Just over six months ago, Philadelphia-based World Café Live ended its six-year partnership with Wilmington’s Queen Theater. But show goes on at one of Delaware’s top venues as Live Nation, the global entertainment company, moved in and is slowly making a home for itself on Market Street.
The new tenants have made noticeable changes both outside and inside the building erected in 1915, starting with a well-lit marquee above the main entrance. Notes of textured turquoise and purple walls throughout, and funky, glowing chandeliers, reminiscent of Live Nation’s Fillmore in Philadelphia, also alert concert goers that there’s a new game in town.
According to Trenton Banks, general manager of The Queen, there are more changes in the works, including a lobby bar on the top floor (replacing the old box office), a bigger main bar downstairs, and eventually the plans to bring the downstairs venue from a capacity of 950 up to 1,100.
“I think the first thing people notice from the time they walk in is the décor, from the mirror images of queens [throughout history] around the building to added paneling and drink rails on the first floor,” said Banks, who also helped launch The Fillmore Philadelphia. “Next up, structurally, is to improve the sightlines on the second floor balcony. We want it to be just as great of a party on the second floor as it is on the first floor.”
From a programming standpoint, Christianna LaBuz makes the transition from World Café Live to Live Nation, as the venue’s talent buyer. While planning 2017 and into the new year, LaBuz’s goal has been to cobble together a musical melting pot of sorts, while still offering local musicians a place to play.
“We really want to push some boundaries here in Wilmington and step out of our comfort zone,” said LaBuz. “That means everything is in play, from hip-hop to metal, with a focus on local, regional and national acts coming to play here at The Queen. I think the early schedule speaks to that idea.”
Third Eye Blind, Cheap Trick and a sold-out Regina Spektor show have been some of the bigger national acts to come through Live Nation’s doors thus far. Meanwhile, on the local music front, Live Nation has honored local shows booked before their arrival, and groups like Montana Wildaxe (Wilmington) and the Kategory5 Band (Newark) are on the slate for December.
Gone, however, is the first floor room, formerly known as Upstairs Live!, which used to house many smaller local acts, as well as the popular weekly program, Wilmo Wednesdays. Gable Music Ventures, which had booked the lineup of locals since partnering with World Café Live in 2011, was sad to see that option removed from the local landscape.
“I was excited when I heard Live Nation would be picking up where World Café Live left off, especially in terms of quality shows like Spektor and Cheap Trick,” said Jeremy Hebbel, co-founder of Gable Music Ventures. “But at same time I don’t believe it’s in their business plan to be local music clubhouse, much like World Café Live was; I can’t necessarily fault them for that, but considering 80 percent of our shows were in that upstairs venue, well, to not have it available anymore is going to hurt.”
Wilmo Wednesdays has since found a new home at Ernest & Scott Taproom, further up Market Street closer to the Grand Opera House. While Gable’s problem is solved, for the moment, other local musicians are equally concerned that the Wilmington music scene lost a diamond in the rough.
“I had a couple of shows booked there before Live Nation took over, and they honored those shows, so I’m grateful,” said Joe Trainor, a fixture on the local music scene from nearly two decades. “However, I worry about losing the old Upstairs Live stage, because that was the real clubhouse. Local bands – even those with members not 21 or older – could book there and have a chance to play in front of a live audience. That’s invaluable to have, and it will be missed.”
What’s to happen with the upstairs bar and restaurant area is anyone’s guess. Rumors have circulated about another restaurateur coming in to partner up with Live Nation and make the room viable. Some have said a microbrewery or even cidery would make a nice fit on Market Street. Banks is pretty much in the same boat.
“We are still figuring out exactly what to do with that space,” he said. “Something we are constantly looking at is how to best utilize the space we have. We are currently not using it as a restaurant but will be doing shows, programming and special events in that room.”
Until the room finds the right fit, Live Nation continues to focus on the shows it has booked and its new space. Management runs The Queen just like Live Nation runs it other venues around the world, which, in this day and age, means increased security.
While attendees had little to bypass when world Café Live ran the joint, now security guards await each guest. A bag search and light pat-down takes place before every show, regardless of the artists or genre. For some, it’s a bit much.
“I mean, I get it, security is an issue, and it’s Live Nation’s policy, no matter what,” said Scott Vanderim while waiting in line for a Gene Ween Billy Joel Tribute show in August. “But come on, man. This ain’t Philly. Getting frisked at the front door is a little bit invasive.”
However, after the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Paris in 2015 and the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas earlier this year, security is a top priority for venues everywhere. LaBuz says that, just like Live Nation’s changes to the décor, changes in security can also be seen outside and inside.
“We haven’t really heard any complaints about security at the front door since we opened. I think people appreciate the fact we’re taking extra steps,” said LaBuz. “Even inside you’ll see a steel partition that separates the crowd from the stage. It used to be wide open and we had some issues with audience members jumping up on stage during a live performance. That won’t be an issue in the future.”
Unlike Vanderim, other patrons tend to agree with LaBuz, including Tiffany Scott was at that same Gene Ween show. “Honestly, who cares?” said Scott. “It takes an extra minute to get your back checked, and these guys are courteous, so it’s no big deal. I’d rather know I’m safe inside than have to wonder anyway. As long as the music is good, I’m good.”
Live Nation is banking on good music to keep happy fans and coming back for more. If that includes the local musicians as well, The Queen’s reign on Market Street could last well into the future.