In Tune

Influenced by its storied past, Willis Show Bar sets the tone for a nostalgic sound
Show Stopper: Local singer Willa Rae performs during Willis Show Bar’s weekly La Femme Wednesdays

A woman with full, dark hair and a Medusa tattoo — a piece that resembles my own Odyssey-themed half sleeve, slightly covered by my dress code-approved, off-the-shoulder top — greets me and my friends as we approach Willis Show Bar located in Cass Corridor. From the outside, it reminds me of the casual spots we frequent on a typical weekend evening; a neon “bar” sign hanging just above its industrial door. But as she leads us inside and pulls back the curtain separating the tight lobby from the rest of the space, it’s as if we’ve entered an earlier decade. “Welcome to Willis,” she says, allowing the candle-lit atmosphere of the lounge to sink in before we’re guided to our reserved seats at the bar positioned directly in front of the main stage.

Settling onto my leather stool, I order the Millionaire’s Cocktail #2, a rum concoction featuring lime and grenadine found on the curated drink menu. Within minutes, the house band, The Heavy Petters, takes to the platform before us. Tonight, the group is celebrating Jack White’s birthday with a range of cabaret, jazz, and blues renditions of songs associated with The White Stripes. Half way into my cocktail and the nearly 30-minute set, the band starts playing a saxophone-heavy version of “Icky Thump.” In shock, I turn to my boyfriend. “I love this song,” I whisper. “And I’ve never heard it like this before.”

This element of surprise, and knack for mixing old and new sounds, is something that Willis Show Bar is exceptionally good at. The venue is also keen on showcasing local talent. “Detroit’s one of most important music cities in the world,” says Sean Patrick, who moved from Los Angeles to act as part owner and general manager of the now five-month-old space. “Honoring that reflects a large amount of the programming we do here — jazz, soul, rhythm, blues, funk. We’ve had up to 11 musicians play when only three were booked. It’s amazing how many great musicians are here.”

Top: The neon “bar” sign at Willis’ exterior mirrors the venue’s original signage. Bottom: Dim lighting shines on leather seating and glossy tables.

The nightlife veteran has immersed himself in the metro Detroit community to scout and connect with these local performers and to honor the original intention of the space. Founded in 1949, the venue once was home to a popular club, also named Willis Show Bar, that is rumored to have attracted names like Don Cherry and Etta James to Detroit. The space thrived until the city shut it down in 1978. The owners behind Blossoms floral shop bought the property in the 1980s, and used it as a design space for special projects. Patrick and his business partners closed a deal on the space in 2016 and started renovations shortly after.

Drawing inspiration from its beginnings, the team referenced a photo from Willis’ heyday to recreate the handsome interior, which is now surrounded in sleek wood paneling and accented with leather seating, soft lighting, and navy-blue paint. Aside from an intentional lack of windows, the most notable feature of the space is the restored curvaceous ceiling. It was a staple of the original Willis Show Bar, and it informed the design of the rest of the venue, including the equally curvy bar setup and floor plan. “The ceiling, when it’s lit for the evening, is photographic and cinematic,” Patrick says. “Then, you’ve got this really amazing music going.”

He references the popularity that artists like Sam Smith, Mark Ronson, and the late Amy Winehouse have had as a sign that, despite their nostalgic sounds, the genres the bar is offering are well received by today’s modern music lovers. About a week after my first visit to Willis Show Bar, I find myself back at the venue for La Femme Wednesdays, a weekly program showcasing local female talent. Exemplifying Patrick’s theory, the star of the evening is soulful singer Willa Rae. I’m pleasantly surprised to not only recognize her as the mythology-loving woman who greeted me on my first visit, but to see the large crowd that has flocked to the bar to watch her perform.

Left: Guitarist Paige Huguelet plays during Willa Rae’s Wednesday night set. Center: The signature curved bar at Willis Show Bar wraps around the front of the stage. Right: The Venetian Spritz is one of many cocktails offered on the venue’s curated drink menu.

Celebrating her birthday, Willa Rae is joined by The Minor Arcana & Family, DJ’s Amanda LeClaire and Shiva Honey, and burlesque dancers Sophia Von Stardust and Céleste Vé Dette, who sensually discard articles of clothing as they trapeze through rows of seats during Rae’s energetic performance. Prior to her second, more jazz-influenced set, which includes a cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” everyone in the venue sings “Happy Birthday” to the singer, and moments later, two women stop by my party’s table to ask if we would like slices of cake. Feeling the kick of our martinis, daiquiris, and mojitos, we eagerly oblige, our social media feeds and to-do lists falling by the wayside. After all, we, and the rest of the nearly packed bar, didn’t get this dressed up to not live in the moment.

Musicians Jack Oats and Craig Adams on stage during La Femme Wednesday.

“Some of our comments on social media include the word ‘transported,’ which is exactly what we’re hoping for,” Patrick says. “You’re greeted at the door, then you come into this hallway, the curtain’s drawn, and it’s enough of a distraction to forget about the outside world and your day prior. When you’re inside Willis, you’re part of the experience.”

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Looking Back

Willis Show Bar was closed for business in 1978. Pictured at the front door are Prosecutor William Cahalan (left) and Detroit Police Chief William Hart.

Willis Show Bar’s lengthy history inspires its current iteration

1949: The original Willis Show Bar opened in Cass Corridor in the late ’40s. Located at the corner of Willis and Third streets, the venue’s regular acts included The Manny Lopez Trio, The Artie Nelson Trio, and vocalists Marie DeCarlo and Bill Wise. Burlesque dancers also performed nightly, and both food and drinks were offered on the menu.

1978: After nearly 30 years in business, Detroit Police Chief William Hart, Prosecutor William Cahalan, and Judge Charles Farmer shut down the venue in the late ’70s due to issues with prostitution.

1980s: The owners of Blossoms, a metro Detroit-based floral shop, bought the space in the ’80s. To this day, they remain the owners.

2015: Although based in Los Angeles, Sean Patrick and his business partners began visiting the city of Detroit regularly in 2014. They first looked into the Willis Show Bar space in 2015.

2016: Patrick and his partners closed the deal on the performance venue, and began renting from the owners of Blossoms.

2018: After nearly a year-and-a-half of renovations, the updated Willis Show Bar, managed by Patrick, opened in April of this year.