The Berkley stage. Photograph by Amelia Drake.

Amelia Drake has heard that businesses shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone. But when it comes to The Berkley, the venue located at 19th and Leavenworth Streets she opened with her sister in late fall 2021, she sees opportunities to serve a wide swath of the community.

“Every day I’m in the club, I see something else that we can be to people: a place for students to study, a place to discover your favorite band, a place for date night, a neighborhood haunt. We’re gonna be all of those things.”

Amelia Drake and her sister Debi Sauls (owner of the space) have shifted their business model since first opening. As Operations Manager, Drake saw new opportunities unfolding with the changing needs of the community. And with the pandemic, they had to reassess everything they thought was important before and changed their concept to connect with the community.

On their calendar right now you can find everything from a night of darkwave synth music to Saturday brunches. Open mic nights are when the space truly comes alive, Drake said. Her vision is to build a vibrant and supportive community for artists: not just musicians, but spoken word, comedy, and DJs. Right now, the open mic is a mix of young and established performers, with plans to support even more young artists through ongoing collaborations with groups like Omaha Girls Rock.

Thursday nights at The Berkley are reminiscent of Aly Peeler’s legendary open mic, now helmed by MJ Peters (also known as artist Mad Darling), which started at the Side Door Lounge and moved venues a few times before settling back at the Down Under Lounge (same location, new ownership). That open mic ran for 10 years and gave a lot of young performers such as Jocelyn their starts. Before the Berkley’s Thursday open mic, Drake hosts a supper club. This winter, the focus has been comfort food, with specials like roast beef and chicken alfredo alongside their regularly available charcuterie boards.

Part of what makes the space so versatile for performers of all ages is that the bar is separated from the venue—much like the former Barley Street Tavern in Benson, now called Shakedown Street after a change in ownership during the pandemic. Drake is also sensitive to the fact not everyone wants to drink during shows, so there are mocktails available, and soon, expanded coffee offerings.

Originally, Drake and Sauls thought the division might turn off crowds. But Drake said it turned out to be a blessing—giving people a space to decompress before returning to the performance area, “especially when seeing a band that’s loud or rockin’.”

The Berkley has booked a lot of singer-songwriters, including Grace Titus, Mitch Gettman and Jason Mayer. They have also hosted their first DJ event: Wasteland, a Goth night featuring DJs, lasers and a fog machine.

Recently, they hosted a Drag Brunch, which sold out three days after its announcement. Drake was blown away by the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the LGBTQ+ community in attendance.

“I’ve wanted to make it really clear from the beginning that we want to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, but how do you show that by the events that you book?” she said. “This was our first opportunity to show that.”

With the overwhelming success of the first drag brunch, she is planning to start a monthly series.

The Berkley stage. Photograph by Amelia Drake.

Drake’s husband Chris Yanulis, a lecturer in the art department at Iowa State University, designed and built the mural behind the stage. He said that both Drake and Sauls wanted to create something different in the space, something no one had seen before.

Drake wanted a bold backdrop for performers, but also something to dampen the sound—form and functionality. Inspired by the color scheme Drake had chosen, Yanulis set about cutting, painting, and installing every block of that mural by hand. The process took several months. Yanulis painted the walls of their back patio to match, and this spring, he will be painting the front with those same vivid coral, teal, and gold blocks.

Another aspect that sets The Berkley apart from other venues is that Drake and her husband are themselves musicians—which is not always the case for management at music venues. Their project Drake’s Hotel draws influence from post-punk, new wave, and alternative rock. All the staff are performers and artists as well.

“This is really a labor of love for [Drake] and her sister,” Yanulis said. “[Drake] has invested a lot of her creative talents to create this unified feeling.”

One of Drake’s main business goals is her emphasis on hiring women. Currently, their staff is 100% femme, and Drake hires women to run sound for events whenever possible.

Heading into the spring, Drake will start booking acts again for Fridays and Saturdays. The Berkley will keep hosting DJ nights as well, including Noir on March 4th, a name familiar to those who remember downtown dance club House of Loom. Brunches will expand to Saturdays and Sundays. The space is also available for event rentals.

The Berkley feels like a much needed venue for Omaha. Closures or restructurings of smaller venues like Brothers Lounge and the Barley Street Tavern have left a hole in the community for acts that are just starting out. This space can fill that gap while also paving the way for Omaha’s eclectic artists, and the next generation of emerging performers.

“It’s gonna be an organic kinda movement,” Drake said. “People come in, meet our staff, see the place, fall in love.”

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