Dale Harkins isn’t a music guy. Seriously.
“My family won’t let me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ at home,” he said. “And my iPod doesn’t have any music on it. It’s all books.”
But after making a living as an Indianapolis architect, Harkins is settling into the second act of his career: rock club owner. That’s a big step for a man who claims the last time he listened to a song on the radio was in high school.
Or maybe not.
With no stake in the music, Harkins has booked local and national shows at the Irving Theater based solely on what the audience wants, and the enthusiasm of the bands. And the theater’s marquee hasn’t been so lively in years.
Harkins bought the Irving in 2008 after watching multiple owners attempt to reinvigorate the building and move on. He literally watched — the theater sits in his front yard on East Washington Street.
“I’ve stared at it for 30 years,” he said.
When the Irving came back on the market, Harkins moved on it and quickly got to work.
Though there was plenty of potential in the building, the real attractions for Harkins were the stories behind the landmark.
The Irving opened in 1913 as a movie theater, and through the decades became a concert venue, porn theater and, too often, a dormant, vacant space. The stage in the Irving once sat in Market Square Arena; it was the setting for Elvis Presley’s last public performance in 1977. That it sat in the Irving with no attention from rock bands until recently seems outrageous.
“Every owner’s been able to do a little something with it; and my ownership might end up just being ‘a little something’ too. But now I get the opportunity to start somebody else’s story, a new story,” said Harkins.
“Hopefully, 70 years from now, people will be telling stories about this theater — my wedding was there, or my band played our first tour there.”
Under Harkins’ ownership, the Irving has hosted poetry and book readings, film screenings and conferences. Two years ago, Harkins ventured into rock concerts.
“I was scared to death, but it was a blast,” he said. “Parents started coming up to me and thanking me for giving their kids the outlet to be creative.”
With that, the musical spark in him was lit; Harkins may not like a particular band’s music, but he thrives on giving local musicians the chance to explore “what they’re able to do in my space,” he said.
And local bands are responding.
“Dale is very business-oriented. It’s refreshing to work with somebody like that. He doesn’t have a stake as far as music but wants the shows to put a good light on the venue,” said Nick Ramey of The Holland Account, the Indy rockers headlining a show Feb. 26.
If anything, local acts are excited to have found a partner in waving the flag for local creativity. Brian Lenington of I-Exist, also on the four-band Feb. 26 bill, has played some of Indy’s biggest stages. But: “We’ve got to hunt them down just to get their attention,” he said. “And that makes sense. There are big tours with national acts coming through. But when a venue cares about the local scene, you know you’re being supported.”
Harkins isn’t averse to national tours — The Almost and Hawk Nelson stopped in last fall — but the theater seems to have found its niche hosting local up-and-coming acts, with no distractions.
“There isn’t the clanging of dishes. There isn’t chatter in the back. You’re not coming for the beer,” said Harkins. “We’re trying to focus on the music.”
No surprise that bands have come calling. The Irving’s calendar — and the theater’s 600-person capacity — is increasingly filled with singer-songwriter showcases, CD release parties and big, local band packages. But Harkins admits to his share of beginner mistakes.
When he booked longtime pop-rock act The Floating Men in 2009, the band wanted an all-ages show because, “there was a whole generation in Indy who knew them; they’d played the Bluebird, played the Vogue. But they wanted to turn on that generation’s children,” said Harkins. “And not a 15-year-old came. But their parents did, and they came to drink. And we didn’t have any beer.”
When bands approach Harkins with an idea for a show, he’s ready to listen. He prefers to see the band live before booking, but he won’t be watching the performance.
“I usually go to the stage and turn around and watch the crowd. If the crowd’s enjoying it, I’m probably interested in the show,” he said. “If the crowd’s sitting and texting, I’m probably not too excited about having your show.”