Doug Schutte, like most guys, had always given thought to opening a themed bar or restaurant with his buddies one day. The evidence is in his journals.
“I have tons and tons of pads of paper,” says Schutte, who founded The Bard’s Town, a restaurant-meets-pub-meets-theater in the Highlands, three years ago. “I wouldn’t call it writing; it’s just ideas. It’s a window into my mind, which is why nobody else should ever see it.”
He chuckles after making this statement, but his point is made — not all ideas are necessarily good ones. In these journals, he jotted down quite a few concepts for the bar or restaurant he mused he might one day open, possibly with his friend Scot Atkinson, who is a co-conspirator in The Bard’s Town.
“Doug has always talked about doing some sort of themed restaurant over the years,” Atkinson says. He specifically remembers a pirate-themed bar called Scallywag’s that Schutte dreamed up.
Yeah, that’s a concept probably best left alone.
But somewhere along the way, Schutte had the idea for a lunch spot called the Shakespeare Café, “with silly things like the Hamlet sandwich,” Schutte says.
When he began to seriously ponder opening his own place following nine years of teaching and coaching football, as well as a stint with a theater company in London, he came across these scribblings, and the proverbial light went on.
Three years into the American version of “pub theater,” and all is well. Highlands dwellers can enjoy live theater, live music and comedy — or a combination thereof — just about every weekend. You may catch rising comedian Rory Scovel one weekend, and the next enjoy a production of Finnigan’s Festival of Funky Fresh Fun. And the next? Possibly an appearance by Louisville band Cabin or Nashville’s Kristen Cothron. And the following weekend, you might even get to attend a comedy roast of Jesus Christ.
Schutte is one of those guys you can look in the eye and just tell his brain never stops. Those mounds of journals didn’t happen by accident. This is a guy whose endless energy and passion has helped him not simply follow a life’s path but, rather, blaze a trail.
When he was a teenager, Schutte faced serious health issues that ultimately prevented him from enjoying one of his first loves, which was playing football. Neck tumors and lymph node problems interrupted his youth.
“I remember the doctor said, ‘Sorry, you can never do that again,’” Schutte says. “That changed everything for me.”
But Schutte had another love: theater. And his creative mind was not shackled by the health-related boundaries placed upon his body by his illnesses.
“It just so happened that friends of mine in school, especially starting college, were involved in theater,” Schutte says. “After my first surgery, I had gotten really introverted and got really depressed. I turned to writing. It was sort of a coping mechanism — I was just writing about things. That’s how writing became something like, I have to write.”
He laughs, then adds, “Otherwise the demons get the better of me.”
During tryouts for a spring musical, he met Atkinson, and they quickly became friends, both ending up at Bellarmine University after graduating from St. Xavier High School, and conspiring to take their creativity to unpredictable places.
“We kind of took over the Bellarmine theater department,” Atkinson says. “Eighteen-year-olds have no reason to do ‘Glengarry Glenn Ross’ or adapt ‘Reservoir Dogs’ to the stage.”
Schutte also began to thrive as a playwright and director. After earning his master’s degree in literature from the University of Louisville, he would go on to teach at U of L for several years. In 2001, he accepted a job teaching art history, theater and English at St. X. That same year, football came back into his life as he also took on the role of assistant coach at his alma mater.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ and it turned into nine years. It was perfect, because I got the closure there, but was still able to do theater.”
He continued writing and would later serve as executive director of the Kentucky Theatre Association for four years, receiving the City of Louisville’s “Ambassador Award” for his work. But it was in 2006 when he served his fellowship at Shakespeare’s Globe in London that the true seeds of The Bard’s Town were born.
Interestingly, he had gotten away from theater somewhat due to the time demands of teaching and football. But when he got to London, he made a discovery that led him back to his love for theater.
“That’s where it all started,” he explains. “It had me so excited about theater again — it had me totally re-energized. That was the first time I ever came across an English pub theater. I think that’s where things started to click.”
A pub theater is exactly what its name implies — often incorporating a standard pub on the first floor, and a small theater on the second. Schutte’s plan was to stay in London, but his visa expired, so he came back to Louisville with the thought of opening his own pub theater. One day, he jogged past an empty building at 1801 Bardstown Road, a site that previously housed Judge Roy Bean’s, Big Dave’s Oasis and other bar and restaurant concepts.
“I lived a couple blocks from here,” he says while sitting at the bar at The Bard’s Town, “and I ran past here and noticed this place. I noticed it was closed. It reminded me so much of the pub theaters. When I first looked at this place there were challenges, and there still are. But there was possibility.”
He actually looked at a number of places, including the Barret Bar, which had closed at the time. In fact, it was a long, tedious process, and at times it seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. But Schutte wasn’t about to let the dream die.
“We’ve been doing this thing for years,” says Atkinson, “where we’ll sit around and come up with ideas and Doug will make it happen, whether it’s a public access TV show in college, or making a full-length movie during graduate school, or The Bard’s Town. We talked about it, and all of the sudden, Doug calls me one day and says, ‘We’re doing it.’”
“That’s how all bad stories start,” Schutte adds with a grin.
Atkinson had been working with his father restoring houses, working just a few hours a day and taking naps in the early evening. Before he knew it, he was working 14-hour days, six days a week, doing everything from kitchen prep to sweeping floors to acting as a do-it-all handyman. And there were very few naps.
