This past winter, ONCE Somerville dreamer-in-chief JJ Gonson was able to salvage certain things from the Highland Avenue ballroom and lounge before she had to surrender the event space that she had presided over since 2014. The vintage bowling alley furniture and the PA system went into storage; the thick carpets that blanketed the floors were rolled up and stashed away until they could be put to use again.
But she couldn’t take everything. She couldn’t take the chandeliers hanging from the gold ceiling, or the mirrored walls, or the tiled entryway that welcomed audiences into the venue, or the wrought-iron staircase. She couldn’t take the memories, or the irreplaceable atmosphere that had helped create them.
“I just loved it,” Gonson said in a phone interview. “I loved the whole haunted high school prom vibe of it.”
On her last day in the space, she lay down on the carpet to say goodbye. “It killed me,” she said. “I was ready for a boiler breaking, a toilet leaking . . . or the neighbors not liking it when we dumped bottles and cans at 2 in the morning. I was not prepared for suddenly having our entire livelihood stripped from us.”
But if Gonson has learned anything in her decades as a rock photographer, locavore caterer, event planner, and mother, it’s how to hold on even when the tide threatens to wash her out to sea. Last week, she broke the news that ONCE would survive another day — Gonson is still searching for a permanent indoor venue to call home, but this summer, ONCE will be presenting a series of shows at an “outdoor club” created at Boynton Yards, the site of an ongoing development near Somerville’s Union Square that plans to include life science offices and labs, restaurants, residences, and public green spaces.
Boynton Yards’ support for local events like the Union Square Farmers Market convinced Gonson that it was a suitable partner as ONCE moves into its next phase. She’s also heartened by the team’s enthusiasm to participate, not just throw money. “One of the guys that I’ve been talking to the longest, who’s on the development team, has said to me ‘I’m going to sleep in my office so I can go to the shows,’” she said.
Boynton Yards’ first building at 101 South St. is slated to open this summer. The development recently acquired the adjacent building (home to the Taza Chocolate factory) as well as its parking lot across the street, where the ONCE outdoor venue will be set up.
“Part of what makes ONCE special is that they share our philosophy of bringing together people as a social community, and our project is doing the same,” said Boynton Yards public relations representative Pam Jonah in a phone interview.
After ONCE shut down its Highland Avenue space when the pandemic reached the United States — it went dark in March and closed for good in November — Gonson brought the show online with the ONCE Virtual Venue, which has continued to book events and will continue to host virtual performances on Wednesdays. But the revenue from those shows didn’t come close to what Gonson needed to keep the venue afloat, especially since she’s still waiting for emergency federal funds through the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. (To date, less than 1 percent of applicants through that program have received funding.)
But the wait for live music is over. ONCE is planning for more than 20 shows at Boynton Yards this summer, with seven on sale at press time. The eclectic multi-band bills and one-day festivals are full of names and causes that will be familiar to ONCE regulars. The summer begins with a long-delayed Halloween show benefiting Girls Rock Campaign Boston (July 11). Future weeks hold a party thrown by indie label Counter Intuitive Records (July 16), a one-day 12-band extravaganza “Nice, a fest” (July 24), and the theater-punk circus of Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys (July 31). Gonson is also applying for a beer and wine license for the venue.
Booker Alex Pickert, formerly of Crossroads Presents and Coach & Sons, is focusing on local music as the “lifeblood” of ONCE for this summer’s shows. “I’m excited to see who’s around . . . who wants to play out, and who’s just excited as we are that live music’s coming back,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re definitely trying to keep the ONCE vibe alive. It’s still the wacky, wild stuff that we had at the club, but now we only have two days a week for three months. But we do have a little bigger capacity.”
Not only is Gonson happy to be partnering with Boynton Yards as it makes its first foray into live events on its own property, she’s also beyond relieved to have a lifeline toward gathering the community in person again and bringing in ONCE’s first significant income since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’ve been able to bring back bartenders and security people,” said Gonson. “You’re gonna see a lot of familiar faces.”
For ticket information and updates on this summer’s shows, go to oncesomerville.com.