Some local venues have been offering live music for a couple months now, mostly single artists or duets, and recently opened it up to full bands. Dancing is still off limits. But soon, May 1 to be exact, the state’s social distancing mandate is lifted. In anticipation of the coming changes I explored the goings on at Reno’s Oldest Bar, The Alturas on Fourth Street and their downstairs performance venue, The Cellar.
I spoke with Dennis McDonald who runs The Cellar, asking him about his experiences over the last year, and the plans ahead.
The Alturas Bar has been in business for about 94 years making it the longest running bar in Reno operating under the same name. In the 80’s and 90’s it became a hot spot for touring blues artists, even having Jonny Lang on its stage more than once.
It was purchased by the current owner in 2017, and Dennis McDonald came on board shortly after that.
Just before the shutdown on March 14, 2020 business was the best ever for McDonald and The Cellar. His show calendar was booked out four months in advance with spots filled all the way to Halloween. He had found success with three different types of recurring events. The first was a metal festival type of concert event featuring up to five metal bands per show.
A goth dance party night was billed as “The Cellar Door” with DJ music and everyone dressed in goth garb. If you were not in black, you most assuredly would stand out. The music of choice is the dark goth style from the later ‘80s and ‘90s.
“The whole evening has a kind of Donnie Darko feel to it,” he said.
His third successful element was weekly comedy. He had been having an open mic night upstairs in The Alturas every Thursday and a big show downstairs every third Thursday of the month on the Cellar Stage. It featured multiple comedians and both were hosted by local comedian Paul Spock.
Business was booming.
“That was then.”
The shutdown caused his whole calendar to be cancelled. All his work to build a successful business was lost, and it was time to start over.
McDonald thought the shutdown would only last a couple weeks, but it soon became apparent that this was going to be a long-term situation. When the governor finally came out with guidelines to permit shows, they were just too oppressive to work with.
The rules stated that everybody had to remain seated with no more than four people per table, and there had to be a 25-foot barrier between the stage and the closest tables. This eliminated most of The Cellar’s floor. Considering that performing bands feed off the audience’s energy, and vice versa, it just didn’t make sense to McDonald to continue under these circumstances.
Several months after the shutdown it was discovered that there had been a water leak downstairs coming from the restaurant next door. Had The Cellar been open it would have been discovered much sooner with very little damage, but it wasn’t, so there was much work to be done.
A renovation of The Cellar is currently underway. Among the upgrades are new main speakers to enhance the sound and new artistic enhancements to the decor featuring an array of distressed musical instruments hanging everywhere.
He’s also adding video streaming of the shows, much like he had at Studio on 4th. There will be a centrally located video camera with nine different feeds that can be programmed to cover various segments of the stage and artists in any fashion desired. It’s all in the programming.
Things are looking up for The Cellar and The Alturas Bar. They are set to launch into their new chapter on Saturday, May 15 with ”The Cellar Door” Goth Dance Party, then Thursday May 20 with Paul Spock’s Comedy Show featuring several standup comedians. That’s followed by a night of blues on May 22 with four bands (and it’s Starla’s birthday). I think we can all use a night out, and there are plenty of options.
Check back for the story of The Cellar’s rise from the ashes.
Nick McCabe is a Reno-based photojournalist and musician. He’s been shooting concerts in the Reno-Tahoe area since 2006 and writing articles and reviews since 2012, as well as doing interviews on occasion. His musical education and playing experience goes back to 1967. He is a founding member of the Reno Tahoe Forte’ Awards, and he still plays music locally for enjoyment. First concert: Jimi Hendrix. Last concert: we’ll see.