PENINSULA: Karen Walters can’t carry a tune. She’ll tell you herself.
That didn’t stop her from wailing away one night while she was cleaning the historic G.A.R. Hall.
Even off-key, her voice resounded magically in the cavernous room where local residents have gone to school, held weddings and funerals, and conducted plays, parties and community meetings for nearly two centuries.
“So I asked if I could explore the idea of an open mic night,” said Walters, who coordinates events for the Peninsula Valley Historic & Education Foundation, which owns the building.
A year later, Walters is in the basement of the G.A.R. Hall, standing behind the bar, serving beer, wine and spirits to people who can sing. And play instruments. And write songs.
It’s a cold and blustery Thursday. The third Thursday of the month, to be exact.
They come here every month at this time, hauling in their guitars and fiddles and harmonicas.
Brant Novak of Norton even drags in his 6-foot-tall, upright bass. Several acts will ask him to join in before the night is over.
The show gets under way at 7:30 p.m., and 15 acts have asked to have their 15 minutes.
As with any open mic event, the artists are looking for the opportunity to practice, to be heard, to be seen.
But to a person, they say they come here in particular because the G.A.R. Hall is special.
An elevated stage looks out over a pale, dusty-blue room, with beadboard walls and an arched tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the round tables with white covers and red chairs are filled by fellow musicians and their families, but a dozen or so folks are residents of the arts-loving Peninsula community.
“What a room!” bass player Novak declares. “The folks running and supporting this venue care, and you can feel it.”
Jonathan Silver of Stow and Jimmy Silver of Brecksville are the first to entertain beneath the gold-and-glass chandelier hovering over the stage. Officially, they are “Jonny & His Dad.”
“There will be a quiz at the end as to which of us you think is Jonny,” says the male who is more than twice the age of the other. The audience laughs.
Their two guitars are soon replaced by one guitar in the hands of Scott Stuewe. A 54-year-old Kansas businessman, he spends much of his week on the road. He usually packs his guitar and looks for kindred souls.
Stuewe made friends at an open mic event in Sandusky once, and the grapevine led him here.
After three original songs, he returns to his seat in the crowd while folks lob supportive comments his way.
Feeling at home
Musicians are comfortable with each other like that. That’s why Hashim El-Ra-Mun — “Mr. Trinidad” is how event host David Nicholson announces him — feels at home even though the Cleveland street musician has never performed here before.
“Music has a way of pushing fear aside,” he says. “You share a little of your life. I share a little of mine. Then we’re not strangers anymore.”
He does a medley of Neil Young and Cat Stevens and some reggae. He jokes about his bad eyesight and not being able to read the lyrics he has brought along.
“I’m gonna fake the funk,” he says.
By the time Walt Frazier steps up, the G.A.R. Hall is standing-room-only. The Akron resident offers some original songs, including one that grew from a poem his wife, Theresa, wrote about the Cuyahoga River.
Frazier, 68, has been performing for all of one year. When he retired, his musician daughter — who knew he enjoyed strumming the guitar — told him: “Dad, you gotta stop singing to the wall.”
His first public outing was in front of six people. At the G.A.R. Hall, more than 80 pairs of ears hear him play.
Elaine Ohm of Hinckley is the night’s first female act. She gets a prime-time spot because she’s a girl.
The host says ladies are few and far between, so to lure them out of hiding, they get to perform in whatever time slot they want. The order of the guys is chosen by lottery.
Ohm has played here before. “The buzz usually lasts until the next day.” Besides, she says, it’s good to have an outlet “when you’re over 50 and all your friends go to bed by 10 p.m.”
Hooting and hollering
Like most of the night’s acts, Kerry Kean of Kent and Kathy Camille of Hudson play guitar. Unlike any of the other acts, Kathy yodels. Her warble on a Hank Williams song has the crowd hooting, hollering and pumping their fists.
Following them is 9 Souls. The name is a mystery. They’re three guys: Greg Workman of Peninsula on guitar, Novak on his upright bass and Samuel Salsbury of Akron on violin.
