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The original Original
Columbia Street West M.O.M.S. serves up fresh tunes every Tuesday night
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Owning a restaurant, bar, or club is a risky business, and why some succeed where others fail is a mystery.
Take the Landing, that red-bricked street in downtown Fort Wayne that stretches between Calhoun and Harrison. Cities all over the country have similar streets with red bricks or cobblestones, old-style lamp-posts and restored buildings. They buff up the old bricks, fix the peeling plaster, and turn them into tourist and entertainment centers. At first glance, the Landing seems ripe for the same treatment. But whatever the original intent for the area might have been, the only entertainment establishment in the area that has consistently remained is Columbia Street West.
John Freistroffer, owner of Columbia Street West, estimates that around 18 bars or restaurants have come and gone on the Landing during the club’s 20-year lifespan. Asked why he thinks Columbia Street has outlasted so many other establishments on the same real estate, he sighs and shrugs. “I honestly don’t know,” he says. “This is a tough business. There are probably five essential things you need in running a business like this, and if you can meet four of them, you’re doing alright. Honestly, there’s a lot of luck involved.”
Luck? Maybe. But part of the answer to Columbia Street West’s long life might lie in the fact that what the bar has been especially successful at doing is branding itself as one of the top places in the area to catch local and regional music acts. As a venue, it’s very band-friendly. A sizeable stage occupies the back room, with high ceilings, a dance floor right down in front, and tables with a clear shot of the stage from the back.
Usually (though not always) cover bands take the stage on weekend nights. But on Tuesday nights, the venue plays host to something completely different — the Midwest Original Music Showcase, or M.O.M.S. as it’s known.
M.O.M.S. is the brainchild of Richard Reprogle, Columbia Street West’s… well, a lot of people refer to him as the soundman, but he does a lot more than that. “I have a few hats at that place,” says Reprogle, who has been involved with Columbia Street West in some capacity since it began, though he says he really came on board in ’88 or ’89, when he helped design the existing club with its focus on music. “I’m the production manager, I’m the entertainment director, I’m the DJ and I’m the village idiot.”
And what does “the village idiot” mean, exactly?
“People who know me will know what I mean by that,” he laughs. “I guess I keep them shaking a little bit. I’m sort of comic relief. I try to get people to relax, not panic before a show.”
Before he took on the job at Columbia Street, Reprogle was an area musician who played in a number of bands throughout the years. He claims he was probably on the road more often than he was in Fort Wayne, though during that time, he played to his fair share of Fort Wayne audiences. Reprogle says he played with a lot of talented people over the years, bands who would have liked to try their hand at writing songs and doing their own music. The problem was, there wasn’t much of an audience for it here. “There always was a void for any kind of creative outlet here in Fort Wayne,” he says. “I’d be in a band, and maybe you’d do two originals, and that’s about it. They’d look at you like you were nuts.”
A lot of today’s local bands trying to branch out with original songs might tell you some things never change.
Reprogle started M.O.M.S. about 10 years ago as an opportunity for area acts to showcase their original material, without having to deal with audiences asking for the latest Alter Bridge or Creed or Stone Temple Pilots or whatever band is currently lodged in the upper reaches of the charts that year. Reprogle says he doesn’t try to go for one particular style when he books bands for M.O.M.S. “It’s freedom of all styles, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ve had bluegrass, jazz, punk, heavy stuff. I try to keep it free from restraints. If I got what was really trendy at the time, I’m sure there would probably be more people in there, but keeping to what I believe makes that show important opens the door to people who are into original music.”
Actually, getting people to show up for M.O.M.S. has rarely been a problem. Some Tuesday nights are a little off as far as attendance goes, but for the showcase to have lasted 10 years, he must be doing something right, and somebody must be listening.
Like everything, though, interest in original music — and in seeing bands play live — seems to go in cycles. When M.O.M.S. was launched in the mid 90s, Reprogle says Fort Wayne was experiencing one of those surges of musical creativity, where a number of original bands and talented musicians were doing some really exciting things. For some of those bands, it even seemed like something bigger was on the horizon. “There were probably eight or nine bands that were seriously pursuing a career and looking for record contracts,” Reprogle recalls. “It was the time for it. It was pretty exciting there to have so many diverse styles of bands.”
Reprogle says he can’t pinpoint exactly when people got discouraged and the energy sort of dissipated. He mentions Jettingham, the highly touted local band who attracted major label attention and landed a tune on the America Pie soundtrack. One minute, the future was wide open. The next minute, their record deal was gone. Reprogle recalls some jealousy and bickering at the time, but says that rather than some single over-riding issue, a lot of local bands around then just seemed to get discouraged, their members picking up and moving to hopefully more appreciative towns, like Nashville, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles… all the usual suspects. “Because of our maybe limited stage here in Fort Wayne, or our audience being just a little less exciting than we need them to be, these people moved on to a town that maybe they would think is more in tune with what they were doing,” Reprogle says.
But things are on the upswing again. Reprogle singles out a handful of bands he sees gaining ground and doing interesting stuff in the area, mentioning the Brown Bottle Band, Definitely Gary, Matthew Sturm, and Mosier Woods by name. It isn’t just their musicianship he’s praising. “They’re nice guys. They’re not condescending. They’re serious about their music, but they’re having fun. They’re encouraging people to take the next step.”
And what is that next step? Reprogle swears he’s not trying to sound “like an old hippie,” but the truth is, creating a thriving music scene in Fort Wayne requires musicians, fans, and all other interested parties to get together and push in one direction. “M.O.M.S. is still around because everybody got next to it. Musicians and their friends supporting other bands was a strong power in all that movement. We still have it going on, it’s like we need to regroup.”