Local group seeks to buy beloved Oklahoma venue the Opolis and keep the music playing
NORMAN — When Sarah Reid was 16 years old with a new drivers license, she borrowed her mom's minivan and trekked from Edmond to Norman to see her first show at the Opolis.
"It kind of blew my mind that live shows existed ... like that, because I hadn't really seen anything like that before. So, it being all-ages was huge," recalled the violinist, singer and songwriter.
"I got really into noise music and looping with violin and found out pretty quickly that you can't do that everywhere. If you try to do that in a bar, some drunk guy is gonna come up and say, 'Play some fiddle music I know' or 'Play "Devil Went Down to Georgia"' and isn't gonna be receptive to your unique thing that you're doing. But the Opolis has always been ... down for trying out something new, and every time you do, people are receptive and just welcoming."
Laine Bergeron tells a similar story, down to making his first forays to the beloved downtown Norman micro venue when he was just a teenager, too.
"It was the first venue that I got to go see really great local and international music acts — and that really inspired me to want to play in bands so that I could play there, often so I could try to get onto a show that I knew was cool," he told The Oklahoman.
"So, that really inspired me to join a bunch of different musical acts. Throughout time, Andy and Marian Nuñez have just been completely encouraging of whatever type of music I wanted to do, from folk to hard rock to DJ dance parties. At Opolis, I got a space to do everything — and I think that's a pretty common story for musicians here."
And they want to make sure the Opolis continues providing opportunities for an array of audiences and musical acts well into the future.
Reid and Bergeron are part of a coalition of 10 Norman musicians, creatives and young professionals raising funds so they can buy the Opolis and keep the venue running as a worker-owned cooperative.
“We are overjoyed that a group of some of our favorite local musicians and people will be taking ownership of Opolis,” the Nuñezes said in a statement. “We’ve watched downtown Norman blossom, we’ve watched local and national bands go from playing in front of small crowds at Opolis to playing arenas, we’ve watched our own child grow up and move on, and so, now, it’s time for us to move on.”
20-year-old venue has become a cult favorite and cultural hub
Former members of the influential Oklahoma indie pop band Starlight Mints, the Nuñezes founded the Opolis in 2002. As both owners and operators, they often ran the micro venue and vegan restaurant as a duo.
"We're so DIY it's painful," Andy Nuñez told The Oklahoman in a 2017 interview marking the Opolis' 15th anniversary. "Hats off to anyone who can work full-time hours with a payroll going and balance that with quality entertainment. That's a really hard thing to do. ... A lot of nights, we run everything ourselves."
Their 20 years of hard work, commitment and sacrifice turned the Opolis into a cult favorite renowned for its vegan snacks, full bar, whimsical decor, movie and trivia nights, karaoke and other events.
But the Opolis is especially revered as a music venue that showcases up-and-coming acts, hosts secret shows by well-known artists and serves as a key stage for the annual Norman Music Festival.
"It's been the cultural hub of Norman in a way, at least from my perspective. Being a musician and artist, it's been the main place that I feel like I've been able to see bands that I wouldn't normally be able to see coming through Oklahoma, and then also presenting my own stuff that wouldn't maybe necessarily work in other venues," said acclaimed singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, another member of the cooperative.
"There's so many aspects of a vital creative community. You really have to have a venue that's open to unique, off-kilter events and trying things and ... a place where people from different parts of the community feel comfortable coming. I think that's what it's been for me."
The all-ages venue also has served as a hub for bands traveling to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas and has hosted an array of prominent acts, including Skating Polly, Andrew WK, The Polyphonic Spree, BRONCHO, Big Thief, Lucy Dacus, Peelander-Z, Protomartyr, Albert Hammond Jr, Car Seat Headrest, Jonathan Richman, Fruit Bats and Mitski.
"I got to open up for Mitski when she came through and (got to see) just a bunch of people that later on grew up and grew past playing Opolis anymore. But we got the chance to see them because of Opolis — which is just huge," Reid said.
“I've always done on-and-off work helping Andy and Marian at Opolis ... and I was working in the kitchen last May when Andy first mentioned selling the Opolis, that he and Marian were ready to move on, and had the idea for a co-op — or Co-Opolis, as we've been calling ourselves."
Group launches fundraising effort to buy the Opolis
Since she had previously worked at the Norman's Gray Owl Coffee when it shifted to an employee-owned model, Reid said she thought the Opolis would be able to thrive as a worker-owned cooperative.
"Andy and Marian sent me people that have helped to do work for them throughout the years that would be interested. We started out just meeting at my house once a week throughout the summer and grew our group," Reid said.
“Andy and Marian have been really helpful. They obviously want this to happen — they want it to go this way rather than just gutting the place and selling everything to somebody else — so we've come to an agreement where we have an amount we need ... to make a down payment to Andy and Marian to purchase the goodwill, the name and all the inventory.
"If we can make that goal by the end of January, then we can keep the Opolis."
The down payment is $50,000, and the group has set a GoFundMe goal of $60,000 to help with additional costs.
The coalition is planning a fundraising concert at the venue from 5 to 11 p.m. Dec. 9 during Norman's 2nd Friday Art Walk. The event will feature live music from Glitch, Typhoid and Chelsey Cope, along with a live and silent auction, cocktails and food.
The cooperative group also will be accepting donations at other concerts at the venue, like the Dec. 16 show with The Pearl Snaps and Steelwind.
"We're basically operating in the Opolis ... almost as a two-month-long promotion like 'Remember how much you guys love this place?' to just get people back in there and remembering what a great part of the community it is," Crain said.
For the 10-person coalition — which also includes M. Bailey Stephenson, Eli Wimmer, Felina Rivera, Sasha Welsh, Addy Uhack, Michael Stafford and Ethan Williams — the goal of buying the Opolis is to continue operating it as the same vital venue the community has come to love.
"I feel extremely personally lucky and honored to be a part of this group. ... It was music and the Opolis that brought us together," Bergeron said.
"For all of the choices that I made in my life to bring me to this point, it makes me feel like we're on a good path here. I have a lot of faith that we're going to be able to pull this off and make it successful — because there's a lot of people that want to see this succeed."
OPOLIS WORKER COOPERATIVE FUNDRAISER
What: Live music from Glitch, Typhoid and Chelsey Cope, along with a live and silent auction, cocktails and food.
When: 5 to 11 p.m. Dec. 9.
Where: Opolis, 113 N Crawford Ave., Norman.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Group seeks to buy Oklahoma venue Opolis and keep the music playing