As important as Saddle Creek Records and its bands were to the Omaha music scene, so were Sokol Auditorium and Sokol Underground.
Located on South 13th Street in the heart of Omaha’s Little Bohemia, Sokol Auditorium was a barn of a venue. Owned and operated by the Sokol organization — a Czech-American group dedicated to the sport of gymnastics — the giant concrete structure was indeed a gymnasium as well as a balconied ballroom that hosted polka dances, wedding receptions and the occasional rock show. In the late ’90s and into the early 2000s, the facility’s basement — named Sokol Underground — was home to live touring indie rock bands, including acts that would make Omaha famous — Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint — and national indie stars like Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Interpol and Guided by Voices.
Those shows were booked and hosted by 1% Productions — the dynamic duo of Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson — who called Sokol Underground their home until they opened their own club — The Waiting Room in Benson — in 2007.
Now more than two decades later, 1% Productions has bought Sokol Auditorium as part of a trio of investors that includes Kansas City’s Mammoth Productions and Lincolnites Sean and Becki Reagan, formerly of Orange Whip Productions, who now operate The Bourbon Theater in Lincoln. In fact, all three of the above parties also purchased The Bourbon earlier this year.
For Leibowitz and Johnson, the acquisition of Sokol Auditorium is a dream come true.
“Sokol Auditorium was where we produced our first show (Ani DiFranco in 1997),” Leibowitz said. “We wanted to buy it since ’97, but it was never for sale.”
During the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sokol organization received an unsolicited offer to buy the building from an out-of-state promoter. Sokol then approached 1%, suggesting they also put in an offer. In the fall of 2020, with their partnership, they did. After much consideration by the Sokol organization, their offer was accepted, and they closed the deal on April 1.
I didn’t ask Leibowitz the price, but he did say it will cost more money to renovate the facility than what it cost to buy it.
Renamed The Admiral Theater as a sort of tribute to the classic movie houses that once populated Omaha (another 1% project, a La Vista-based venue/amphitheater about to break ground, is called The Astro), Leibowitz said rehab work will commence as soon as permits are in hand and will include a lot of modernizing to bring the building up to code. That means installing an elevator, fire suppression, an alarm system and modern HVAC. They’re also renovating and enlarging the bathrooms, adding real dressing rooms, production offices, showers and other amenities artists want.
“We’re rebuilding the infrastructure for the curtaining and rigging that was almost 100 years old,” Leibowitz said. “The sound and lights are being sold. We’ll have brand new sound and lighting. We’ll fly the PA from the roof of the building.”
The auditorium’s “tumbling room,” built over the entranceway steps, is being converted into a “VIP experience” that will require club membership for access. The VIP room, which will have its own bar and bathrooms, will open onto the auditorium’s balcony.
Speaking of bars, a “proper bar” will be constructed along the auditorium’s north wall that will include much higher-end offerings than the old Sokol.
“We’re trying to fix as much of the customer experience as possible,” Leibowitz said, “but we can’t fix the parking yet.”
The auditorium’s parking lot can support only a fraction of an audience that can attend a show. Leibowitz has plans to clear as many spaces as possible for customers, but “part of going to a show at Sokol is parking in the neighborhood,” he said. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
And while the name will change — in fact they legally cannot use the Sokol moniker — Leibowitz said they won’t completely erase the old Sokol.
“There’s going to be things that remind you of the historic nature of the building,” he said. “We’re keeping as many old touches as we can.”
The target for The Admiral’s grand opening is February 2022.
So what about the old Sokol Underground? Leibowitz said the facility’s basement that once hosted hundreds of indie rock shows (and also once had a four-lane bowling alley) will be treated as a separate business. “It’s not going to be a music venue,” he said. “We’re demoing it at the same time as the auditorium, putting in infrastructure, HVAC, elevator and bathrooms, and then we will sit on it a little while.”
Leibowitz sees the irony of no longer hosting shows in a room that played a big role in establishing 1% Productions, but he also can’t see a need for yet another 300-capacity club in Omaha.
The Admiral Theater, with a capacity of 1,400, will fill a unique entertainment void.
“The Holland Center’s capacity is around 1,900; the Ralston Arena around 3,500, Sumpter is around 2,500. Sokol has always held a unique position in terms of capacity,” he said.
In fact Leibowitz said many shows booked at smaller venues over the years would have been hosted at Sokol Auditorium if the venue wasn’t universally considered a dump.
“If the Sokol as an entity would have invested in their facilities, there wouldn’t have been a Waiting Room or a Slowdown, but they never did,” Leibowitz said.
Now it’s happening. The decision to go all-in on Sokol was a gutsy move taken at one of the most challenging times in our country’s history, when no one was sure what would happen with live entertainment. Leibowitz shrugs off the risk.
“I like our business, the music industry and our venues,” Leibowitz said. “The timing wasn’t great when the Sokol deal came up, but how do we not do it? It was our dream venue, something we wanted to do back when we were doing 20 shows a month in the Underground. We always thought it would be amazing if we could own this place.”
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.