Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ripton Community Coffee House Marks Its 13th Anniversary in May

A concert of the Canadian folk-pop band, The Dust Poets, marks the 13th anniversary of the Ripton Community Coffee House, a monthly series of concerts held at the Ripton Community House.

The coffee house began at a house-warming party/jam session at Richard Ruane's and Andrea Chesman's house in November 1994. Some of the people gathered around the table included Sallie Mack, Ian Pounds, Tim Price, Su White, Mark Mulqueen, and Beth Duquette. Tim started a conversation about how great it used to be in Ripton. Life was better in the old days, he said, when there were community gatherings at the Ripton Community House. He fondly recalled spaghetti dinners hosted by the fire department and occasional contra dances. In 1994, however, the Community House only was used for the annual town meeting and the occasional wedding.

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 some good music? The Community House seemed to be the perfect place for it.

Over the course of the following winter, several of us continued to discuss the idea and came up with a format of an open mike followed by a featured performer. We would charge only a small amount at the door to cover expenses and still make it accessible to the entire community. We would sell refreshments to help pay our expenses as well. We approached the town Select Board and they were very supportive of the idea of a once a month coffeehouse at the Community House.

The coffeehouse officially started on May 6, 1995. The first coffeehouse had an open mike with Andrew Marks, Nelda Clemens and Tim Price, Rodger Hamilton, Hannah Cohen (step dancing to a boom box) and Jonathan McDonough. The featured act was Rick Klein, Sallie Mack and Richard Ruane. It was a benefit for the coffeehouse. More than one hundred people showed up and (at $3.00 for adults and $1.50 for children and seniors as well as all the money for the baked goods and beverages), it managed to raise $473 to get the Ripton Community Coffee House going.

Although there was an expectation that we would have sixty or seventy people showing up for the first few concerts and then the novelty of it would wear off, we were proven wrong as attendance grew. One of the great things about the audience is that it includes a total mix of ages, from babes in arms to the over-eighty crowd. Whole families come with all their children and students show up from Middlebury College. There was one coffeehouse where the upstairs balcony resembled a nursery, with six babies less than two months old in attendance.

Soon we decided to have the refreshment sales be fundraisers for area non-profit organizations. A local non-profit organization would bring in their own bakers, run the kitchen for the night and keep the money they made. We did this for a few reasons: first, we have a strong community focus and want to support the local non-profits; second, it keeps our volunteer muffin makers from burning out too quickly; third, it brings in different people who might not have come to the coffeehouse otherwise, thus continuing to build our audience.

These days the price of admission has gone up a bit (it's $7.00 for adults and $3.00 for children and seniors, but we are happy to accept less if need be). We average about one hundred people at every show. Many of our regulars bring their own cushions to sit on to soften the uncomfortable folding chairs. The format is the same as when we started, with five open mike slots and a featured performer.

Although initially the select board allowed us to hold winter concerts in the Community House, since 2006 we have had to relocate to the Ripton Elementary for the January and February concerts. We have had to cancel our shows due to weather only four times in thirteen years (not bad for Ripton).

Whatever the weather conditions, or location, the coffeehouse has been helped by a willing band of volunteers who have set up and taken down chairs, helped with parking and postering, taken money at the door, hauled equipment and swept the floors.

There have been a number of highlights over the last thirteen years. Joanna Colwell is our regular MC and presents a very welcoming face to our group of volunteers. The open mike is always unpredictable, though it never fails to be entertaining. The audience is always impressed whenever local kids take to the stage; highlights have included Amelia Schumacher's heartfelt original songs, Sam Chesman on flute, Max Mojcik on drums, and Miles Zwicky on piano. Then there was the time Lincoln octogenarian fiddler Dot Brown played with "Fireball" Bob Manny, Bud Leeds gave an outstanding jazz performance, and we were entertained by the a capella ensemble, Ripton Rhapsody. After the 9/11 tragedy, some Native American steel workers who had been working at Ground Zero came up to Vermont to relax. They stopped in at the coffeehouse and performed songs and poetry at the open mike. Anais Mitchell, who recently signed with the Righteous Babe recording label did her first open mike performance on our stage.

The baked good have been a treat, so to speak. A number of local bakers have a following, and the word quickly gets passed around if they show up with a signature dish. Some of these have included Pete and Deb Karpak's cheese Danish squares and anything baked by Nancy Breiden, especially a memorable death by chocolate torte. We have used our bake sales profits to provide the community with full-size mugs in 1999 and some twenty folding chairs. For the last several years the Vermont Coffee Company has been donating their delicious free-trade organic coffee to the Ripton Community Coffee House.

Over the years, we have presented 115 concerts, featured 800 open mike performances and provided a place for nonprofit organizations' bake sales 70 times. Throughout this time, we have been generously supported by a continually evolving audience of music lovers, willing to brave the drive up the mountain in the winter and the blood-sucking mosquitoes in the summer. It has been a great thirteen years, and we thank everyone who has helped make it so.

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