At a recent sold-out concert at the new Ardmore Music Hall, we caught up with Joe Rufo next to a table of Girl Scout cookies he was selling for his daughter’s troop. In addition to being the owner and operations manager of Ardmore’s newest hot spot, Joe is a father of five, coach of his son’s Little League team, and a First Ward Commissioner in Marple Township. He has also served on the Marple Newtown School Board. He grew up in Havertown and lives in nearby Broomall.
Joe is easygoing, unassuming and focused on family—attributes that also apply to Ardmore. As a student at Villanova, Joe was a frequent patron of what was then the 23 East in Ardmore. He owned Brownie’s Pub in Havertown, and when the 23 East property became available, he bought it, along with a liquor license. It became Brownie’s 23 East in 1996.
Ever since then, Joe has been an important member of the Ardmore family. Brownie’s quickly became one of the area’s hottest college bars, while continuing to offer an impressive live music lineup. As Joe has gotten older, however, so have his customers. “They’re not 21-plus any longer, but 30-plus and older,” says Joe, who is now 47. “Some nights, I feel like I’m on the younger side of the audience.”
That in mind, Joe reinvented the space in 2013 as a serious live music venue. “There was nothing like it in the area”, he says.
Joe teamed up with Point Entertainment’s Rich Kardon and Bonfire Booking’s Brian Dilworth, and Brownies 23 East became the Ardmore Music Hall. In addition to the booking expertise of all three partners, new staging, lighting, sound and furniture are among the updates that broaden the venue’s appeal to audiences of all ages.
“It seems like just a few years ago, this was all just a vision”, says Christine Vilardo, Executive Director of the Ardmore Initiative. “We’ve been exploring the idea of a performing arts center in Ardmore for the last few years, and we knew that Ardmore could be a true destination on the Main Line for those wanting to have a ‘downtown’ experience without traveling to Center City. Businesses like Ardmore Music Hall, along with Melodies Cafe, First Position Dance Arts and Calliope Music, are making it a reality.
Adds Joe: “And besides, parking in the city can be expensive, while parking in Ardmore is free in the evenings.”
In another example of local businesses working together, Joe brought in Budo Bunul of Firinji to handle the kitchen. Opened in Ardmore in December 2010 during the height of winter and the recession, Firinji has quickly become a beloved dining spot for the quality, freshness and variety of its food and the warm greetings from Budo and his wife, Efren.
At the Ardmore Music Hall, Firinji serves small plates, wraps and its popular “kumpir.” The addition of reserved table seating and a great lineup of musical acts makes for a perfect night out for adults of all ages.
But it isn’t just about great music and great food. Joe has offered the space for a variety of fundraisers, and made the venue available for networking events and annual meetings of the Ardmore Business Association, the Ardmore Initiative and Creative Montco.
“Having events like these in this space is a win-win for everyone,” says Mike Coughlan, Chair of the Ardmore Initiative. “Visitors get to learn about a great new venue, as well as see a little of our downtown.”
We asked Joe about how he’s seen Ardmore change. “It’s definitely changed for the better,” he says. “It used to be so dark at night. The nighttime downtown scene is so much more vibrant now than it was in 1996.”
Warm and welcoming during the day, Ardmore comes alive at night with a vibrant live-music scene and endless dining options. The AMH is the pinnacle of a growing arts-and-music vibe that’s been running through Ardmore for some years now. Back in 2006, Sherry Tillman, owner of Past *Present *Future, organized business and community leaders to form First Friday Main Line. FFML showcases the wealth of art and music talent right in our own backyards.
With MilkBoy Recording luring major acts like Dave Matthews and Usher to record at its studio, and hosting names like Melody Gardot and Don Dixon, Ardmore was becoming secretly and quietly cool. Since then, MilkBoy has moved to Philadelphia and its Lancaster Avenue spot has been taken over by Melodies Cafe. Also a musician, new owner Mark Roy is continuing the traditions MilkBoy had in place. Previously located on a side street, his First Position Dance Arts is now in a beautiful light-filled studio on Lancaster. On any given evening, passers-by might see a class in progress or an informal showcase by some of the area’s hottest hip-hop dancers. “Ardmore doesn’t have just cool things to buy,” says a recent visitor. “There are also so many cool things to do.”
The DIY movement that’s ultra-trendy right now has always been the backbone of our downtown business district. It also describes Ardmore’s organic transformation. Make your own pottery at The Mud Room; learn to knit at Stash Knits; make a masterpiece at The Paint Spot … Ardmore is truly a DIY community!
And if you need a break from all the music, painting, dancing, eating at great restaurants, and meeting friends for a beer at one of Ardmore’s many pubs (coming soon: Iron Hill Brewery), there’s always takeout and a movie. Ardmore’s got that covered, as well.