Willis Show Bar reopens with jazz, cocktails and more
Jazz, cocktails and burlesque: A piece of Detroit’s entertainment history has been revived in the Cass Corridor with the renovation of the Willis Show Bar.
Located at Third and Willis, the nightclub was shuttered in the late 1970s and sat empty ever since. A team of owners from Detroit and Los Angeles have spent a year and a half restoring it to what they hope is its 1930s glory with finely-dressed customers listening to live music and clinking glasses.
“This is for Detroit,” said owner Sean Patrick, a Detroit resident who recently moved here from Los Angeles, where he spent his adult life working in the nightlife business. “It’s for the musicians. There’s going to be a lot of surprises that are going to happen here.”
Surprise and intrigue are part of the game at the 21st century version of Willis Show Bar. Almost no photos have been posted online of the interior, and information such as hours and upcoming events are not advertised yet. Customers are asked to make a reservation for one of the 80-85 seats. The only food served are snacks, such as chips, nuts and popcorn from local businesses.
“We want people to come experience it, and we want people to know that they are part of the experience,” Patrick said. “We want people to dress to impress, cocktail attire, because they’re as much a part of the place as everything we’ve done and everyone who performs here.”
Willis Show Bar is a partnership between Patrick and fellow Los Angeles hospitality veteran Steve Livigni and Dave Kwiatkowski of the Detroit Optimist Society, which oversees Sugar House, Wright & Company and other Detroit bars and restaurants. Kees Janeway of Iconic Real Estate and Brandon Smith are also partners.
None of those people are old enough or were around to experience the club’s glory days, but Patrick said the history of the bar and the city’s arts legacy are very important to him.
“Obviously Detroit has been multiple layers of music for me from jazz, to soul to techno to hip-hop and everything,” he said, adding that he’s enjoyed hearing stories from Detroiters who remember the club, or who had parents who performed or visited there. “This as a first project (in Detroit) was very exciting because it related so much to Detroit’s history. And design-wise it was pretty exciting, too.”
Much of the original footprint of Willis Show Bar has been restored, Patrick said, with the exception of a minor change to the entry. He said they started with the ceiling, which they spent 10 weeks restoring before touching anything else.
Rachel Lutz, owner of the Peacock Room clothing store in Detroit, has been to the club and said she believed the new owners were “very respectful” of the space and its culture and history.
“It was an experience that made me feel like I was going back to another time and place,” she said, describing the space as intimate, without feeling crowded. “The intimacy of the stage in the center of the bar... the entertainment packs a lot of punch on such a small stage and because everybody’s so close to it there’s not a bad seat in the house.”
The boutique owner said Detroit needs more places where you can dress up and just go out.
“I wore a vintage-inspired cocktail dress and feathers in my hair, and I felt like I fit right in,” she said.
The show bar opened to the public last weekend with performances by Los Angeles burlesque dancer Alicia Marquez and the house band lead by Joshua James, the band leader for the Theatre Bizarre Orchestra. Patrick said the house band — sax, upright bass and drums — will perform short sets throughout the night on weekends.
Patrick said the bar is slowly expanding hours, opening on weekends for now, then adding Thursday evening programing first, followed by more weekday events. He explained that Thursday nights will be home to a rotating lineup of monthly events, like partnerships with the Motown Museum and Third Man Records, and a vintage Latin night.
Patrick said the venue also will partner with local stage arts organization Cabaret313 for about four events a year that feature up-and-coming talent to highlight in an intimate setting.
Wednesdays will be home to a rotation of mainly Detroit-based female-fronted jazz acts like Joan Belgrave, Lauren Deming and Nicole New.
Patrick also is bringing “Versions” to the bar, something that he did in Los Angeles where he started his career in the nightlife business when he was 18. He said Tuesday night events will feature a cover band performing songs from a variety of eras but in a “vibey, head-nodding, soulful, jazzy way.”
“So they could cover Drake or Marvin Gaye, Coltrane, Radiohead, Rolling Stones, whatever,” he said, adding that all the nights will also include DJs to the mix, spinning whatever music is appropriate for the mood of the night.
The past updated
Willis Show Bar
4156 Third, Detroit
willisshowbar.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations, which are highly recommended