When Darrell Brann bought a concert venue in Wallowa County in northeastern Oregon, he knew it wasn’t a no. 1 destination for big touring bands or really touring bands of any size. The whole county has a population of under 7,000 people, and it’s not exactly on the way to anything besides beautiful countryside.
But over the past four years Brann has used small-town charm to lure in some really big names. And it’s not just a success for him — it’s helping his whole community.
The first show Brann ever booked was blues singer Eric Bibb. The concert happened at a restaurant owned by Brann’s in-laws, and there was a little bit of improvisation involved.
“I remember I put him on a double-decker squirrel hunting trailer to get him up to stage level,” Brann said. “Built some stairs leading up to it.”
Bibb loved the set-up, and Brann made back the money he’d spent on booking.
Brann isn’t in the music industry full time. He’s actually a contractor; he’s worked in construction since he moved to Enterprise, Oregon, in 2001. His wife is from the area, and they thought that the beautiful mountains and charming small towns — Enterprise has a population of 1900 people — would make for a great place to raise a family.
The Branns have five kids now, mostly young musicians, which is what got Brann thinking about what was missing in Wallowa County: high-quality concerts.
“Even if [bands] make it to La Grande, that's a two-hour drive; or Lewiston, that's a two-hour drive,” Brann said. “So it's not always attainable for us to get there. Generally, though, they're in Portland, so that’s a six-hour drive, plus fuel and a hotel.”
So that first show at the restaurant was kind of an experiment. What does it take to get a musician to play a town like Enterprise?
By 2012, concerts weren’t the only kind of entertainment lacking in the county. The only movie theater in the area was an old, Western-style building that showed films on a reel-to-reel projector. It was called the OK Theatre. That year, movie releases made the switch to digital format only.
“It cost 100 grand to change per screen to digital,” Brann said. “Too much money for a little town.”
The theater closed that September. At the same time, a local hardware store bought and moved into the nearest bowling alley.
“I think everyone in town had this sense of, ‘The theater's gone, the bowling alley's gone. There's nothing left, really,’” Brann said.
It wasn’t the greatest time for the rest of the county’s economy either. A big restaurant in Enterprise was closing; business was slow.
And there was the OK Theatre, sitting empty in the middle of town.
Brann wasn’t itching to buy a venue, especially an old building that would be expensive to heat. He was busy with work. But he had this image stuck in his head, from when he walked out the door of that first concert he put on with Eric Bibb.
“Seven at night and seeing streets packed. People coming out of restaurants, everybody was having business,” he said.
Brann talked to his wife, and they decided they’d buy the theater and turn it into a concert venue.
“It was sort of like, 'OK, we’re taking on another mortgage the size of our house.' But this is worthwhile,” Brann said.
But what do you say to make bands come through a small town? When he first reached out to managers, Brann’s strategy was to be really, really honest.
“I'd be like, ‘Now, we're in the middle of nowhere,’” Brann said. “So I'm not trying to sell it like you're going to make tons of money."
Then, he’d try to charm them.
“But there are benefits. This is a really beautiful area. I usually send ‘em a little screenshot of the valley,” Brann said.
Plus, they’d invite every band over for dinner after a show.
“So if people want to have a Wallowa County experience and have an elk steak dinner that I shot and dressed myself, they can,” he said.
Brann started booking more acts and bigger acts.
“It was a lot of work that first year, but then you make contacts. And somehow, my inbox started filling up. People saying 'I want to play the OK Theatre, I want to play the OK Theatre,'” Brann said.
This year, the OK Theatre’s booked their biggest lineup yet: Riders in the Sky (Sept. 22), bluegrass legend Del McCoury (Nov. 30), and a trio fronted by Victor Wooten (Oct. 3), who’s best known for his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
And the success at the theater hasn't gone unnoticed. Last year, Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office reached out to them about applying for a grant to redo the building's classic facade. More recently, Brann heard about a $100,000 Oregon Main Street grant that the theater could use for broad renovations. Letters of support poured in from businesses around the county.
“So many wonderful letters came in,” Brann said. “Everybody saying, ‘Yep, we’re for the OK Theatre, it helps our business.’”
And they won. This year, they’ll be putting in new bathrooms, fixing up the wiring and installing more power outlets onstage.
After all, it’s an old theater, but it’s full of new life.