Top-Notch Blues, Local Food On Tap For Union Hall Fundraiser

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The sound of guitars and the smell of ribs are about to engulf the little village of Chesterhill, Ohio.

Now in its fifth year, Ribs, Rhythm & Blues is scheduled for Saturday, June 9, featuring The Silky Ray Band and Vinnie & The Lubricators.

Delicious food and top-notch entertainment have made this a successful event, which is a fundraiser for the Union Hall Theater.

John Wetzel, Union Hall Theater programming coordinator, is a self-described "blues fanatic" who takes pride in selecting the acts, which he considers to be among "the best bands in the region playing blues-based music."

Past performers have included New York City's Hugh Pool, Columbus' Willie Phoenix and Athens favorites Duke Junior & The Smokey Boots, to name a few.

Of course, the food is a big draw, with homemade baked goods by community members becoming a popular feature in recent years.

However, running a rural performing arts venue isn't exactly a piece of cake.

"Sustaining this venue in a town such as Chesterhill isn’t easy," said Wetzel, who also chairs the theater committee. "Performing arts are not at the top of most people’s agenda in such an area."

Therefore, periodical fundraisers are necessary to keep the historic venue alive. Somewhat surprisingly, those local bakers play a big role in its survival.

"We can’t make enough on ticket sales alone to pay for each show," said Wetzel.  "A few dedicated local residents donate pies, which we auction at our Annual Harvest Festival fundraiser. The same bakers donate more pies in June, which help to draw a larger crowd to Ribs, Rhythm & Blues."

Wetzel said that operating in this fashion allows the Union Hall Theater to provide excellent programming throughout the year and keep ticket prices affordable.

"Actually, the whole thing runs on pie as much as anything else," he said.

Built in 1908, the Union Hall Theater provided a venue for speakers, musicians, artists and actors of the Chautauqua educational performance circuit before becoming a local movie house in the late '30s and early '40s.

Now a group of dedicated volunteers is attempting to revive the 325-seat theater as a non-profit. More than 60 events have been sponsored by the group since 2006.

Following three years of patience and persistence from the theater committee, some renovations of the theater were recently completed with a $25,000 grant provided by the State of Ohio and administered by the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission.

Twenty-eight windows and two exterior doors were replaced, and the stamped tin ceiling was repaired. Next, the committee will endeavor to raise an additional $25,000 to have the interior of the theater painted and new lighting installed.

Saturday's show gets underway at 5 p.m. For more information about The Union Hall Theater and Ribs, Rhythm & Blues, visit www.unionhalltheater.org.