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Ripton Community Coffee House to host its final show

THE RIPTON COMMUNITY House is endowed with great acoustics and an intimate space that allows the audience to view performers up-close. Here we see the band Night Tree regaling a crowd at a recent performance as part of the Ripton Community Coffee House concert series. The Coffee House series will end its 29-year run on May 18. Photo courtesy of Richard Ruane

RIPTON — Richard Ruane and Andrea Chesman took a moment last week to harken back to the early 1990s, a time before the Town Hall Theater and the Vergennes Opera House, when live entertainment in Addison County largely consisted of sporadic seasonal concerts — such as Middlebury’s Festival on the Green.

Local musicians like Ruane, hungry for an outlet for their creative talents, would gather at each other’s homes for jam sessions.

It was at during one of these impromptu sessions, at the Chesman/Ruane home in Ripton in the fall of 1994, that those assembled —including Tim Price, Su White, Ian Pounds, Sallie Mack and Mark Mulqueen — began entertaining thoughts of a local performance venue.

Their search essentially began and serendipitously ended just a stone’s throw away — at the Ripton Community House off Route 125, a Civil War-era, town-owned building that was erected as a Congregational Church, but at the time was standing idle, except for the annual town meeting and occasional weddings.

“‘Wouldn’t it be great’, we all agreed, ‘to have a regular community gathering to give people a chance to see their neighbors and hear good music?’” Ruane recalled. “The Community House was the perfect place for it, and it was just sitting there unused.”

The group pitched, to the Ripton selectboard, the idea of offering a coffeehouse-style concert series with an open mic, followed by a featured performer. The series would run on volunteer power, with a small admission price to keep it accessible, along with the sale of baked goods at intermission to further defray operations and raise money for nonprofit causes. 

Ripton officials embraced the idea, leading to the first Ripton Community Coffee House (RCCH) performance on May 6, 1995 — as a benefit for the concert series. Around 100 people showed. The main act was the trio of Ruane, Sallie Mack and Rick Klein. With an admission fee of $3 for adults and $1.50 for kids and seniors, along with concession stand revenues, the founders raised $473 to get the coffee house going.

“Quite frankly, we expected 60 or 70 people to show up for the first few concerts until the novelty wore off,” Ruane wrote in a history of the RCCH, which can be found at rcch.org/history. “We figured the audience would dwindle to 20 or 30 within eight months. Luckily, we were wrong.”

They sure were.

During its 29-year run, the RCCH presented 312 concerts showcasing almost 900 performers who delighted thousands of spectators with wonderful music. The coffee house began as a year-round series of Saturday concerts, but organizers gradually pared it back to nine months so as not compete with concurrent, nearby musical events that began to mushroom.

Sadly, the lights will dim just one more time for the RCCH series, when the musical duo Green Heron delivers what will be the last performance on Saturday, May 18.

“We’re getting tired out. We’ve been doing this a long time. The volunteers are getting older and we’re getting older,” Ruane said during a recent interview that included Chesman.

They leave a rich musical legacy that includes jumpstarting regular, live entertainment in our area. Their non-profit effort stayed true to the RCCH mission throughout its lengthy, successful run: “to provide an opportunity for members of our greater community to come together and hear great music at an affordable price, to nurture musicians by providing a great place to play, and to provide support for local non-profit organizations through refreshment sales.”

Coffee house leaders worked hard to keep the venue open to musicians of diverse backgrounds and talents, including many Vermonters in various stages of their careers.

“We wanted at least one-third of our shows to provide Vermont musicians a quality ‘listening room,’ where they would get well paid, as well,” Ruane said.

LOCAL TALENT

Lineups included excellent, locally recognizable performers like Matt Flinner (of Ripton), Caleb Elder (Starksboro) and Brett Hughes. There have also been visiting musicians like Anje Duvekot, Bruce Molsky, Greg Klyma and Gideon Freudmann. And of course, there have been those needing little introduction, some of whom got their start at the coffee house and continued to play there even as their stars shone brighter. Folks like singer/songwriters Caitlin Canty (formerly of Proctor), Moira Smiley of New Haven, and Anais Mitchell, also born and raised in New Haven.

Mitchell, whose musical “Hadestown” has been a Broadway hit, first played the coffee house during an open mic session at age 16. She would return a couple more times as her career gained momentum. Her last coffee house performance, around a decade ago, produced an overflow crowd, Chesman recalled. 

“We sold out and we couldn’t let any more people in,” she said. “(Mitchell’s) friends all hung out in the parking lot, because we had the doors open and they could still hear the concert.”

Ruane — a well-known singer/songwriter who’s equally adept on guitar, mandolin, banjo and ukulele — has himself graced the coffee house stage on multiple occasions. He’s recorded multiple albums as a solo performer and as a member of bands that have included “Feast or Famine” and “Bread and Bones,” a group you’ll be able to see at this year’s Festival on the Green. 

