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Coffeehouse Retrospective

December 11, 2015

written by Brian Shesko

I feel confident speaking for the staff members of Student Activities when I say that it is a great honor to be responsible for two of the best and longest-running traditions here at Liberty: Block Party and Coffeehouse. However, as fun and exciting as Block Party is, there is nothing quite like Coffeehouse for us. The collective effort that goes into each production seems to grow each time as we push just a little harder to improve on the previous show.

But those three words, “the previous show”, represent a history of Coffeehouse that stretches back into the early 1990’s, a continuous chain of productions that, from the very first event, started with the same hands-on, student-led approach that still makes the show what it is today. So if you’ve ever wondered what started it, here’s a short history of how Coffeehouse came to be.

“We had about $100 for those early shows…We had to be extremely creative with our finances.”

Brian Lewis eventually became an Assistant Director in charge of Student Activities, but when he first arrived at Liberty in 1993, he was basically a volunteer, helping out in the planning of Student Activities events. As the university grew, the demand for more events grew with it, and at the time, some of that burden fell on Student Government. Bryan had close connection with then-SGA President Matt McMurray, and together, along with a small group of students, decided it was time for a student talent show, which they decided to call Coffee House. “I honestly don’t remember why exactly we called it Coffee House,” said Bryan, noting that it may have had something to do with the popularity at the time of The Drowsy Poet, the now-vacant coffee shop in the Candler’s Shopping Center. The first shows that fall were in the multi-purpose room of David’s Place, the old student center that now lies somewhere under the baseball stadium. The first show budget: $0. Ticket price: $2. There were about 150 people in the building, a packed house for the size of that particular room, which Bryan says made them realize “we should have done the show twice (each night).” They also realized that there was going to be a “next show”, which made it clear that they were going to need a bigger space, prompting a move the following spring (1994) to the Reber-Thomas Dining Hall.

For the content of the show, there was a panel of several people, including Bryan, who sat in on all auditions for the performances. “We never hurt for talent,” Bryan said, seeing somewhere close to 40 tryouts, even at the David’s Place event. They utilized what is now CSER workers to help put on the show, as well as the few available staff members of Student Activities. “It was a full-fledged, volunteer basis, student-led, no money, good-luck project.” Well, there was some money, but it only came from ticket sales from the previous show. Bryan said, “…When it was time for the next Coffeehouse, we would get a couple hundred dollars for the next show. We had to be extremely creative with our finances.”

The Dining Hall Coffee House sold out too, with attendance somewhere around 800 for a couple shows (Ticket price: still $2). By the 95-96 school year, that good-luck project became 3 shows per semester, 2 performances of each show each night, in the old Schilling Center (the remnants of which are somewhere under the Library) with a total attendance reaching into the thousands. This was significant since the total population of the school was not much over 5,000. The show got a host, Steve Kyle, and various themes, including Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Country Music, the 1970’s, 1980’s, and an All-Star Coffeehouse which brought back the best and most popular talent from the shows throughout the year. Mike Stewart, Dean of Student Life at the time, said, “It was never intended to be something that happened 3 or 4 times a semester, but it got to be the biggest thing, besides concerts, that we did all year long.”

“Every show, I felt like I would throw up before it started.”

The Coffeehouse host has always been an unenviable position. Student expectations on the host have always been somewhere between Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman, a funnyman facilitator who also is never allowed to make a mistake. Matt Gallagher, host from 1997-99, said, “Every show, I felt like I would throw up before it started.” And who wouldn’t? Stepping out on stage, staring at thousands of your peers, a significant number of which were ready to pounce on any mistake or not-so-good joke, should make anyone nervous. No, Coffeehouse has never had the perfect host. It did, however, have a string of outstanding students who moved the show along, told some good jokes (and perhaps a few not-so-good jokes), and contributed to the overall excellence of a show with a now 23 year history. “A lot of credit goes to Steve (Kyle) for making the show more successful,” said Bryan Lewis. “Steve always hosted the Liberty Olympics and Block Party, so he was a natural fit to take on Coffeehouse hosting duties.” Mike Stewart said that they “had to script everything, and I had to approve everything…(The hosts) would always deviate from the script.” But, both Mike and Bryan said that in those early years, they never had a major controversy. (At least not with the host – Mike said, “We had people line dancing on stage [during Country Coffee House], which, looking back, was probably pretty controversial at the time.”) But, Mike added that the effort to improve the show was always something the host had a hand in as far as content was concerned: “It was always a challenge – we always asked ‘How can we top that [last] one?”

Two hosts carried Coffeehouse smoothly through the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: Matt Gallagher and Nic Carver. For most students attending Liberty between 1997 and 2003, the Coffeehouse they saw almost certainly featured one of those two. For Matt, hosting duties were assumed reluctantly, and initially with only a 33% chance of getting it at all. In the fall of 1997, Matt was one of three people who were given a chance during an actual Coffeehouse to audition as host. The three were then put to audience vote to officially become the next host. He went third out of the three. “I told some corny jokes, corny but clean,” he said, and after the audience voted, was selected as host. “If I had gone first, I probably would have primed the pump for one of those other guys,” he told us. But he didn’t, and he went on to host Coffeehouse for the next three school years. David “Moose” Pierce, who worked with Student Life at the time (1997-99) and contributed to the show alongside Matt said, “I cannot brag enough about Matt. I had a ton of fun writing with him because he was so willing to collaborate and work with everyone’s ideas.”

Nic Carver had a somewhat easier path to Coffeehouse host, as he was already hosting well-attended karaoke nights in David’s Place in the 2000-01 school year, and so was an easy choice to bump up to the bigger show. As for his role, Nic said he “tried to stay off the stage as much as possible” because too much stage time could easily become tedious. “The host is basically the ambassador for the audience. I wanted to do everything I could to keep myself on the audience’s side during the show.” However, Nic was (and still is) an accomplished musician, and so he was able to bring his musical talent to Coffeehouse at times, including opening a show with a song of his own that led into all of the acts on stage singing “We Are the World.” Both Matt and Nic talked about the increased prevalence and quality of technology by the late 1990’s/early 2000’s as doing the most to affect the show; by then, it was much easier to shoot and edit videos, so video content became a more prominent, and we would now say essential, part of Coffeehouse. Both of them had a significant role in transitioning Coffeehouse into the show as it appears today.

“After the show, I always realized it was worth it.”

Cosmetically, Coffeehouse has changed quite a bit from the first show in 1993. We’re in the Vines Center now, with a significantly bigger budget, allowing bigger sound, bigger lights, and more decorations. The crowds are bigger too, with over 7,900 students in attendance last Christmas alone, greater than the entire school population in the early to mid-90’s. But even with more money and bigger space, Coffeehouse is still that same student-led, all-hands-on-deck show that started 23 years ago. Bryan Lewis’ quote ties the first show to the last show: “We never hurt for talent.” Easily the most repeated statement we hear at every Coffeehouse, whether it’s by word of mouth or on Twitter, is essentially, “This student body is so incredibly talented!” The volunteers and Christian Service workers, the Student Activities staff members, the full-time leadership, the hosts, and every single act and performer, all of them have contributed from the very beginning to make this a lasting tradition that is truly by the students, for the students. And no matter the challenges Student Activities has faced, regardless of the reception of the show afterward, and despite all the long hours and sore feet, we have always been proud to be part of such an amazing tradition. The day after the show, we can always say proudly, “It was worth it."