Best Of 2015

Woodward and Main: Dan McCabe and his partners polish a long-neglected Over-the-Rhine gem

Woodward Theater

Like Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills from the Taken franchise, Dan McCabe has a specific skill set. He will find you and he will kill you … with music. 

McCabe’s unique vision for Cincinnati is evidenced in the booking prowess that gave meaning to the tagline “Rock & Roll Laundry” at former Corryville club Sudsy Malone’s, not to mention his incredible run of shows at the original Southgate House in Newport, his brilliant leadership in the evolution of the MidPoint Music Festival and his determination in turning a run-of-the-mill Main Street bar in Over-the-Rhine into MOTR Pub, one of the Midwest’s premier music venues. 

A creative restlessness lies at the heart of McCabe’s activities, rooted in his love of music, his deep affection for Cincinnati and his passionate desire to make the city a better place for everyone. His latest project, the renovation and resurrection of the Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine, is another impressive example of his transformative perspective. 

Seven years ago, McCabe and business partner Chris Schadler (former Southgate House booker and guitarist/vocalist for Fists of Love) were property shopping in OTR for a new neighborhood music hotspot. McCabe and Schadler were intent on finding a theater-scaled situation, but after several opportunities fell through they switched gears to a bar/restaurant model and bought the former Coopers on Main, turning it into MOTR in 2010. As renovations began, McCabe still obsessed about his theater. “We started chipping away, and we’d look out the window when we had time,” McCabe says with a laugh over beers on the Woodward balcony. “And it was like, ‘Look at that place over there.’ ” 

McCabe’s attention had been drawn to the old Woodward Theater, located almost directly across the street from MOTR. Once the site of the old William Woodward mansion, the original wood structure was demolished, replaced by the 1913 Art Deco building that became home to a neighborhood movie theater. 

After the Woodward succumbed to the Depression in 1933, the building housed several tenants, including a used car dealership, a Kroger store, a furniture outlet, dive bars and finally Greg’s Antiques. Through it all, no one made any substantial changes to the facade, which remains largely untouched. 

Soon after MOTR’s launch, McCabe’s group (Schadler, Cincinnati Enquirer scribe Chris Varias and a silent partner) made inquiries about the Woodward.“We talked to the owner, let him know we were interested, giving him that out if he was considering it; the price came back and he was not a motivated seller,” McCabe says. “Eventually, he said ‘We’re getting out of the business. Are you guys still interested?’ ” 

After acquiring the Woodward in 2013 — the building’s centennial year — and lining up renovation money, the theater began construction last May, with its first shows taking place in late 2014, including a video shoot by local band DAAP Girls and Wussy’s New Year’s Eve blowout. Although musical events will dominate the venue’s programming calendar, the Woodward will feature a broad event spectrum. The venue hosted the vigil for the late transgender teen Leelah Alcorn in January, and they’re even considering a possible film component for the theater. 

“We had no idea how robust the venue’s booking would be,” he says. “Downtown businesses coming in for holiday parties; the Playhouse in the Park is having the announcement of their new season here for their donors. It’s a versatile room for all kinds of concepts — fundraising events for different organizations, wedding receptions every now and again, all kinds of things.” 

Still, music remains the priority for McCabe and his partners as the 600-capacity Woodward evolves physically and philosophically. As word circulates about the Woodward within the industry, McCabe expects to attract acts from every conceivable genre. 

“The more we do, the more notable we’ll be for it and the easier it will get,” McCabe says. “I understand it takes repetition, and we’re building. March is thick, April’s thicker and May is pretty gangbusters. It’s coming along.” 

McCabe and Schadler have fashioned sizable booking reputations over the past two decades, and while their strategies remain consistent, McCabe points out their biggest advantage with MOTR and now the Woodward: “It’s very much like Sudsy’s and the Southgate, the difference being we’re able to stick our necks out a little further,” he says. “I fronted all the money for the bands at Sudsy’s and Southgate. I didn’t have access to bar revenue. I had to pay for sound, catering, renting a generator, and I hoped to God tickets sold so I could pay for everything. Here I can be a little risky, take some chances and I own the entire business so if only 200 show up, there’s going to be some profit at the bar to cover potential shortfall at the door.” 

McCabe and Schadler applied a good deal of their experience to the revival of the Woodward as an entertainment venue, and it shows in their construction touches. “Chris and I spent a decade or so over at Southgate House, and this isn’t far removed from that,” McCabe says. “The capacity, the horseshoe balcony. In terms of imagination, it didn’t take much, other than the fact that Greg’s Antiques had it filled with stuff and you couldn’t see the walls.” 

It’s clear that McCabe doesn’t view the potential success of the Woodward Theater as a personal victory but as the next step in the rise of Over-the-Rhine as an entertainment destination and a source of pride for its residents. “It’s going to happen out there,” McCabe says, gesturing to the balcony window. 

“It’s going to be a catalyst for Main Street and 14th Street, for storefronts and new businesses. Some of the artists that come through will hit one city, and we’ll win some, and when we do, Indianapolis, Lexington, Louisville, Columbus will drive into this neighborhood. This is going to be the gateway that introduces the region. 

“It’s not going to be Vine Street and it’s not going to be Washington Park. It’s going to be Main Street.” 

Woodward Theater, 1404 Main St., Over-the-Rhine,