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Lamenting the closing of a favorite folk venue

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001

It was a place made for musical magic.

The Studio Arts Center in Crystal River had the kind of atmosphere that put audiences into a state of expectation, ready to be amazed -- and they often were.

Maybe it was the folk groups Myriad or Southwind hitting perfect harmony and bringing a variety of material that left no one in the audience untouched at the end of the evening.

Maybe it was acoustical guitarists of the quality of Sam Pacetti and Clyde Walker or Pete Hennings, the mainstay act of the studio.

Could be it was acts like Amy Carol Webb, whose original songs could make audiences laugh, cry and laugh again.

But what Don McLean called "the day the music died" is upon us.

We folk music buffs are about to be one site shorter on the list of places to pursue our sometimes lonely vice.

The Studio Arts Center in Crystal River will close its doors at the end of this month, ending a seven-year experiment in coffeehouse entertainment that brought pleasure to hundreds, if not thousands, of fans.

Situated in an old house at 114 NE Fifth St., the Studio was as close to an old '60s-style coffeehouse as you could find, and as close as some of its younger denizens will ever come to seeing one.

I was always among the earliest of arrivers when I went, so I could visit with musician friends as they set up. (I call it visiting; I'm pretty sure they call it pestering.) It also meant I got my choice of their several overstuffed couches and chairs, or, if I felt like it, an assortment of cushions and a piece of floor.

There were folding and lawn chairs for later arrivals who frequently, for favorite acts like Walker, DiNella and Geiger, or Myriad, filled the building to overflowing.

There was a stage, real lighting and a small concession area where sodas and coffee could be purchased, and a top-notch sound system to serve an audience that attended either for free or for a pittance.

The walls were covered with original art and pictures and signatures of those who performed there. I remember how proud I was the night that I, after playing my ocean drum with an act, was invited to sign a wall.

Coffeehouses are dying out because they don't make money. If you don't believe it, try to find a "just coffee" shop or coffeehouse near you. There are a few, but more and more, they are becoming mini-restaurants, or outlets for retail coffee sales.

True coffeehouses, of the sort that Studio Art was for at least a couple of nights each week, have fallen victim to falling profits. The income, even if you charge admission for entertainment, doesn't even cover the overhead. Studio Art was staffed entirely with volunteers and met expenses, but it was always a labor of love, not a business.

The idea of offering art, music, intellectual conversation and coffee has somehow gotten lost in an age of prepackaged franchise operations, digital music and Internet chat.

The building, incidentally, will remain, as a tearoom-style restaurant, and there is a chance, but no guarantee, that occasional "open mike" nights may take place there in the future.

On the brighter side, we have the Sunday Sampler, a growing series of regularly scheduled folk concerts at the renovated Dunnellon Middle School auditorium, and, on March 10 and 11, the annual Will McLean Folk Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch near Dade City, a major event on the Florida folk music scene.

But I really wish someone would open another place like Studio Arts somewhere within driving distance.

And if you want to see how it is done, current plans are for a two-day farewell open-mike jam at the Studio beginning Feb. 23.

All hope is not lost, I am told. The center is looking for a new location.

Those of us who have loved it are hoping fervently that a new home will be offered. Just give us the walls and a roof.

We'll bring the atmosphere.

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