Since 2012, Ruane and Beth Duquette have been performing as a duo. Duquette joined the coffee house around 20 years ago as co-executive director. Her tasks have included booking performers.

While you won’t see Chesman pick up a guitar or belt out a tune, her contributions through the years have kept the coffee house organized and well nourished. 

When asked about her connection to music, Chesman chuckled and said, “I married him,” while glancing at Ruane.

But modesty aside, Chesman — the author of more than 20 cookbooks — for many years hosted all of the RHHC performers and volunteers for dinner. She still cooks the food, though it’s now consumed at either the community house or another Ripton resident’s home.

Chesman has also organized around 180 bake sales at coffee house concerts that have provided welcome revenue to local nonprofits.

Yes, the coffee house has produced a lot of tasty food and entertainment, but it wasn’t a bottomless cup. Its capacity, according to fire marshals, is 175. But organizers have been more conservative, setting a “standing room only” rule after 135 are seated.

RICHARD RUANE AND Andrea Chesman helped create and shepherd the Ripton Community Coffee House through a successful, 29-year run as a small-town concert venue that attracted big talent. The coffee house, which is staged monthly at the historic Ripton Community House, will dim the lights for the last time on May 18 after a performance by Green Heron.
Photo by Rory Ruane

Full houses during the early years were a rarity. But the venue started getting a well-earned reputation for its superior acoustics, its homelike setting and its eclectic mix of entertainers.

“In the 2000s, we started selling out; during the two or three years before we got shut down for COVID, we sold out maybe a quarter of our shows,” Ruane said.

Ironically, the coffee house eventually became a victim of its own popularity. Some folks became discouraged making a lengthy, winding trek up Route 125 to Ripton, only to find every seat taken. Ruane remembered seeing a former coffee house regular and saying, “I haven’t seen you in a while,” whereupon the person responded, “It’s a 25-minute drive for us to get to Ripton, and we got turned away three times.

“It took us a couple years to get people coming back, and we had a little period there with people not coming as often as they had,” Ruane remarked.

Organizers solved the problem a few years ago through the sale of tickets online, replacing the first-come, first-served seating tradition.

SURVIVING THE PANDEMIC

The RCCH pivoted to technology, in earnest, during the COVID pandemic. Like most entertainment hubs worldwide, the coffee house was temporarily shuttered due to social distancing mandates. The venue eventually offered remote concerts, giving loyal audiences — some as far away as Australia — an entertainment fix, while providing a revenue stream for artists during lean times.

“We wanted our performers to make money, somehow,” Ruane said, noting some shows drew as many as 130 online viewers. “It actually worked out really well for people to log in (for shows). Some people make pretty good money for (performing) in their basement, or wherever.”

The RCCH series returned to in-person performances during the 2022-2023 season — at Lincoln’s Burnham Hall. Chesman and Ruane explained Burnham Hall has a fully raised stage that provides more social distancing between the audience and performers than was afforded at the Ripton spot.

Audiences were pleased to return to the RCCH’s Ripton roots for shows during the fall of ’23. But Ruane, Chesman, Duquette and Mulqueen — the RCCH’s faithful sound tech — had by this time already begun talking about concluding the series.

Ruane reiterated the physical toll that concert prep had taken on his aging body.

“There’s a lot of loading and unloading (equipment),” he said, adding the Saturday venue deconstruction invariably spilled into Sunday.

“He’s meticulous about how the equipment is handled,” Chesman said of her husband. “I don’t help him with his gear. I’ve learned there’s a ‘Richard way’ to do it, and there’s a wrong way to do it.”

The decision to halt RCCH has been made easier by the growing success of a new concert series that Duquette and Mulqueen have brought to Lincoln. It’s called Burnham Presents, and it recently wrapped up its inaugural season.

“Now, we can go to Burnham Hall and sit back and enjoy the music like everybody else and not have to work so hard for it,” Chessman said.

Those involved with RCCH will always have the memories. The series offered magic as well as music for some of its audience members.

“We had a marriage we know of that (arose from) a first date at the coffee house, and they had the wedding and reception there, because they were so attached to it,” Chesman said of the couple, who reside in the Adirondacks. 

Would Ruane and Chesman like to see someone else take the reins of the RCCH to extend its life?

“I’d consider it, but what I don’t want to have happen is somebody run it into the ground and not have it be a quality thing,” Ruane said.

“We have talked about the succession, and it’s our feeling that if somebody comes forward, they’re most likely going to want to do their own thing,” Chesman said. 

But the duo are confident the Ripton Community House will continue to be used. The town has a social committee to plan community activities. Last year, Chesman helped organize free “soup and bread nights” at the building.

“Those were wildly successful,” she said.

Ruane said it’s good to know that live entertainment will continue to be plentiful even after the plug is pulled on Ripton Community Coffee House.

“We aren’t leaving that much of a vacuum as far as music goes, and that’s great,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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