Ups, Downs, and High Hopes at the High Noon Saloon

It's a Tuesday afternoon at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, and two shows are scheduled later in the evening. Owner Cathy Dethmers, 38, will be the sole bartender until 9 p.m. She looks around the room, anticipating a good night. It's taken her nearly two decades to get to this point, thanks to a fierce determination, a will to survive, and a community that cared.

Dethmers, who also managed O'Cayz Corral before the High Noon, graduated from UW-Madison in 1994 with a degree in cultural anthropology. Definition: the comparative study of human societies, cultures, and their development. One might argue that her career choice has proven to be the perfect utilization of her degree.

Hers is the oft-heralded story of the college kid who made it semi-big. She started waitressing at O'Cayz in college to supplement her student income, and grew to appreciate it more than most. So when the former owner decided to close the venue on New Year's Day in 1994, Dethmers wasn't about to let go. "It was just something I really cared about and missed when it was closed, and I thought someone else would open it up, but nobody did."

Post-graduation, with no job in the coffer, Dethmers checked back with the original owner to discuss resurrecting the club. Odds were stacked against the 21-year-old who lacked business experience, and banks weren't biting. Luckily, Dethmers had friends who believed enough in her to invest in her dream, and O'Cayz soon reopened on a rental basis, with Dethmers managing the establishment.

All was well until New Year's Day 2001. "It was weird," she said. "I had just left the place after New Year's Eve. It was about 5 a.m. I had just got home when I got a call that there was smoke." She immediately returned to the bar, but by the time she arrived, it was too late. A fire was consuming her business. "It was devastating to say the least," she recalled. "I had some insurance, but unfortunately, my landlord did not have insurance on the building. Financially, it was devastating as well." Authorities later determined the fire was caused by a cigarette left burning at a bar next door.

Down but not out, Dethmers started looking for a new venue the very next day. The process, she said, was long and peppered with highs and lows. For several years, she worked three jobs and saved as much as possible. Along the way, some potential locations fell through, but on the bright side, she had the support of the community, and all the while, competing establishments around town held benefits to raise money on her behalf.

Eventually, Dethmers found a space at the old Buy & Sell Shop on East Washington Avenue, and her new club, the High Noon Saloon, opened in May 2004.

She designed the High Noon herself as a tribute to the old O'Cayz. "That was my comfort zone," she said, "but this time, I had the opportunity to make some better choices." For example, the High Noon has hosted 45 wedding receptions since opening, something O'Cayz could not have accommodated. The build-out cost about $250,000, she said, and this time around, the banks gave her the loan.

Dethmers' day usually starts around 9:30 in the morning. She handles the accounting, the booking calendar, and schedules private parties and special events. "I get about 100 e-mails a day," she said, from groups hoping to get on her calendar. A steady cadre of local promoters contacts her with a range of dates, hoping the High Noon schedule can accommodate their shows. Then the booking agents figure out the routing for Madison, and a specific date is locked in. If it's a national act, Dethmers only handles the marketing. "I don't do anything with their contracts, nor do I know how much they get paid," she said.

All bands do get paid, but the deals vary substantially, she explained. Locally, it's common for band members to split the cover charge total at the end of the night. Cover charges are typically negotiated, she said, running $5 to $6 on average. National acts most often have a set ticket price (about $8 to $16) as well as a range of guaranteed money they expect to receive. The most expensive cover charge Dethmers recalls was $25 per person.

"We negotiate that in advance and sign a contract with terms." Those acts also get paid from door receipts, and if Dethmers promises $1,000 and door receipts tally only to $800, she owes them $200.

"I've been in the business long enough to know what a band is worth and how many people might attend," she says, "but everything is a gamble."

It's not uncommon for Dethmers to pay for a band's dinner, between $10 and $15 per person, and she'll also provide beer, drinks, bottled water, and an occasional snack for members, but there have been a few unreasonable requests as well. Dethmers laughed as she recalled the demands of one big-name band, which shall remain anonymous. "Each band member required a separate dressing room with a La-Z-Boy chair, and a ridiculous amount of alcohol – two cases of beer, plus booze." They also required a 20-foot physical barrier between the stage and the crowd. "That would eat up our dance floor," Dethmers said, incredulously.

"It was a band that was used to higher expectations. Now they're on the slide and perhaps looking at venues such as ours again. Luckily, I don't see that a whole lot."

That's a good thing, being that the High Noon Saloon books over 1,200 acts for more than 500 shows a year, in order to fill its 365-day calendar. All the money the bar makes comes from alcohol sales, she explained. "It's all about how many drinks they buy. We could have a full-capacity night, but if the crowd is only drinking water or soda, it's not a good night," she said. That said, Dethmers definitely books bands based on the crowds they attract, but she'll also schedule higher-caliber artists or benefits for local charities.

The High Noon has a capacity limit of 400, but Dethmers said her best-case scenario is a crowd of about 300 people socializing and buying a lot of drinks. Sellouts are nice, she explains, but can impede access to the bar.

After 18 years in the business, Dethmers clearly has her pulse on Madison's music scene and the crowds each band will attract. "If we have a mainstream country band, we'll sell a lot of Bud Lite," she said. "If it's a bluegrass band, it will be microbrews and tap beer. Punk means PBR and whiskey." As a rule, she does not book "cover" bands.

Dethmers said the High Noon Saloon is profitable, particularly in spring and fall, but struggles with a lot of competition during the summer months when summer festivals, Monona Terrace, the Memorial Union, and other venues are at their entertainment peaks.

Recently, the club enjoyed its biggest day ever on the Saturday of Halloween weekend. That day kicked off with a live simulcast of a Jon Stewart rally in Washington, D.C., followed by a bluegrass benefit for a local elementary school, and culminated with a sold-out Halloween show that night. "Overall, about 1,000 people came through the door," Dethmers said, resulting in $10,000 in sales that day.

Things weren't always so rosy. She remembers struggling as a woman starting up her own business in the early (O'Cayz) days, whether it was getting a liquor license or working with booking agents or liquor distributors. Any disrespect she encountered, though, she chalks up to being young and unknown. Those days are long gone. "Now, with High Noon, I've built a reputation and proven myself," she said.

As her establishment grows in popularity and revenue, Dethmers micro-manages the budget. "I'm so hands on with the business that it's always a work in progress," she said. Decisions about which shows to book or how much to spend on advertising, for example, are entirely hers and made on a daily basis, though she does hire an accountant to handle year-end corporation taxes.

Twice a week, she returns to her roots as a bartender. "It gives me the perfect bird's-eye view of what's happening," and the bar, by all accounts, is doing well. "We're making it!" she smiles, grateful to MGE for allowing her patrons to utilize some of its parking spaces nearby.

Dethmers, who just got married last fall, still rents the space, but the business is hers, and one day she hopes to sell. "It's a very time-consuming career. I won't last until I'm 65 doing this. I just hope one day someone with a similar vision can keep it going."

Long hours aside, Dethmer's happy where she is. "What I love the most is that at the end of the day, I'm creating a party for people to come and enjoy – every day. They come here and are happy."