Archive for Wednesday, March 30, 2005

From country music to poetry readings, Tonganoxie’s humming

March 30, 2005

From poetry readings to country music to karaoke, Tonganoxie's nightlife is becoming livelier all the time.

Depending on what night of the week it is, area residents can go downtown to hear country music at Annie's Country Jubilee, sing along with karaoke at Tuna's Tavern, or now, on one Thursday evening a month, read poetry during an open microphone session at Bichelmeyer's Steakhouse.

The karaoke nights are popular, said Charlie Conrad, who with his wife, Barbara, owns Tuna's Tavern. The couple purchased the private club, formerly known as Wander Inn, in December from Wanda and Gary Williams.

On Saturday night, Steven Skeet is the karaoke disc jockey, providing his audience with a menu of 2,000 songs. From 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., for those who choose to participate, sing-a-long is the name of the game.

"The audience probably does 90 percent of the singing," said Conrad, who noted his customers' taste in music is eclectic.

From country to big band to hip hop, it's all there, Conrad said. He noted one of the most popular songs is YMCA.

"Everybody gets involved in that one," Conrad said. "They love that."

And apparently, the customers are as diverse as their music selections.

"It's just everybody," Conrad said. "The age groups varies from 21 to close to 80."

And on every other night, except for Thursdays when customers gather to play Texas Hold 'em, the tavern's own karaoke, complete with a repertoire of 1,500 songs on CDs, is available for customers to use. Conrad has also been looking into bringing other entertainment to his crowd. For instance, a comedian who doubles as an Elvis impersonator has been popular.

Drumming it up

At Annie's Country Jubilee, just catty-cornered from Tuna's Tavern, customers pack the country music opera hall every Saturday night.

Other than adding to the already tight parking squeeze, this competition poses no problem for Conrad, who noted a few of the opry customers visit his establishment before or after the show.

"Between the opry across the street and myself, we've got the area covered," Conrad said.

Terry Dunavin, who with his wife, Annie, owns Annie's Country Jubilee, said a lot of Tonganoxie residents don't know what their business is all about.

"We say we're the best kept secret in Tonganoxie," Dunavin said.

In fact, he noted, their opera hall seats 300, and of their regulars, about 80 percent are from out of town.

Annie's audience includes regular show-goers who drive each week from as far away as Manhattan on the Kansas side, or St. Joseph on the Missouri side.

"And Topeka is a big draw for us," Dunavin added.

The Dunavins, who bought the business formerly known as Glen's Opry two years ago, are planning an expansion. They're lining things up to increase seating capacity to close to 450.

"Our goal is to hopefully bring name acts into the Tonganoxie area," Dunavin said. "Some of the Nashville and Branson acts, and to do that, we have to have at least a 400 seating capacity."

While the Dunavin's are appreciative that people are willing to drive, in some cases hundreds of miles to attend a show, they'd also like to drum up more Tonganoxie fans.

"We're trying to appeal to the local area," Dunavin said.

And, he said, it's evident the downtown businesses can work together.

For instance, he said, on Saturday nights, Bichelmeyer's Steakhouse frequently sends gift certificates to the opry that are given as prizes to the audience. In turn, the opera house sends Annie's gift certificates to Bichelmeyers that can be given to customers at the restaurant.

"I feel like we support each other," Dunavin said. "I think that's a key to letting people know that we're there and that Tonganoxie has something to offer."

Poetry in motion

Meanwhile at Bichelmeyers, a new and quieter venue is taking shape.

Last Thursday, the restaurant held its first poetry reading.

Matt Bichelmeyer, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Vicki, said this was the idea of their chef, John Hawk.

"Johnny in the kitchen has written a bunch of poems and his poetry is pretty well-known in Texas," Bichelmeyer said, noting Hawk had formerly lived in Austin.

So when Hawk, who has worked at the restaurant since November, suggested holding poetry readings, the Bichelmeyers agreed.

"I just think there are so many people around that want something like that to happen here," Bichelmeyer said. "I'm just hoping we can maintain it and hope it works out."

Thursday night, at the restaurant's first poetry reading, four poets stepped up to the microphone.

Hawk, who has been writing poetry for about 10 years, began by reading poems he's written, as well as some of his favorites by other poets.

Others who read were Desiree Edwards, who also works at the restaurant, Christine Lennox, a Tonganoxie poet who's had two books of her poetry published, and Barry Barnes, a Lawrence musician and poet.

Lennox, who has written poetry since she was 12, said her boyfriend, Patrick Mackey, encouraged her to attend. Though the couple live in Tonganoxie, they both grew up in New York.

"I've always liked her poetry -- just everything she has to say," Mackey said.

Barnes recited his own poetry, as well as sang and played his guitar. Though Barnes works at Hallmark during the day, he also works as a musician. Barnes plays in the Late for Dinner Band with Billy Ebeling, the Celtic band Uncle Dirty Toes and the Bopaphonics band, which features Beat-style poetry blended with music.

Barnes encouraged the poets there to keep writing, and added this piece of advice: "Instead of saving some of your poems to read next time, just go home and write some more."

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