Despite what some may have heard, the club tucked away on Olive Street in downtown Springfield is not a total drag.
Some nights it’s a rave. An open mic. Karaoke. A play.
It’s true that the stage at Martha’s Vineyard – at 39 years old, it’s rumored to be the oldest LGBTQ+ club in Missouri – hosts performances by nationally prominent drag performers. But other nights, local artists take the stage with a guitar or poem in hand.
Everyone has a chance to step into the spotlight at Martha’s, because Weston Donham, owner since Jan. 1, has a simple philosophy.
“Martha’s was founded in 1994 as a safe place for everyone, and it will always continue to be that,” Donham says.
The club is safe on the abstract level, as a place where it’s OK to express oneself, but it’s also safe in a very practical sense. Donham points to a metal detector at the door. There are more than 30 cameras that are monitored during business hours, and a security staff that is trained in de-escalation.
“We don’t want you to leave the bar, but if there’s an issue, we’ll handle it the best we can,” Donham says. “Thankfully, we don’t really have a whole lot of major issues.”
The relaxed atmosphere Donham strives for requires a sense of security, he says, noting 70% of the clientele identifies as women, and a lot of them are college aged.
Martha’s Vineyard is named after the island off the coast of Massachusetts, but it is also named after the mother of its founder, Rodney Tucker, Donham says. Martha loved lighthouses, and Donham is bringing back subtle nods to the nautical theme in some of the branding and decor.
The club is organized as Martha’s Vineyard LLC, which is owned by Donham Enterprises LLC. The new owner as of this year, Donham remains employed as a software engineer at Jack Henry & Associates Inc. (Nasdaq: JKHY), and he is bringing some of his technical innovation to the club through his own wristband design to prevent underage drinking.
He declined to disclose 2022 revenue.
Changes in the air
Martha’s Vineyard recently opened the Galley Grill, a full-service kitchen inside the nightclub. The menu has familiar tavern appetizers, like mozzarella sticks and nachos, but some unusual offerings, too, like fried okra. There are four choices of entrees – hamburgers, chicken strips, fried chicken sandwiches or mini corn dogs – but Donham says they’re made with care.
“If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right,” he says. “All of our chicken is hand-breaded and not frozen, so it’s bar food, but at the same time, it’s good.”
The grill offers an option for daytime use of the nightclub space, which would otherwise be dormant. Coming soon is lunch delivery in the downtown area.
The club is also home to a theatrical company, High Tide Theatrical, that put on its first performance, “Sordid Lives,” in March. The company will mount “The Sweet Delilah Swim Club” Aug. 17-20 and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Nov. 9-12, and three shows are in the works for 2024.
Donham purchased the building that houses Martha’s Vineyard and the record store, Heavy Head Records, beside it. He says he waited until he could purchase the building before also buying the nightclub as an asset-only business. He declined to disclose purchase prices. Martha’s was previously owned by Allen Brown, who Donham says taught him a lot about the business.
The addition of an upstairs 21-and-over club is in the works, though downstairs will remain 18 and up. The section of the building that now houses a record store will become a multipurpose venue for theatrical productions, live bands and other uses.
Reginald Williams, aka Reggie So-Kold Markstone-Carrington, is a drag performer who also coordinates the calendar of events for the club.
Williams says Martha’s is a big draw of tourists to Springfield – bigger than some may realize.
Sasha Colby, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 15, is scheduled to appear at the club in August, and as of June 5, only 31 tickets remained out of 426 available.
Williams says a family of 10 is coming from South Carolina, with six best friends heading here from Florida and other parties coming from Fayetteville and Little Rock, Arkansas. Over 30 people each are coming from Kansas City and St. Louis.
“It’s amazing just to have one performer come in and bring such a spotlight to your club,” Williams says.
Donham, who is gay, says when he took over, he started hearing rumors that the club was changing and would no longer be an LGBTQ+ nightclub.
“The rumor was that straight people bought Martha’s,” he says. “That’s not the case at all.”
Two pride flags hang just inside the front door as a response to new state legislation that bans gender-affirming health care and transgender girls and women from participating in female sports teams. That’s as political as Donham gets.
“We stand with LGBTQIA+, no matter what,” he says. “That’s what Martha’s was founded on.”
Donham says Martha’s hasn’t added staff since he took over, and they haven’t let anyone go, either.
“I’ve got Jamie [Boren], one of our bartenders, and he’s been here 24 years,” he says. “That’s a crazy long time.”
Donham is working on setting up health care benefits for his staff.
“We do pay more than the minimum [wage], and they make good money on tips, but we’re exploring ways we can better help them. We’re trying to find ways – and we’re not there yet – to take care of them like family,” he says.
Donham says he sees Martha’s as part of the fabric of downtown, and the club has a membership in Downtown Springfield Association and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber will host its November Business After Hours event at Martha’s.
“We’re starting to do more community-focused events,” Donham says. “I’d kind of want to take the nightclub stigma and flip it upside down. Why can’t a nightclub do positive things in the community?”
Springfield Business Journal’s 2023 Trusted Advisers event honors 20 businesspeople.