. The heartfelt tributes from musicians and patrons are flowing. Here’s mine.
“Don’t make this about me,” Gary insisted. “This isn’t about me.” And for the rest of the book, co-author Stephen Moore made sure it wasn’t about him. My foreword is just about the only place in the 500-plus-page tome you learn anything about Gary’s background — his Kentucky roots, his travels with his teen rock and country band, his Air Force hitch, his early on-the-job training as a manager of a People’s Drug Store.
I didn’t know most of this until it came time to introduce Gary to the book’s readers, and I’ve been covering the Birchmere since the 1970s. From the book:
“Gary’s background made the Birchmere possible. Look at the evidence.
“His father ran a barbecue restaurant, which showed him what was possible. Gary struggled to learn the guitar, giving him insight as to how hard it is to be an accomplished musician. He played unholy gigs with fellow teenagers in honky-tonks neither the Kentucky or Indiana police would have anything to do with, experiences that showed him the right way and the wrong way of accommodating talent and an audience. He learned discipline and routine in the military, two things any entrepreneur will tell you are essential for long-term success. He managed retail establishments and was hired away by someone who saw his potential in a risky new endeavor.
“All of these experiences led him to devoting himself to creating and maintaining a venue people — artists as well as customers — could count on. The Birchmere.”
I can’t think of anything else to say, other than to thank him for making decades of entertainment possible. I’ll miss standing at the end of the bar before shows, quietly chatting about the artist or current events or hearing about his latest adventure (apparently his trips to Las Vegas were epic). But the next time I’m at the Birchmere, I’ll raise one for him one last time.
I think I’ll go listen to some Mickey Newbury ballads, one his favorite songwriters. Gary sent me, as a surprise, the boxed set of CDs when he found out I was missing a few. Next time, my friend.
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