Used by permission of the author, Scott Alarik
A singer-friendly coffeehouse
They come back to Franklin's old Masonic Hall
By Scott Alarik, Globe Correspondent, 01/17/99
FRANKLIN - The Circle of Friends Coffeehouse on Emmons Street is unusual among New England church coffeehouses for a number of reasons, all stemming from the unique fact that it is not, in fact, in a church.
Located in the old Masonic Hall, which was the site of Franklin's first YMCA (it also served as post office and town hall), it is certainly the only folk coffeehouse in the area with a full indoor running track on the floor above, or that doubles during the week as a dance studio. No other local coffeehouse is known to have balance bars along its walls, or a sign saying, ''Please No Tap Dancing in the Dining Room.''
But, to the acts who sing the monthly coffeehouse's praises far and wide, giving it a national reputation as a performers' favorite, one eccentric feature shines above the rest.
''The coolest thing about Circle of Friends is the bowling alley, no question,'' said January performer Cheryl Wheeler. ''No kidding, that is so fabulous; and, believe me, it's talked about by other folk singers. `Oh yeah, the bowling-alley gig,' they say. `I loved that place.'''
She quickly added that it was really the friendly audience and volunteers, more than the miniature bowling alley in the basement, that brings performers back to the coffeehouse.
Circle of Friends is an example of the community coffeehouse at its friendly, first-rate best. Everything about it is casual but professional, from the superb sound mixed by volunteer Tony Muto to the lavish sweets table, which features home-cooked sins that include Snickers cheesecake, fresh fruit pies and chocolate mousse.
Circle of Friends is a secular outreach project of Franklin's First Universalist Society, which has no permanent home and has for years held its services in the Dean College chapel (the society hopes to begin building a permanent home this spring). As a result, when church member Rich Digou got the idea to start a coffeehouse in 1989, his first task was to find a place for it.
''My wife at the time and I just fell in love with the folk music at the services,'' said Digou, who works as a mental health technician at Wrentham State School. ''It really opened up the service to everybody and made you feel part of it.''
After scouting Franklin for locations, the Masonic Hall was Digou's first choice. The roomy old wood hall seemed perfect for a coffeehouse. He had to overcome some '60s-bred stereotypes of coffeehouses as hotbeds for hippy rabble-rousers, finally assuring the Masonic Hall board that they wanted a smoke-free, nonalcoholic, strictly family-friendly community concert series. The coffeehouse began presenting shows in the summer of 1990; its season now runs from September to June.
The coffeehouse has always been a church project, which has provided financial support for a first-rate sound system and has been a primary source for the 10-25 member volunteer committee. Only the performers are paid. Money left over after expenses are paid is turned over to the church or donated to the Franklin Food Pantry.
Current cochairman and church member Jake Jacobson, who works as an electrical engineer at 3Com in Westborough, maintains the 2,000-plus mailing list and Web site, and handles the hundreds of phone calls that come in for each month's show.
''If people call and have no idea what we do,'' he said, ''I'll say it's an intimate setting where you can get close to the performer, eat some good food and have a quiet, friendly time. Everyone is within 50 feet of the performer, as opposed to being in some huge theater where you need binoculars to see.''
On Jan. 9, the sold-out crowd arrived early, scurrying in when the doors were opened as though they had been there before. Some went right for the front rows; others immediately moved toward remembered favorite seats, eyeing the stage and the rows as if gauging the precise spot they'd liked before. Perhaps the most experienced habitues knew there were no bad seats in the 200-seat hall and immediately queued up for the dessert table.
Circle of Friends always features up-and-coming locals as opening acts, and hot Boston newcomer Kevin So clearly relished the enthusiastic response awarded his gritty, good-humored blues and reflective ballads.
A natural-born entertainer is often described as one who can work a crowd, but in these cozy climes, that current works both ways.
It's the give-and-take between singer and audience that Wheeler loves about these coffeehouses, and why the Swansea songwriter has designed her careers around them. Her songs have been recorded by Bette Midler, Suzy Boggus and Dan Seals, and opportunities for a more mainstream pop career have always been available to her. But she prefers the company at Circle of Friends.
''I don't cotton to all the trappings of the music biz,'' she said after her wonderfully personal two-hour set. ''It's not about anything but the music, not about the fabulous smoke machine or lights or fancy outfits. It's a very low-key, casual way for people to hear songwriters.''
That is also the appeal for audience members Paul and Carolyn Bohmiller of Franklin.
''It's intimate, and, being a nonsmoker, I appreciate that it's smoke-free,'' Paul Bohmiller said. ''You see a performer you don't get to see a lot of places. I wouldn't call it folk; it's acoustic, but it's a lot of different kinds of music: blues, Celtic, bluegrass. But it's all very fresh, I think.''
''When some people think of folk,'' Carolyn Bohmiller added, ''they think it's going to be all `Kumbaya,' and we haven't found that here at all. But you're not going to get the kind of act that's going to be playing at the Garden or the Centrum. It's a very small, quaint, friendly atmosphere, and you're going to hear that kind of entertainer. And I've kind of outgrown the Centrum.''
There was certainly nothing mired in the past about Wheeler's offhand, chatty but musically splendid show. She joked or sang ditties about hokey country songs, El Nino, mosquitoes, Paula Jones, potatos, guilt, hair dryers, cloning and her remarkably arrogant cats. Even when she sang her achingly poignant ballads about lost loves or the lonely life of the road, she seemed always to be connecting her experiences to her audience's. Always, the show seemed more about them than her.
''If the reason a person goes into a career in music is because they want to get famous, well, they shouldn't have gone into folk music in the first place,'' Wheeler said. ''But if you go into it because you have songs and you want people to listen to them, this is definitely the place for that. ''We're the lucky ones, the ones who play here.''
Then she excused herself to bowl a few lines with Kevin So.
The Circle of Friends next show, Bill Staines and Tom Prasada-Rao, is scheduled for Jan. 30. For information, call 508-528-2541 or on line at http://www.circlefolk.org
This story ran on page 13 of the Boston Globe's West Weekly on 01/17/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.