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House of Blues Cambridge Sings Its Final Tune

In 1992, Isaac Tigrett took a historical colonial house on Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, and turned it into the birthplace of a music legend.

Tigrett imagined a home that would combine live music and southern-inspired cuisine in an environment celebrating the African American cultural contributions of blues music and folk art. To honor his vision, Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, River Phoenix, Paul Schaffer, Aerosmith, Harvard University and others helped finance the original House of Blues, which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day, 1992.

Nearly eleven years after welcoming its first guests, on Sunday, September 14, House of Blues Cambridge held its last Gospel Brunch, served its last Southern-inspired dinner, and showcased its final local band. Despite the venue’s now-closed doors, it is not a story of abandonment, but rather one of growth and success with a mission and, hopefully, a continuing relationship with Boston.

Since 1992, House of Blues Entertainment, Inc. has become the second largest live music promoter worldwide, opening seven more club and restaurant venues in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Las Vegas and Anaheim. The House of Blues Concerts division, largely acquired from the purchase of Universal Concerts, formerly a unit of Seagram’s Universal Music Group, owns, operates or exclusively books twenty arena and amphitheatre venues throughout North America.

Collectively, the House of Blues venues welcome over eight million music fans annually.

According to Dolf Berle, COO House of Blues Club Venues and a 1991 HBS graduate, in a company-issued press release, “The sale of our venue in Cambridge is a business decision that does not at all affect our commitment to the Boston area.” House of Blues has begun the process of seeking alternative sites in the Boston area to house a new club venue, commensurate in look, feel and scale with those venues located in New Orleans, Chicago or LA, which hold well over 1000 people in their music hall facilities.

After spending six weeks working in the LA-based corporate office of House of Blues this summer, I have a newfound belief in and respect for the company’s vision: to espouse diversity and social harmony, committing itself to bring about social change through cultural understanding and nurturing mutual respect. I read enough LEAD cases last year to make me realize that core values and culture do, in fact, matter, as they are felt at every level of an organization.

I stopped by the Cambridge venue last week to take some last photos, and pass along best wishes to those who would be leaving more than just their place of employment. A bouncer, clad in a bright-yellow shirt, the word SECURITY proudly on display, told me it wasn’t just that he and his coworkers were losing their jobs – each was saying goodbye to the House of Blues family that developed and grew strong in the years they worked together. In an industry where turnover is the norm and loyalty runs thin, the employees’ commitment to their positions – whether in the kitchen preparing the company’s famous Voodoo Shrimp, adjusting the lighting in the Music Hall, or checking IDs at the door – is remarkable, and now to me, remarkably sad.

House of Blues, like Microsoft, Southwest, and other companies we’ve studied and worked for, is still, at the end of the day, a business.

Business decisions aren’t always easy. Profits must be made, or operations must cease. But to this devoted fan and company apostle, the closing of the company’s founding location leaves Cambridge yearning, once again, for a place for many to call home. Even six weeks of work, however, leave me confident in the goals of the company, and comfortable in knowing we will someday enjoy a new location in Boston that will have House of Blues bringing great bands, Voodoo Shrimp, and some cultural awareness to a slightly larger crowd.

September 29, 2003
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