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May 27, 2024 Focus: Arts & Culture

New owners of The Webster theater make ‘six-figure’ investment to attract diverse performers, audiences — while also fixing the bathrooms

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The Webster music venue in Hartford, at 31 Webster St., has seen a significant increase in performances under the new ownership of Claude Elien and Julian Gellman, founders of New Jersey-based concert production company, Concert Crave.

The new owners of The Webster in Hartford have breathed new life into the aging concert venue, expanding its offerings from the rock genre to a diverse variety of reggae, hip-hop, Afrobeat, Latin — and, of course, rock.

The 32,000-square-foot venue at 31 Webster St. was previously known as The Webster Theater. The new owners, Claude Elie, 34, and Julian Gellman, 29, shortened the venue’s name, but its schedule is packed.

“Previously, there were probably like six events a month,” Elie said. “We’ve nearly tripled that.”

Elie and Gellman founded a New Jersey-based concert production company, Concert Crave, in 2017.

They acquired The Webster from longtime owner, John Peters, for $1.45 million in 2023. At the time, the property had fallen into disrepair and was being underutilized.

Music nostalgia

Since completing numerous renovations, their goal is to offer acts for all tastes. Recently, internationally known rapper, chef and TV show host Action Bronson performed at The Webster during his tour.

Reggae singer Maxi Priest, whose singles “Close to You” and “Wild World” topped charts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also appeared at the venue.

Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam had so much enthusiasm for Maxi Priest’s visit to Hartford that he issued a proclamation declaring May 10 “Maxi Priest Day.”

“Hartford has one of the best art scenes of any mid-sized city in America, and The Webster is a part of the fabric of that community,” Arulampalam said. “… The Webster has a rich history and deep roots in our community, and we look forward to seeing what the new ownership will bring.”

Elie and Gellman said they’re trying to attract a range of ages to their shows, including adults in their 30s and 40s with nostalgia for music from their childhoods. Many of the shows are open to all ages, and kids are welcome.

“It seems people in their 40s are looking to come out more,” Elie said. “So, a lot of the classics are doing really well. For example, (hip-hop artist) The Lox. He did a show that sold out weeks prior to the event. The artists people were listening to in their childhood are selling very well.”

Another big draw will be The Legendary Wailers — a successor to The Wailers Band, which played with Bob Marley — set to perform on Sunday, July 7. General admission is $30. VIP booths are available for $800 and suites are $1,500.

The new owners have also found synergies with downtown Hartford’s nightlife. When Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny performed at the XL Center on April 20, Elie and Gellman arranged for the “after-party” to be held at The Webster.

Over the last year, The Webster has had numerous sellout crowds, Elie and Gellman said. They declined to release ticket sales or revenue data, however.

Important upgrades

The pair said they have invested a “six-figure” sum in The Webster, addressing customer concerns, improving the quality of shows and elevating the guest experience.

“I would say that we’ve invested more in the past year than in the past 20 years of previous ownership,” Gellman said.

Perhaps the most important upgrade is the bathrooms — all 10 now function.

They’ve also beefed up security, installing a fence around the parking lot, hiring a new security company and adding parking attendants.

As a bonus for performers, they’ve installed an LED screen in the main concert hall. They’ve also renovated and expanded the dressing rooms.

The Webster in Hartford has undergone a six-figure upgrade under its new owners.

There are two venues in the facility: The Webster, which has a standing capacity of 1,200, and The Webster Underground, which has a capacity of 350. Two shows can take place simultaneously.

One benefit of the dual-venue concept is that they can test the ticket-sales potential of an up-and-coming act by booking it for the smaller room initially, then moving it to the main room if sales exceed expectations.

Recently, a burgeoning hip-hop artist Veeze performed at The Webster Underground. The show was so popular that when he returns this fall, he’ll perform on The Webster’s main stage.

New sound and lighting systems, along with air conditioning, have been installed in The Webster Underground.

Also, the owners acquired 500 moveable seats, giving them the flexibility to book shows like “Dueling Pianos,” which require seating. For standing-only shows, the seats are removed.

The seating has allowed The Webster to tap into an older demographic of concertgoers who don’t want to stand for the duration of an event.

Elie and Gellman also plan to build a kitchen, hopefully this summer or fall, that will create a new revenue stream and give patrons the option to arrive early and eat before a show.

“We knew that this wasn’t going to be a short-term thing,” Gellman said. “We’re going to ensure longevity, so we have a five- and 10-year plan for the property and the facility.”

They’re also renting the venue for private events, including weddings and corporate retreats.

Generational transfers

Since buying The Webster, Concert Crave is continuing to grow.

The company recently acquired House of Independents in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which is set to open June 1. It now owns three venues in two states. The Webster is its only asset in Connecticut. Their original venue, Crave Cave, is located in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Elie and Gellman said concert venues are changing hands as an older generation of owners step into retirement, or take less intensive roles.

“I would definitely say a lot of independent music venues out there are either retiring or they’re looking for new ownership,” Gellman said. “It’s difficult as you get older to stay in tune with everything that’s happening.”

While concertgoers have plenty of options, they said what sets The Webster apart is its location between New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

They work with promoters to book stops in multiple cities within the four-state region. They have national connections and also book shows at venues owned by third parties, up and down the East Coast.

“We have over 25 markets that we are in all over the country,” Elie said. “So, we have an advantage where now we can play artists around the country, and just make Hartford one of their stops.”

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