Another longtime friend, John DeSalvo, had been managing a Beef O’Brady’s restaurant in Southern Indiana and was looking for a new opportunity. Schutte mentioned The Bard’s Town concept to him, and another partner was on board.
“I’ve seen more theater shows since owning this place than I ever have,” DeSalvo deadpans.
Theater companies from Walden Theatre to Pandora Productions to Le Petomane to University of Louisville Theatre have staged productions at The Bard’s Town. Several of Schutte’s original works have been put on at The Bard, as well, including “Chasing Ophelia,” which he began writing while in London; the play was the 2011 winner of the LEO Readers’ Choice Award for Best Theatrical Production. Four other Schutte originals also have been staged there, including a pair of Ten-Tucky Festival Winners.
As it turns out, The Bard’s Town isn’t simply a vehicle for its proprietor’s theater career: Schutte does a lot of the cooking, and sometimes he bartends. Before opening, he helped Atkinson totally remodel the place. He also helped design the menu, and carefully built a business plan, working with Community Ventures Corporation and the Small Business Development Center.
“When I envisioned this thing,” he says, “I envisioned sort of a godfather presence, and I could be an overseer; that was delusional. Most weeks I cook five nights a week. I definitely am a full-time cook here, and that was not part of the plan.”
The thing is, along with football, writing, theater, journaling and coming up with outlandish concepts, Schutte also likes to cook. And he’s pretty damn good at it, if The Bard’s Town menu is any indication.
In addition, he’s a champion for the local theater, music and comedy scene.
Brian Walker, who produces the Finnigan’s Festival, which was staged at The Bard’s Town this year for the first time, says, “Doug goes out of his way to make sure we’re comfortable and have what we need and is very hands-on in all aspects of the business. The man works his ass off and still somehow finds time to write his own plays, which is just incredible to me.”
Local actor Briana Clemerson, who acted in the Finnigan’s Festival this year, cites Schutte’s generosity to the theater community, particularly those he hosts.
“When we did the Finnegan Festival there a few months back,” she says, “on closing night, he had even left us a handwritten card and bucket with little bottles of champagne, thanking the cast and crew for working with The Bard’s Town and congratulating us on a great run. I mean, what a great guy. Who does that?”
The Debauchees is a local band comprised of teenagers — a fact that can sometimes be a bit of an obstacle when it comes to booking gigs in bars, since the band’s fan base usually can’t come out to support the show. But the Debauchees found a home at The Bard’s Town, playing the downstairs room, which typically hosts comedy acts, at least 10 times.
“Doug is a great fella,” says Debauchees bass player Ashley Bowen. “He was very accommodating, and you could tell he liked what he was doing. He remembered us every time we walked in there, even if we were just going in to hang a flyer or eat some food or go to another show. He’s a genuine dude, and that’s how restaurant and venue owners should be.”
It doesn’t stop there, however. The upstairs theater, a cozy room with a small bar, features a stage that is always changing. And a large part of handyman Atkinson’s role at The Bard’s Town is to custom build sets for theater productions.
“Really, what my job is,” Atkinson says, “is to make Doug’s life easier.”
DeSalvo, meanwhile, has begun smoking meats, an addition to the menu that is relatively recent. But like Atkinson and Schutte, he does whatever is required. On a recent Saturday, he noted that he arrived at 9:30 a.m. to start smoking, knowing he probably wouldn’t get home until midnight or later.
Not that he’s complaining.
“I think the best thing about this is being able to come up with ideas and try out different things,” DeSalvo says. “We sit in the kitchen and talk about things we want to try… One day we can have an idea, and the next day we can put it on a plate and serve it, and get a response.”
That’s how the idea for house-smoked meats came about. It was almost as simple as “let’s do it,” and that was that. The thing is, DeSalvo had never tried to smoke meat before — none of them had.
“Looking at a smoker, I didn’t even know where you put the wood,” he says. “I got on the Internet for two weeks, read everything I could, bought a smoker, and now I’m getting a lot of compliments on the pork we’re serving.”
Seems there’s not much that can’t get done with Schutte in the driver’s seat. Yet, interestingly, he remains humble, or, as he puts it, “self-effacing.”
“I always say I’m self-effacing because I should be,” he says, followed by a chuckle.
“Obviously, I drive the bus,” he says, again laughing, “but … you think about all the people that make it go. I try to remember that. The first three years, there are some slim times. It feels very lonely when you realize there’s not anybody else staying up at night getting ulcers, thinking about paying bills. But people really invested in this, they care about it. When people care, it makes a difference.”
Schutte basically spent his life savings making The Bard’s Town happen, to fulfill a dream. So far, he considers it a pretty good investment. While staring ahead across the bar, at nothing in particular, he describes the night nearly five years ago when he finally decided to, in the words of Nike, just do it.
“I’m sitting, talking to myself, as I’m apt to do. I’m pretty sure I was talking out loud. I said, ‘Look, here’s this money; it’s a lot of money. If you do this and you lose this money, is that going to haunt you for the rest of your life?’”
“I thought about it, and I thought, ‘Yes, if this fails, I’m going to be upset.’ I take everything personally. But I would not have said, ‘Man, (losing) that money — that’s what kills me.’ Once I knew that, I thought, ‘I might as well go for it and see what happens.’”
Three years after The Bard’s Town opened its doors, London-style pub theater is still happening in Louisville. And don’t be surprised if a pirate-themed bar opens up in the Highlands in the next five years.