.Ivy Room Celebrates Music and Pride

Longtime East Bay gem is the little bar venue that could

It’s early afternoon, before the Ivy Room opens. Inside, it’s quiet, the calm before a storm of activity from the bar and band later that night. I take notice of all the music memorabilia. Co-owners Summer Jager and Lani Torres point out the artwork on the walls by our booth and above the bar.

“My dad gave me that painting of Bowie when I was 19,” Torres says, noting that it was painted in 1975, the year she was born. “That’s gone with me from Santa Cruz to New York, back to San Francisco, and now it lives here.”

“The Willie Nelson was in my home too,” Jager says. “We had friends paint all those women—Grace Jones, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. My sister hand-stitched that Stevie Nicks; I hand-stitched the Patti Smith while I was pregnant.”

“That’s my grandfather’s; my dad gave me that guitar,” Torres says. “A lot of stuff is from our own homes. That Jimi Hendrix was in my hallway.”

“Although our walls at our homes are bare,” Jager says, laughing.

The two women have sacrificed more than their home decor since taking over the bar and music venue in 2015. Overcoming the many challenges of the past few years required hard work and determination, creative thinking, skill-building and a ton of support. Having survived the hardest years of Covid, and utilizing grant funds from Live Music Society, the Ivy Room is hosting a month-long series of workshops and shows in June called “Ivy Riot!” to celebrate—and give back to—their LGBTQ+ community.

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Jager and Torres met in their late 20s/early 30s at 12 Galaxies, a now-defunct music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District. At the time, Jager managed Columbus Cafe in North Beach, and later at the Warfield, the Regency Ballroom and the Fox Theater. Torres managed the bar at The Independent, a popular live music venue in San Francisco’s Alamo Square district, after working at the legendary CBGBs and the Bowery Ballroom in New York.

“Once you start working around live music, it’s an adrenaline rush,” Torres says.

Soon after they met, Jager and Torres discussed opening a bar together.

“We sat down, worked on a crazy business plan in my kitchen in Twin Peaks for a year,” Jager says. Their “crazy” plan secured an SBA loan and investors from Another Planet Entertainment. Other bartenders and bar owners they knew in San Francisco also contributed. “It was really cool that a lot of community came behind us and backed us in this,” Jager recalls. “It felt great.”

At the time, from 2011 to 2015, it was difficult to get a good space at a decent price. “We looked at places all over the Bay,” Torres says. “We started in San Francisco, then Oakland; we were looking at new builds, at multi-use buildings. We were looking everywhere within our price range. So that took a while.”

“And finally, Ivy popped up, and I remember the day vividly,” Jager says. “I was like, yeah, let’s do this.”

The Ivy Room is located on San Pablo Avenue, a few steps from the busy intersection at Solano Avenue, less than a mile from the I-580/I-80 confluence in Albany. Divided into two rooms—one with a small stage, the other anchored by a wall-length wood bar—the entire space is 2,000 square feet. At first, the stage wasn’t a major selling point.

“We knew that it had some history, and we knew it had great music,” Jager says, referring to Ivy’s heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s when Dottie MacBeath owned it and her son Bill managed booking. “So we were thinking, OK, we could do it on the weekends here and there.”

When they were looking for the right spot, the aesthetic trend for bars was more industrial, all cold steel and cement features. They wanted something more organic and warm, like Pappy & Harriet’s, the famed Western saloon-style barbecue restaurant and music venue near Joshua Tree National Park in Pioneertown. Or San Francisco’s El Rio, a Mission staple since 1978. They were looking for soul and character. And they wanted it to weather well.

“Lani and I always liked the ’70s vibe and Fleetwood Mac kind of thing,” Jager says.

“We love dive bars too,” Torres adds. “And ‘cozy’ was a big thing for us.”

Once the sale was finalized, they didn’t waste any time. They got to work immediately and opened on Halloween night in 2015, honoring a show that was already on the books from the previous owner. Ivy Room stayed open for two shows during Halloween weekend before closing to remodel.

With the help of investors, they restructured the open partitions dividing the two main rooms and soundproofed them. One of their best friends, a woodworker, built the stage and the sound castle. Another friend tiled the bathroom, did the plumbing and redid the floors. They painted inside and out, and installed new fixtures, taking everything apart. But they left the bar where it was.

“We came in and there was a poster up here [of] ‘a woman’s brain,’” Jager says, describing the graphic with images of a shopping bag, a baby and a purse inside the brain. “Bras were hanging from the ceiling. It was so bad. There was a bed up here with bras and underwear hanging.”

They left it up for a while to show people, laughing. “It was anti-us,” Torres says.

It took them a while to get people in the neighborhood to come in. Folks fondly recalled former owners Bill and Dottie and their live music shows, but subsequent owners’ visions were not as well received. There was violence outside, Torres says. Neighboring businesses suggested they change the name because it had been tarnished.

“We can’t,” Torres told them. “It’s been like this since 1942.”

The Ivy Room is Albany’s second oldest bar next to Hotsy Totsy. “I’m glad we stuck with it,” Torres says, even though she admits it took three or four years for people to welcome this iteration.

