For the first time in more than two years, the Big Dipper is alive again. The crowd edges together in a U shape toward the stage, heads bobbing in unison to the instrumental surf rock of local group BBBBandits. It's a bring-your-own-beer event and a guy standing in the back of the throng cradles an open 12-pack carton of PBR cans under one arm, his gaze fixed on the band, awash in red and blue light.
Local music veterans, friends and supporters of the Big Dipper's new owners, Dan and Dawson Hoerner, filled the 100-year-old brick building last Saturday night for a private event to celebrate the live music hub's new start.
The Hoerners are kicking off an ambitious campaign to raise $50,000 over the next two months through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The couple and their business partners have already funneled more than $50,000 into the venue, and the next step is asking the community to help carry the cost of crucial fire sprinklers and other big improvements like larger restrooms, along with food and liquor serving permits. Contributor incentives include free passes to future shows and exclusive T-shirts and screen-printed posters designed by local artists.
A Spokane native, Hoerner is the former guitarist and lead vocalist of Sunny Day Real Estate — one of Seattle's early emo bands — and fondly remembers playing the Dipper when he started out.
For the past half-year, the Hoerners and a group of friends have tirelessly worked to repair the aging building, which has been vacant since the Empyrean Coffee House closed in January 2011. They've restored the iconic mural of the Greek goddess-esque woman on the southern exterior, renaming her Ursa Nightingale. The hope is to begin regularly booking events sometime in April. Right now, the venue is available for private event rentals.
While music would be the main focus under the Hoerners, the vision for the Dipper is to expand its offerings to literary readings, film screenings, game nights and art shows.
"Ultimately we feel like the Big Dipper is Spokane's," Hoerner says. "It's not ours — we saved it from being a dump, but it's going to be Spokane that has to turn it into a world-class music venue."
Brick by brick, the one-story building at the corner of Second and Washington rose from the ground in 1913. Originating as a grocery store owned by Albert J. Price, it remained in business until 1930. From then on, the space on the southernmost end existed as some form of bar or tavern. Early on, the building was split into multiple businesses, over the years occupied by a nursery, upholstery shop, printer and gunsmith, among others. Both Hoerner and building owner Steve Spickard tell of an anecdotal (and unverifiable) rumor that during Prohibition, the Big Dipper's basement housed a speakeasy catering to gay patrons.
And while most Spokane residents under 50 probably don't remember it as anything other than the Big Dipper, the corner spot went by many names over the past century, including the Gold and Blue Tavern (1934-49), the August Bros. Tavern (1950-55) and the Golden Slipper (1962-72). A couple of businesses after the Golden Slipper closed, the space took on the Big Dipper name in 1983 and has been known as that since, with the exception of the Empyrean's short stay. Spickard ran the business as a regular live music venue starting in 1989, hosting performances on a nightly basis, including jazz, blues, reggae and open mic nights, with national and regional touring acts playing on weekends.
One of the most memorable concerts in the Dipper's more recent history happened on a warm July night in 1991. A mass of alt-rock-loving kids packed into the venue to see Seattle's up-and-coming grunge group Mudhoney. Before the band even took the stage, the Spokane fire marshal shut the venue down. Despite this hitch, the Big Dipper continued on booking big touring bands, including Everclear, and popular local acts (Black Happy, the Young Brians, the Makers) through May 1995, when Spickard decided to close the club "indefinitely."
From then until the Empyrean took over the lease for a year in 2010 and '11, Spickard rented the space out for events and concerts, including a stretch when it hosted shows and events organized by the local Christian-centric music nonprofit RAWK.
Spickard still owns the Big Dipper's building, but a lease-to-own agreement with the Hoerners is in the works.
"It's about time, and I like his energy," Spickard says of Hoerner. "I think he can keep it up. There are so many flakes in the bar business and Dan is so solid... with him, I think it could work out." ♦