Connect with us

People

The Interview: Michelle Hill

It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole. An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for [...]
J.R. McMillan

Published

on

It admittedly felt awkward interviewing Michelle Hill anywhere other than St. James Tavern, the venerated neighborhood haunt that proudly defies the rules and the odds of operating any credible, working-class watering hole.

An afternoon conversation over coffee almost felt like we were both somehow cheating on the St. James. Even if 2PM is mid-morning for the typical bartender, Hill is anything but average. She wasn’t born into the family trade, nor did she set out to up-end convention or drag a doomed bar back from the brink. She actually stumbled into a business from which most patrons stumble out.

The former debate team champion had considered a career as an attorney. But when her father bought the failing Lee’s “Ten-O-Two” lounge more than two decades ago from a retired postman, it was the young Hill who soon took over daily operations on one condition — she was going to run it her way, without exceptions or apologies.

She spent her final two years at Ohio State cramming for classes and pouring pints most of her college cohorts were barely old enough to order. Sometimes sleep just didn’t fit into the schedule. It was a punishing pace and an entirely different “bar exam” than she had anticipated.

Upon graduation, Hill cashed in her sweat equity by promoting herself from bartender to owner, buying the place from her father whose original plans for a hillbilly bar never panned out — back when Italian Village was better known for boarded-up homes than budding hipsters. Hell, even stretches of the Short North were still pretty sketchy.

“There was nothing around us, just empty buildings,” recalled Hill, a Columbus native who moved to the Short North as teenager after stints in Clintonville and Gahanna. “The first time I went into a bar was with my dad at 17. We lived right behind Short North Tavern.”

Bars then are almost unrecognizable from what they have sadly become today, with strangers slipping in and out in silence after hours of staring at their phones to avoid any inadvertent eye contact. Pop swill and blaring bass fill sterile spaces with streaming music. The only influences forging the thinnest human connection are arbitrarily important sporting events spurring the most banal verbal exchanges possible. From first downs to last calls, the neighborhood bar is almost an anachronism.

What makes St. James Tavern tick isn’t what it has, but what it doesn’t. There’s no pretentious patio banter, no sports bar shtick, no endless news cycle, no free wifi. If that’s what you want, go be anonymous somewhere else. A neighborhood bar knows you by name.

Michelle Hill has the fearless approach of Sam Malone, the finishing of Diane Chambers, and the old soul of Coach all rolled together. (And with her degree in psychology, you might even get a little Frasier Crane if you’re lucky.)

“There are so few places left for conversation. People have to scream over each other. Even a lot of restaurants are like that now. Some people are uncomfortable unless there’s enough noise to keep them from talking to one another.”

The bar used to have two televisions years ago, but when one fizzled out, Hill was in no hurry to replace it. People mostly stared slack-jawed at them anyway. She recalled catching someone watching a Shake-Weight infomercial once, which only left Hill shaking her head.

“I had a bartender who used to turn up the volume on the TVs during football games and pretend she couldn’t hear me. You don’t realize how invasive they are until they’re gone. Two months later, my bartender called to tell me the other one stopped working too. I remember it because it was Halloween night, “I told him, ‘Let’s do an experiment, we’ll go to the end of the year without any television and see if anyone misses it.”

Few did, Hill didn’t, and there hasn’t been a television set at St. James since. The warm, orange hues of the tavern’s knotty pine paneling are also unmistakable, perhaps to me in particular. They’re the same wooden walls my grandfather used to line the den he’d turned into a makeshift music room, likely about the time frame one of the bar’s many predecessors did as well. I remember as a kid playing my first vinyl records on his old turntable and how the whole room seemed to resonate like one giant wooden instrument. That’s what discerning musicians and astute listeners may love most about St. James. The whole place hums, and having the most meticulously curated jukebox in Columbus only amplifies it.

“When it’s all concrete and glass—that industrial chic look … maybe it works for your bar, but not for mine. It’s all empty echoes; there’s a warmth that’s lacking. I prefer the pine.”

