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ONCE applies to rent former OBERON space in Harvard Square

The ONCE Lounge and Ballroom on Highland Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The ONCE Lounge and Ballroom on Highland Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 1 year old.

After the COVID-19 pandemic caused the closing of ONCE Lounge and Ballroom, the beloved Somerville music club on Highland Avenue, proprietrix JJ Gonson vowed she’d get back in the club game.

She may be one step closer to that goal. On Thursday, Jan. 27, Gonson said Harvard University accepted her application to rent the space formerly occupied by the American Repertory Theater’s OBERON. Harvard decided last fall to not pick up the lease for 2022, as it shifted emphasis toward Allston.

The possibility of renting the space at 2 Arrow St. in Harvard Square came to Gonson a couple of weeks back and was like a lightbulb turning on over her head. “I thought that would be amazing, kind of like we can rescue two venues at one time,” she said, by phone on Thursday. “ONCE and OBERON were supporting a very similar kind of creativity and both of them closing leaves a big hole. So, being able to save what people love in two ways is better than we can hope for.”

Right now, hope is what it is. “I wrote a business plan, a basic outline of what we wanna do,” she said, “and here’s what the figures look like.”

Gonson said she knows there are other applicants for the space, but does not know who they are. “I’m trying to be a realist,” she said, “but I think we’re the right candidate and I think from an artistic and social point of view we’d be enormously supportive of the arts scene and I hope Harvard chooses to keep it in the performing arts.”

The 300-person capacity OBERON hosted a variety of performances, many of them interactive and tilted toward the edgier side of things: Musicals, burlesque, concerts, dance parties, drag shows, stagings of The Moth readings. For some time, its signature event was “The Donkey Show,” a weekend disco reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

ONCE, which stopped having in-person shows in March 2020 and was permanently closed that November, was primarily a music club. If Gonson rented the space — possibly called ONCE AGAIN — music would be the primary focus. But, Gonson added, “I have a dream of also obtaining some of the OBERON programming, particularly burlesque.”

The two venues are not dissimilar in size, but there would be marked differences: ONCE had a musty old green carpet in the ballroom — Gonson vows there’d be no carpet at Arrow Street — with 14-foot ceilings and a low stage. OBERON had 20-foot ceilings and, certainly, a more upscale vibe.

“When ONCE closed, I didn’t think I needed to find another old wedding hall,” Gonson said with a laugh. (That was one of the ancient spot’s prior incarnations.) “I can’t remake that space somewhere else and would never try. Whatever space I find myself in, I try to make it work — the DIY ethic. There are things I have in storage I will try to bring back but wherever we go is going to be really different.

The new club would have a booker, but would be, as ONCE was, welcoming of outside promoters, including Boston’s two big guns, Live Nation and Bowery Presents.

This past summer, from July through September, Gonson kept the ONCE brand alive by partnering with Boynton Yards in Somerville to present 26 outdoor parking lot concerts. No matter what Harvard decides, the Boynton Yards gigs will continue. “I love that relationship,” Gonson said, “but I need a spot that’s not a parking lot — though I’m very fond of my lot. I need a peg to hang my hat on.”


Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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