How music has driven the evolution of Chumley’s in downtown State College

Chumley’s is located at 108 W. College Ave. in downtown State College, and features live music weekly
Chumley’s is located at 108 W. College Ave. in downtown State College, and features live music weekly Photo provided

Chumley’s is one of the best places to catch live music in Centre County.

To see it from the outside, the downtown State College bar doesn’t look like much. It’s a small, narrow, dimply lit building, but inside there’s a scene within a scene, with live music playing multiple nights every week, and a commitment to serving an increasingly diverse population of clientele.

“Because we’re a gay bar, and because, to survive, we’ve had to reach beyond the stereotype of what a gay bar looks like, we’ve become a much more eclectic and welcoming gay bar than we were to begin with,” manager Ellen Braun wrote in an email. “We see far more diversity in age, nationality, gender and sexual identity than we did years ago.”

Chumley’s has embraced the mission of reaching beyond the stereotype of what a gay bar looks like and has worked to serve the increasingly diverse crowds through a great equalizer — music.

“We get tremendous support from an international crowd, and graduate students are some of our best friends,” Braun said. “We’ve tapped into the artists among us, and much more, and music drives that evolution.”

Music has driven that evolution for years, while the authenticity of the Chumley’s experience remained intact.

“Changing attitudes about all things LGBTQA have meant dramatic change for gay bars all over America,” Braun said. “Bars in cities, gay or straight, are seeing much more mixed crowds, so gay bars are competing at a different level now. We had to make some serious decisions about how to stay relevant and viable, and still committed to cultivating diversity. That mission has done a lot to make us an all-around better bar. The challenge has been healthy for us, and makes our jobs all the more interesting and fun.”

Braun has worked at Chumley’s for years, and it’s been a true labor of mission-driven love.

“When I think about what makes Chumley’s so great, I try to imagine town without us,” Braun said, “without places like Webster’s, or our sister bar Zeno’s. These places give our town character, make it welcoming and interesting.”

And the seemingly soul-deep partnership with local musicians is one of the reasons Chumley’s remains successful.

“I’m very grateful to all the musicians who play here. Whether they know it or not, they are part of the reason we’re still strong and growing. They’ve helped us weather some serious cultural changes of the past decade,” Braun said.

Live music started at Chumley’s years ago.

“Our first adventure with music was Harold Taddy’s famous Open Mic & Variety Showcase,” Braun said. “We wanted a way to introduce Chumley’s to a broader audience, and a way to test the waters with local musicians.”

Live music happens at Chumley’s the first and third Monday of each month with Sylvia Feldman from 7:30-9:30 p.m.; the first Saturday of each month with the Arthur Goldstein Trio at 8:30 p.m.; the second Monday of each month featuring a Latin twist with Venezuelan singer Ady Martinez, Eric Ian Farmer and guests at 8 p.m.

“We round out these regularly scheduled events with standout performances by Andy Tolins with a variety of guests,” Braun said. “Natascha and the Spy Boys, Danny Brumbaugh and his Psychic Beat One Man Band, Karaoke with Ralf, and other stars of the local scene.”

I’ve hung out at Chumley’s with friends and performed at Chumley’s with musicians like Tolins, Biscuit Jam and even the elusive Nate Cutshall while he was still in town, and I can say it is an awesome place. It’s awesome for the music and for the very warm and welcoming environment, but it’s also awesome because of Braun, who truly is the heart and soul Chumley’s.

You can hear it in her voice.

“When I’m working behind the bar, I see live music, I hear people speaking many different languages, I’m surrounded by such diversity,” Braun said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a bigger city than State College. It’s terribly rewarding to be part of.”

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.