Televisions aren’t the only amenity Hill has subtly sabotaged. The jukebox is the one hint that the bar has changed at all in the century or so that the building has been there. It’s a digital jukebox, but barely—old enough that the company that supplied it doesn’t technically service them anymore. They even have a backup hard drive just for the St. James, recognizing that to replace it entirely with anything more modern would be impossible, if not blasphemy. From the Pixies to the Replacements, she curates the soundtrack of St. James Tavern as deliberately as the taps.

“I picked every artist, every album, and every song on that jukebox. It’s part of the personality of the bar. I’ve disabled the feature that lets you search and select songs online. No one is playing Britney Spears in my bar. Tom Waits will be there forever.”

But it’s those taps that are the tavern’s claim to fame in Columbus. St. James is the oldest craft beer bar in the city, undisputedly so. (College kids were still drinking Zima when Hill took the helm.) It’s still a service industry bar that now draws in artists, musicians, and creatives who have moved into the once abandoned area as well. But the beer selection is as exclusive as it is eclectic—and not in some poser, beer snob sort of way either.

“We don’t have the most handles. Some places have 40 or more, but 13 is enough for us,” Hill explained. “People get overwhelmed. There are even studies that show too many options make people less satisfied with their decisions. But if you give people ‘chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry,’ they’re confident in their choice. We have something for everyone.”

Taverns have historically been hotbeds for political action. The American Revolution was practically organized in one. St. James is no exception. It’s as much a part of the bar’s personality as the pine walls and Hill herself. Where some business owners shy away and stay on the sidelines, Hill embraces causes close to her heart and those of her clientele. From serious to snarky, the bar has become a platform for social change. (In fact, if you’re still looking for a new calendar of not-quite-nude dudes, proceeds from the annual “Men of St. James” help Women Have Options ensure abortion access.) After a career setting trends and ignoring others, St. James Tavern nearly met an untimely end this past August.

“I closed the bar up the night before, got home around 3:30, and fell asleep around 4 like always. We were supposed to have a Rhinegeist tap takeover scheduled that day as a benefit for CHOICES, to assist victims of domestic violence. We’d been planning it for months. I got up at around 10:30 to do one last blast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I wasn’t even really awake yet when my phone started blowing up with texts, ‘YOUR BAR IS ON FIRE.’”

Hill raced to St. James in time to see thick smoke pouring into the sultry summer sun. Once firefighters gave her the okay to go in and survey the damage, she wasn’t sure what she’d find.

“It was the most frightened and relieved I’ve ever felt, all within a few seconds. It looked awful, but the fire was contained to just that one storeroom. Every painting from a local artist was untouched. That’s when I started to cry.

That local love would soon be repaid. By luck alone, a couple leaving Fox in the Snow had walked into Mission Coffee that morning and asked if they were roasting because there was smoke coming up from between the buildings in the strip they share with the tavern. Fire trucks were there within minutes. If it had been 4 or 5 in the morning, firefighters said, the whole building would have been gone. Hill spent the whole day grabbing whatever she could from the fire, with coffee and water provided by her pals at Seventh Son next door. Collin Castore, one of the brewery’s owners, pulled her aside to make sure she was okay, and told her that all the local brewers were already lined up to throw a benefit for her and the St. James. It was an unexpected gesture that Hill, always on the other side of such events, was reluctant to receive. While the insurance would cover the fire, Castore persisted—”so let’s do it for your employees”—and by the following day, nearly two dozen breweries were eager to ensure the entire St. James staff would also be covered until the bar reopened. A little more than a week later, on the same afternoon as the solar eclipse, brewers who are fierce competitors on any other day came together to make sure St. James Tavern didn’t go dark as well. Craft brewers know when someone picks up a six-pack in Columbus, there’s a good chance they had it first at the St. James, and they have Michelle Hill to thank for it. So they did.

“It was emotionally exhausting because the place is a huge part of who I am. We were closed for seven weeks, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. A bar can be rebuilt, but it’s the brewers and our customers who made sure we would recover.”

Continue Reading

People

Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

Published

on

Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

Continue Reading

People

Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

Published

on

HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

Continue Reading

People

I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

Published

on

Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

Continue Reading

No mo’ FOMO

Missing out sucks. That's why our daily email is so important. You'll be up-to-date on the latest happenings and things to do in Cbus + be the first to snag our daily giveaways

Shop Now!

The Magazines

X