They don’t sing a word, but their original instrumentals are so mesmerizing, no one is in a hurry for them to stop. They play six pieces.
It’s after 9 p.m. when Sur’ Lawrence Trupo takes the stage. He’s dressed in black-and-white stripes, a glittering short jacket and a top hat — a kind of Uncle Sam minus the red, white and blue.
The Lorain County resident is a regular here, and his storytelling brand of music is popular with his fellow musicians. Three others ask to join him, so his guitar and harmonica end up mingling with that upright bass, an electric guitar and John Weniger on piano.
“It’s a spontaneous collaboration,” he announces to the crowd as he launches into I’m an Old Man and Nobody Knows My Name followed by Working For a Living Is Really Killing Me.
Trupo says later that there aren’t a lot of places where an “old folk musician” can thrive. G.A.R. is the exception.
A little romance is served up next. Red Chrosniak and Becca Rhoades started performing as a duo eight months ago as the cleverly named Red Brick Rhoades.
Chrosniak, a religion teacher at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, and Rhoades, a violinist with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, tell the audience they met at Peninsula’s monthly contra dance.
“It’s very easy to fall in love on the dance floor,” Chrosniak confesses. Their final song is Under the Moonlight — an original he wrote about that special night.
It’s after 10 p.m. and the weeknight crowd begins to lose some of its early risers, but an audience of 40 or so still fills out the hall when Chad Jenson gets his turn.
Jenson of Wadsworth said open mic nights allow a musician to “remove yourself from your insular world of a couch and see how you fare with an audience. You cannot judge what you do yourself. You must put yourself into a position of failure, of embarrassment, to truly gauge where you stand.”
Jenson swaps between acoustic and electric guitars as easily as he swaps between genres. He loves old music, he says, as he launches into the 1931 Now’s the Time to Fall in Love.
Then he warns the crowd, “White man singing the blues. Beware!” as he gets down and dirty with the Ray Charles hit Losing Hand.
Jimmy Conroy’s family and friends have been waiting patiently to hear their Woodridge High School senior tackle some country music, and they finally get their chance.
The 17-year-old took the stage for the first time in August, and the home crowd cheers loud for the Peninsula native as he pounds his black guitar and sings Night Train because it’s his dad’s favorite.
The crowd continues to dwindle, but those who remain seem to make an extra effort at being loud and supportive for Jim Daniels of Macedonia, who dedicates The House at Pooh Corner to his new grandson, and for Bryn Roberts of Richfield, who strums a steel guitar to the blues.
Asked how he likes the venue, Roberts quips: “Is this where Lincoln was assassinated?”
Built in 1850, it certainly is old enough.
Roberts is joined for a couple of songs by Serena Raybould.
There are only a dozen diehards to see her, but Raybould couldn’t take advantage of the “girls first” rule because she’s a busy lady. She owns The Taverne of Richfield.
Singing is only a hobby, though that wasn’t obvious as she channeled her inner Aretha Franklin and belted out a powerful rendition of Natural Woman.
Jim Dime was one of the first musicians to arrive after the doors opened. But as luck of the draw would have it, his time slot starts at 11:10 p.m.
Before he takes the stage, a fellow musician stops by his table to lament the late hour. “I wish you had played earlier,” the friend says. “I love your stuff, but it’s past my bedtime, dude.”
No matter. Dime climbs the stage and gives his all to a Hank Williams medley. Large crowd or small, Dime is willing.
“Someone once asked me what my favorite music was,” he said before his performance. “Live” was his reply. “I’m happy as I ever need to be on stage, and it keeps me young,” said the 69-year-old from Massillon.
Paul Certo of Bedford closes out the show. He entertains the seven people still in their seats with a Hawaiian fare, sharing the quaint lore behind songs peppered with Polynesian words.
The evening comes to an official end just past 11:30 p.m., but Nicholson invites the night owls to linger and jam on stage if they like. They take him up on his offer.
Lawrence Sulzer, president of the Peninsula Valley Historic & Education Foundation, cleans beer bottles and wine glasses off the tables and pushes in chairs as the music starts up again.
“It was a good night,” he says.