A bottle of hand sanitizer in her purse and two face masks on, Sydney Yelity-Paul walked up the stairs to the lounge above The Ottobar. It was the first-ever visit for the Pikesville 25-year-old. She took in her surroundings. A few clusters of people filed in, ordering drinks at a bar draped in plastic film. A paper sign laid out “apocalypse rules.” Downstairs, a bouncer checked IDs and took temperatures.
“Hopefully people start dancing soon so I don’t feel awkward,” Yelity-Paul said. “Any more than I do right now.”
Awkwardness and beer cans, face masks and rock music. It was a scene of almost-normalcy for Baltimore’s Ottobar, the nearly 25-year-old music venue, which has been mostly shut since the pandemic started last year. Amid a decline in coronavirus cases and a rise in vaccinations, Mayor Brandon Scott recently permitted bars and music venues to resume operations at 25% capacity.
For a while it had looked like The Ottobar, which Rolling Stone has magazine called one of America’s top 10 places to see live music, might become another pandemic casualty.
Staff members, including Garret Jett, 27, recalled how they had closed the bar in March, and scrubbed down its graffiti-walled bathroom. It was a strange time, he recalled, back to work at the club nearly one year later.
“It was scary, dude,” interjected Kyle Garner, 28, who sat with Jett at a table inside the bar. His band, the Cloudbusters, had last performed on The Ottobar’s stage in February 2020, about a month before the shutdown. That show drew a crowd of around 200 or 300 people; it was the last time he and his bandmates had all been in the same space.
Bartender Jerrod Sydnor said he spent the pandemic fighting depression and the state unemployment system. On Thursday, he was back at work, fielding drink requests from behind the plastic barrier.
The place originally opened in 1997, on an alley near Baltimore’s courthouse, says Tecla Tesnau, who was lead bartender then. A few years later, it moved to North Howard Street, in Charles Village. “You can smell The Ottobar’s cocktail of sweat, smoke and beer down the block. Though it’s been on Howard Street only for about four years, from the inside you would swear it’s still 1981,” a Sun reporter wrote in 2005.
Tesnau purchased the venue in 2019. “I had all these great ideas,” she said, “to make positive changes while keeping the funky grungy patina of The Ottobar intact.” Shows were booked. “It’s like a Cinderella story,” Tesnau told The Sun at the time. “I’m a little more ‘Cinder’ and a little less ‘Ella.’ ”
And then in March 2020: “We just absolutely ran into the concrete wall of COVID.”
“Right after she buys it, baloomph,” said John Pastore, a 74-year-old regular who received applause from fellow customers as he walked in Thursday. Former Ottobar employees who sat drinking beers darted to go buy him a drink. “The mayor of Remington,” one called him.
For a time, Tesnau worried that she might lose not only her business, but her home, which was tied up in her business loan. “It was absolutely like swimming in open water with zero life raft,” she said. She pivoted from booking shows to applying for grants and small business loans. “That’s when I pulled the trigger and did the GoFundMe,” she said.
With the GoFundMe account, people sent not only money, but memories: of meeting future bandmates over beers at The Ottobar years ago, of watching their own children perform on stage.
“People have cut their teeth here in so many ways,” Tesnau said. “There were so many firsts.” It was a reminder: The Ottobar is more than a brick building on Howard Street.
Ultimately, the GoFundMe raised almost $150,000 for the venue. “It makes me weep with joy,” Tesnau said.
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While the venue’s upstairs lounge opened up Thursday, it will be a while before there are concerts again. Even at 25% capacity “a show costs a lot of money to put on. In order for a show to be profitable, you really have to be able to pack the house,” Tesnau said. “At 25% capacity, that’s not really something that’s going to be worth it to performers.” The first shows are scheduled for November: “If the world allows,” Tesnau says. Murder by Death is set to take the stage Nov. 1.
In the meantime, couples at tables leaned in close to chat. A movie projector played 1982′s “The Thing” against a wall. (Description from IMDB: “A research team in Antarctica is hunted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims.”) A group of friends sat playing a card game. Old buddies caught up over beers, masks dangling from chins as they sat at a table. No one seemed interested in the pool table.
Rosedale resident Lauren Reilly, 22, noticed “people having fun again but in their small intimate group.” There seemed to be less standing around than usual, with people looking to observe social distancing mandates. She’d last been to the club for emo night last year.
All in all, the environment felt safe for her companion, 26-year-old Eric Basta of Parkville. “I’ve been to some places that are pretty lenient,” he said. People crowd together and don’t necessarily wear masks.
Ottobar bartender Dana Murphy, 34, said she would wait to come back as a customer: Not that she feels unsafe, but with the bar at limited capacity, she’s reluctant to take a seat when she knows so many other regulars are looking forward to coming back. A post on social media generated more likes than the 20 or so visitors allowed in the bar right now.
Moving forward, Murphy wonders if customers will need to take a number before getting their turn at sitting down. “Overarchingly, I’m sure this pandemic will just have a massive effect on day-to-day life,” she said.
At a table nearby, Yelity-Paul sat alone, staring down at her phone. “I’m really bored. No one’s dancing,” she said. But somehow, she figured it was better to be bored at the bar than bored at home. “I’m like, ‘Yay I got out.’ ”