A Showplace for All
A shared entrepreneurial vibe
Long before they co-owned The Blue Room, Martijn Wall and Ben Hodson, ’21, met on their first day of music classes at Western and soon landed parts in the WWU Orchestra—Wall as lead oboe and Hodson as lead trumpet. “We were rookies together,” Wall says.
And like many friendships forged at Western, they truly bonded over their shared love of having a good time at a show.
“We just kind of shared this weird, creative, entrepreneurial drive to do something,” Wall says. “We were sitting in the VU one day and we were like, ‘Hey, do you want to do a show or something? That would be fun!’”
The start of the Blue Room
Hodson majored in marketing, minored in music and performed in the WWU Jazz Band. Picking up a second minor in arts enterprise and cultural innovation combined it all: For Hodson’s senior capstone project in 2021 he was drawn to the idea of building a community organization supporting the re-emergence of live music after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Hodson and Wall began working as HodWall Productions, hosting virtual and in person events. They were joined by sound technician Nick Hastings, ’22, B.Mus., who majored in tuba performance and minored in audio engineering at Western.
Looking for their next one-night venue, they met the owner of a newly vacated upstairs nightclub space above K-Pop Chicken and Beer at the corner of East Holly Street and Railroad Avenue.
But instead of renting the space for a one-off event, the landlord wanted a full-time tenant.
“It was a big decision point,” Wall says. “Should we really go for this? I think both of us have always been, if the opportunity is there, just go for it. You shouldn’t hold yourself back by being scared of something that could be really, really positive.”
So Wall, Hodson and Hastings launched The Blue Room together. Wall recruits the acts; Hodson manages the bar, along with social media, marketing and promotions; and Hastings, who built the stage and sound system, was the stage manager.
From intimate literary salons to all-out ragers
The Blue Room began with four shows a week in March 2022 and now has something booked nearly every night.
In addition to Monday night jazz, Wednesday night comedy, Tuesday night open jams and all-ages live music almost every weekend, The Blue Room has hosted burlesque, literary events, dance parties, music festivals, hip-hop concerts, rock concerts, drag shows and at least one wedding.
Many of the 300-some events so far are in partnership with Western students and faculty. WWU jazz ensembles performed at the Blue Room’s second-ever show, and Jazz Studies Professor Kevin Woods is an on-stage regular. They also hosted the Bellingham Celtic Festival last year. “We had world-class, world-renown, internationally famous musicians playing here and the whole experience was incredible,” Hodson says.
A place to dance your face off – if that’s your style
Hodson, Wall and Hastings created The Blue Room with a core value of making it a safe, inclusive space. After a year of helping to run the venue, Hastings changed career paths, but the original goal remains.
“Especially being an all-ages venue, it’s very important that everyone feels that they can come here and be safe and express themselves,” Wall says, “whether that’s sitting down and watching the show or dancing however they want to. And we recognize we don’t know all the answers in how to create that.”
Hodson and Wall sought out members of different communities to help advise them on creating that sense of safety and belonging. “We don’t necessarily know what these communities need, because we’re not there,” Hodson says, “but we’re using this space to give them the opportunity to say what they need. We’re hosting and listening.”
Incidents have been very few, and usually taken care of.
“We’re quick to act,” Wall says, “and we’re here to make sure everyone has a good time.”
The power of being together
During COVID, when venues were closing and bands were breaking up, it became clear that live performances are about more than just having a good time.
“I think people are really resonating with this, because it was stripped from us for a couple of years,” Hodson says. “It’s this idea of togetherness in a cool space, experiencing that shared value, together, in a live setting.”
But while most COVID restrictions have receded for live performances, threats are surging for gatherings like drag shows in some areas of the country.
Drag shows and performers have been the target of more than 160 negative incidents since early 2022 and laws and proposals against drag performance have swept several state legislatures. Harassment and violence against drag venues also increased dramatically in the past year in the form of protests, threats, and the tragic Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs earlier this year.
These social, legal and political threats extend to the wider LGBTQ+ community, too, as exemplified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of a business’s refusal to do website design work for a gay wedding. In 303 Creative LLC vs. Elenis, the high court ruled that requiring business to create customized content that goes against their religious beliefs infringes upon their freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
The ruling dealt a setback to the hard-won rights of the LGBTQ+ community; Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor argued that the ruling effectively granted businesses the constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class.
These challenges and threats only serve to motivate HodWall to keep drag alive at The Blue Room.
“At its core, this place is a community center,” says Wall, who has put his WWU music degree on hold while he focuses on The Blue Room. “And when we hear about legal restrictions, it makes us want to host those communities even more. We have an opportunity to present a platform to beautiful art and performance.”
A proving ground for young performers
Hodson and Wall see The Blue Room as an opportunity for performers not only to have a place to perform, but a safe and approachable space to learn the business of producing and promoting events.
“When people approach us with an idea, and if it makes sense as a really positive show, we’re all for it,” Wall says.
Part of that work is modeling good practices by ensuring performers are always paid fair wages, that all costs for the acts are transparent, and that each show benefits the performers, the venue and the community who come to see them.
They’re a proving ground for student performers like WWU student Nävouny Divinne, who produced her show Divinne Creatures at The Blue Room in May.
"As an artist, I describe myself as a shapeshifter and political antagonizer," says Divinne, a Fairhaven College student. "I am a poet, community organizer and revolutionary."
A place for independent arts entrepreneurs
Divinne may have more show producing experience than most students performing at the Blue Room: She's been planning, producing and hosting events since her sophomore year of high school.
"I am who I am. There's no difference between me as a performer and me as a person," Divinne says.
She has produced two Divinne Creatures shows at the Blue Room, with LGBTQ+ Western as a publicity sponsor.
“Nävouny partnered with us to help spread the word about LGBTQ+ Western and we shared our materials,” says JoeHahn, director of LGBTQ+ Western. “As a sponsor, we covered the cost of posters and distributed them around campus and the community. This partnership was really successful, especially for the first show.”
Everything Hodson and Wall have learned during their transformation -- from friends who love live shows to owners of their own performance venue -- they want to share with the next generation of show producers.
“Those independent entrepreneurs, we were in their shoes, literally two years ago,” Hodson says. “That makes us a little more approachable. We can empathize with them and it makes us so willing to work with them, on the spot. It’s really amazing how a lot of those partnerships have ensued since.”