“We quickly found out what the community and the neighborhood wanted,” Jager says. “They wanted that music back, and they wanted it now. And luckily we had access to it, with these other clubs we were working for. Lani is our booker and has complete dedication and love for music. And she jumped behind the wheel with that.”

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The stage at the Ivy Room. (Photo courtesy of Ivy Room)

Booking live music acts was a whole other project. Torres began apprenticing with one of Ivy’s silent investors, Glenn Hartman, a former colleague at the Independent who’s now a working musician in New Orleans.

“It’s family. Everybody was helping,” Torres says. “And then it became apparent that I should take over. And I quickly had to learn about the music and the indie scene. At the Independent and here, the venue size, the types of bands—it’s way different. I used to be in bands and I had to jump back into knowing what was going on in our community, which was a lot of research.”

Usually, small venues each have their music niche. But Torres wanted a diverse roster of shows. She struggled initially with joining seemingly disparate groups of people, while also trying to establish the Ivy Room as not representing any one group in particular.

“How do we get punk-rock kids to come and feel comfortable, and also have jazz people come and feel comfortable?” Torres says. “That was hard. We didn’t want to give up, though. We have to make sure we can have different genres in here.”

“Being queer as well, we wanted to be all-inclusive,” Jager says. “We didn’t want to just have a certain group coming in. We didn’t want to exclude anyone. There was something with being in the queer community and being faithful to that. We stuck with it and it worked for us.”

Jager and Torres both worked the bar for the first five years. “I think we worked 36 doubles in a row,” Jager says. While working at the Ivy Room, Torres managed the Independent’s bar; Jager also worked at the Fox. They worked day and night between all the bars. Their schedules were intense.

“But people got to know us,” Jager recalls. “They knew you and I were running it. I wanted to make it like the neighborhood bar, where we’re not just a music venue. And they did know their bartenders and their doorman and the sound engineers. All of our staff have been genuinely kind when people show up.”

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“We never stopped hustling, we just changed our hustle,” Torres says. “We were living in that high-intensity stress.” When 2020 began, the calendar of shows looked good. “We’re going to start paying investors back,” Torres thought. “This is amazing. We’re here. We’ve done it.” 

And then Covid happened. They had to shut down the bar and refocus their efforts.

“I had three-month-old twins at the time,” Jager says. “I was coming back to work that week. My first shift was supposed to be back at the Fox Theater, but I was working. I didn’t stop. I was paying payroll in the hospital bed after I had the kids. When you own a business, you don’t stop.”

“We just kept going,” Torres says. “We had to learn something completely new, how to be grant writers and how to deal with banks in a whole different way. We worked our butts off. We never changed our pattern of life. We just changed the hours, in a sense. But it was like we had a full-time job amount of work every day through Covid.”

Three weeks later, some friends at the UC Theatre told them about the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which held a Town Hall every Thursday.

“It was basically a therapy session,” Torres says.

At first, the group included about 300 members. Now it’s expanded to include more than 1200 independent venues nationwide.

“We formed an alliance with all these other music venues,” Jager says. “This is why we’re still here.”

The group discussed strategies for survival, recognizing the importance of music venues in the community where, Jager says, “every dollar spent here, there’s $12 spent in the local economy.” They ended up hiring a lobbyist. Jager and Torres got the hang of applying for grants, receiving their first from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

“Luckily we ended up getting so much love from some nonprofits,” Jager says. “We got Live Music Society, who we’re still working with in New York. They helped bridge us to the NIVA grants.”

With grant money, they hosted some closed-door shows in the Ivy and then presented them online. Through the summer and fall of 2021, they also threw 26 outdoor concerts after joining forces with Sandy Russell, owner of the Fireside Lounge in Alameda, who offered her outside space. Because it was formed from the two venues in Albany and Alameda, they called the concert series “Tiny Towns.”

“That was life-changing,” Jager says. “We’re doing live music in front of folks who haven’t seen live music in over a year, and they’re crying … it was really special to do those.”

The Ivy Room remained closed for 18 months during the pandemic. Before it opened back up to the public, Torres and Jager operated a to-go shop out of the front window.

“People bought a ton of merch which was huge for us, too,” Jager says. “That was helpful.”

When they did finally reopen, they had a rocky start. Fortunately, they didn’t have many Covid outbreaks with staff, like other businesses experienced. But dealing with traveling musicians invariably led to last-minute cancellations when a band member caught the virus.

“There was a lot of that in the beginning,” Jager says. “Cancellations up and down.”

People were also afraid to come out. Or when they did, it was to save up and plan for a big concert rather than a little show at a local bar. Music lovers would “go see Depeche Mode at Chase and then call it at night and not go out for another three months,” Torres says. “But coming to small venues in 2023 was hard.”

Torres and Jager watched as multiple bars and venues the size of Ivy Room shut down between 2020 and 2023. Slim’s, Amado’s, Club Deluxe and The Stud—which reopened in April 2024—in San Francisco. The Starline Social Club and Uptown Nightclub in Oakland. PianoFight in San Francisco and Oakland.

