The Secret Society turns 10 years old this summer, and while it doesn’t draw the national acts that its neighbor the Wonder Ballroom does, it’s sure seen its share of recognizable faces over the last decade.
Peter Buck of R.E.M. hosted two record release parties there. John Hodgman tippled martinis at a storytelling event. k.d. lang joined her friend Jane Siberry on stage during her tour almost four years ago. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo says it’s his favorite Portland bar. And according to owner Matt Johnson, “You can’t look in any direction without seeing a Decemberist in here.”
Over the last decade, the place has become home to a variety of very niche and very Portland communities—storytellers rule Monday nights, just like the zydeco, swing and gospel communities respectively rule Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, while the kiddos claim select Sunday afternoons. And those live shows can even be recorded, thanks to The Secret Society’s full recording studio located just beneath its ballroom. (In fact, 24 audio channels directly connect the ballroom to the studio below and the likes of Edna Vazquez, Duffy Bishop, Caleb Klauder, Mary Flower, Reggie Houston, and Casey Neill & The Norway Rats have used the facilities.) But when Johnson opened his lounge’s doors, music wasn’t intended to be on the menu.
Johnson, a former graphic designer, bought the two-story building that houses his bar and ballroom in 2004 with the plan to “do something for myself instead of other people.” Originally, the lounge was essentially his office, and it was from that perch that he recognized an opportunity—thanks to Toro Bravo, the famed restaurant from John Gorham to whom Johnson leased a street level space in 2007.
“I watched all these people pile up and thought they needed a place to go while they’re waiting,” Johnson recalls.
The idea was to build out what looked like a hotel bar, the kind that people dip into when they are on the way to somewhere else—like Toro Bravo.
And since the building was of a vintage state (1907 Victorian era to be specific), Johnson decided to offer vintage cocktails to match the motif.
“We wanted to dig back into the old books,” Johnson says. “No free pouring, we wanted to make consistent cocktails.” When The Secret Society’s doors opened in the summer of 2008, craft cocktails were just starting to emerge in Portland. West side staples Clyde Common and Teardrop Lounge had just opened in spring and summer of 2007, making Johnson’s east side lounge one of very few back-to-the-basics bars that focused on crafting old-school drinks.
The lounge was a hit, but it took one, too, as the global financial meltdown of 2008 was just a couple of months around the corner. The bar was making money, but Johnson’s original plan of augmenting the lounge’s income by renting out what’s now the ballroom for private events was growing more and more untenable.
“Companies were calling up and canceling their holiday parties,” Johnson says. “People were canceling their weddings.”
He figured if he couldn’t bring large groups of people to the space for the occasional office party, he’d try to bring them every night by offering his guests the thing that pairs best with Boulevardiers: live music.
And while the lounge’s general manager Jesse Lundin says he enjoys pouring multiple martinis and chatting up celebrities like Hodgman, it’s the regulars—the gospel singers and country swingers who’ve claimed The Secret Society for themselves—who’ve made the lounge what it’s since become: a sort of second home.
In 10 years, Johnson says there have been plenty of memorable nights, but the best nights have been the ones when they turn over their proceeds to help out musicians in the community who are in need of financial or medical care.
That’s what the space did when it held a tribute fundraiser for regular performer Pete Krebs when he was diagnosed with skin cancer back in 2013. With the help of the community turning up to turn out their pockets—including the venue—Krebs beat it.
And you can still find him with either His Portland Playboys or the Rocking K Ranch Boys at The Secret Society several times each month.