“As a venue we’ve always had to navigate sports, politics, presidencies, the economy—it changes the way people come out,” Torres says. “People are starting to come in here a little more [this year]. And I feel hopeful.”

“We didn’t spend all our grants quickly, and we kept as much as we possibly could,” Jager says, “knowing that we’re going to have a difficult next few years being a music venue. It’s an unbelievable grind right now.”

They heard from one of the recently closed venue operators that it was a relief to shut down. In a way, Jager and Torres were envious. But they couldn’t stop. Not yet.

“These are our friends and family and people in our community [who] have helped us open this place,” Torres says. “We wanted to save all this.”

“This is our baby, too!” Jager says.

Realizing they needed more help, they hired management for daily operations and now spend more time with their families.

“It’s hard to do, though, when you’ve been doing it so long,” Jager says. “We’re getting a little older, too. I can’t be behind that bar every night. I have babies; I’m up at 5:30 every morning now. It was just something that had to happen, and that feels really good.”

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“It is a rollercoaster,” says Donna Berry, Ivy Room’s bar manager. “Sometimes we have sellout shows and other times we’ll have 20 people milling around.”

Berry hired on a little over two years ago. She was impressed with Torres and Jager’s commitment to the Ivy Room and live music. Or, as she put it, “trying to make live music be a thing in a small space where most places are dying.”

“It’s a small venue,” Berry says. “But we still get amazing groups that come through, and the music community definitely respects and sees the Ivy as an important staple for the East Bay.”

Berry has worked in and around live music for much of her career. At 21, she was stage manager at a nightclub with a 550-person capacity. She dealt with bands, their tour managers and riders, and handled promotions. “I didn’t even know what I was really doing, but I knew I was having a good time,” she says. “So that gave me a lot of experience in being around live music and what it takes to run a venue.”

She earned her radio/television/film degree, worked on air at 90.5 KSJS San Jose State University and later, at San Francisco’s Live 105, a commercial radio station, doing promotions, on-air fill-ins and studio production. “It was super fun,” she says. “I got to go to a million shows and meet all kinds of bands. The perks are amazing. And I made friends with so many people in the industry.”

Unsatisfied with the corporate culture and low pay, Berry eventually switched gears. She began bartending, working at a few bars and music venues and dealing with DJs and bands, throughout the East Bay.

“That’s my passion,” Berry says. “That’s what I prefer to be around. Bartending is fun, but music’s more important to me. And so to be in a space where I’m doing both with really awesome staff and people, it’s been a very cool experience. [Ivy Room’s] got good energy, and we’re such an inclusive space. People feel safe here, which is very important.”

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Team Dresch (pictured left, photo by Margarita LaPussygata), Commando (upper right) and Skip the Needle (bottom right) are performing at Ivy Room as part of Ivy Riot! in June. (Photos courtesy of Ivy Room unless otherwise noted)

Although they’ve taken a step back, Torres and Jager still have big plans. At the end of last year Live Music Society awarded the Ivy Room a grant, which will be used for a bevy of LGBTQIA+ workshops, live music, activism and social justice programming during Pride Month.

“We keep piling stuff on,” Torres says. “We love this plan that we’re doing, and we feel passionate about it. But it’s funny—we don’t idle.”

“Every weekend we’re going to add a workshop, like a transgender job fair and activism,” Jager says. “Another’s going to be a cool drag show or a comedy show, a mental health weekend. Then, live music at night. We got the grant, we were already hustling before and now we’re hustling double-time.”

“A lot has happened for our community during Covid,” Torres says. “How can we use this room and help more besides having bands? And then, Summer thought, ‘Let’s do some activist stuff. Let’s work with some nonprofits. Let’s have some speaking panels and get people in our community to come, and let’s rally around the trans community and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.’”

Instead of being overwhelmed by the task, they began re-engaging their network. “And we’re gonna get them to rally around us like they always have,” Jager says. Hot Goth GF, an Oakland-based radio show featuring femme and queer artists of color, is assisting Ivy Room with a couple of workshops.

Torres and Jager are also thinking more creatively about utilizing the space during the day to bolster finances. Private events have been helpful. So have venue rentals for filming music videos. The Ivy also hosts “matinees” during the weekend, featuring local vendor pop-ups, art shows and DJs in the daytime.

“We were thinking about putting in a coffee shop or record store during the day,” Jager says. “Another outdoor concert in the future would be rad. We always have lots of dreams.”

This month, for the first time, Torres and Jager are thrilled to visit New Orleans to participate in the NIVA Convention, the leading conference for independent music and comedy venues, festivals and the promoter industry. They were asked to be on a panel with Live Music Society.

“We love the music,” Torres says. “All I want to do is be around music. If I wasn’t working at the Independent or here, I was at a show. And now you have to pick and choose. But it’s definitely my passion.”

Ivy Room, 860 San Pablo Ave., Albany. 510.526.5888. Ivy Riot!’ runs through June.

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