CLINTON—Just across the tracks from where the train depot once stood, Tim Pogorelski is creating a cultural crossroads in the tiny village of Clinton.
Housed in the former Citizens Bank building, “The Room” is an entertainment-centric sibling of Boxcars Pub & Grub—a tavern “Pogo” and his wife, Randi, have owned and operated since 1999.
With its series of large windows looking out on the intersection of Front and Allen streets, the venue boasts old-fashioned wood tables, a stage set against an original brick wall and remnants from the building’s history (the original burglar alarm hangs next to a portal that once housed the safe). During events, a screen drops across the front window to display digital twinkling lights. To quote Nick the bartender from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “it gives the joint atmosphere.”
With just 60 seats, this intimate setting has fast become a highly sought-out booking for touring comedians and singer/songwriters.
“I love performing there. It’s the best one-nighter in the Midwest,” said comic Jeremy “Jer-Dog” Danley. “I consider it my Wrestlemania, my Super Bowl. It’s the perfect blend of blue-collar, small-town crowd, and the way Tim presents the whole thing is very much like a basement comedy club you might have performed at in the ’60s or ’70s, but with a modern feel.
“It’s a perfect environment for performing and the perfect demographic of who I play for. They are crazy there, and they have a good time.”
Original plans for “The Room” actually stem from a time Danley reached out to Pogorelski several years ago.
“I got a cold-call letter from Jeremy asking if we’d ever thought about doing comedy at our place,” Pogorelski said. “I thought about and said, ‘Well, let’s try it on a Wednesday night.’
“We told people, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a comedian in from Chicago who has been on ‘The Bob & Tom Show.’ Then we set up the stage and sold 50 tickets. By the time the show was over, we had people coming up and asking if we were going to be doing it again.”
He has. Many times.
Since Danley’s 2012 debut, “The Room” has hosted regular comedy nights on the first Wednesday of each month starting in November and ending in April. Well-known names that have graced the stage include Larry Reeb, Willie Farrell, Sonya White, Jim Wiggins and Preston Lacy.
“People can get VIP tickets where they buy tickets to all six (comedy) shows we have (in a season),” Pogorelski said. “What they get is the same seats for every show, half-priced drinks and half-price appetizers. We started out having 15 VIPs after that first year and now we have about 45, so we only have 15 available tickets for sale at each show.”
The comedy series’ success coaxed Pogorelski, a former member of several local bands, to start booking music acts, as well. But along with his vision for music shows came some hard-fast rules on etiquette.
“We have pads on all the tables, so you write down what you want,” he said. “That’s how you order ... so you don’t have to talk.
“We’re really adamant about this being a listening room,” he added. “You’re not going to sit in here and converse. We keep the talking to a minimum. I’ve asked people to leave that have interrupted the show or been rude. Nobody paid to hear them.”
The reasons behind Pogorelski’s demands are understandable, as he has gone out of his way to book some of the best traveling singer/songwriters in the country. Names have included C.J. Solar, who co-wrote the Morgan Wallen hit “Up Down”; Rick Huckaby, who has written songs for Thomas Rhett and Trace Adkins and has performed with Tanya Tucker and Tracy Lawrence; and, most recently, Cody Canada, a rock/alt-country musician who currently fronts the band The Departed and made a name for himself as former lead singer for Cross Canadian Ragweed.
When the Dublin, Ireland-based Black Donnellys embarked on a Guinness Book of World Records-setting effort to play 60 shows in 50 states in 40 days, they picked Pogorelski’s place as their stop in Wisconsin.
And on May 1, Pogorelski will welcome a “get” he’s been working on for some time when Travis Meadows hits town. Meadows is the mind behind such songs as Dierks Bentley’s “Riser,” Kenny Chesney’s “Better Boat” and Jake Owens’ “What We Ain’t Got.”
“One of the cool aspects of having a listening room is you get to hear the stories behind the songs,” Pogorelski said. “Maybe you haven’t heard the names, but you know the songs they’ve written, and they come in here and tell you the stories behind those songs.
“A lot of these guys, I have their songs on the jukebox,” he said. “One night I just started playing songs and people would say, ‘Oh, I like that’ or ‘I know that song.’ I’d say, ‘You like that? Well, the guy that wrote it will be here next week.’”
Pogorelski carefully selects his acts. The most important credential? They have to appeal to him.
“I’m pretty selfish that way,” he said. “I like the singer-songwriters, and it’s my show, so I get to pick what I want. So far, it’s turned out pretty good.”
Pogorelski appears to be right, as he isn’t having trouble pulling in quality musicians. One in particular, recording artist Jeremy McComb, turns up quite regularly (his next appearance is May 29) and has become somewhat of a regular in the 2,000-resident hamlet.
He said “The Room” is the kind of place musicians love to play—comparing it favorably to the famed Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.
“Finding Clinton, meeting Tim and Randi ... meeting everybody in the entire area, I just fell in love with the people and ‘The Room,’” he said. “It’s pretty silent, but it’s small enough where people still interact with you and they hang on every word, so you get that moment as a songwriter where you connect with the crowd.
“Being able to sit and laugh and shake the hand of every person at that show ... that’s important. With so many people, there is a filter between us and everything else. It’s like they’re watching you and holding their phones to record the concert, missing the connect.”
McComb is so into the vibe, in fact, that he recorded his 2018 live double-album “Troublemaker” there.
“To be 100-percent honest, I had recorded the album someplace else over two sold-out shows where we knew the crowd was going to be incredible,” he said. “Right after that, I played ‘The Room’ for the first time and wanted to re-record it. We redid the album based on the environment ‘The Room’ creates. It was like a wonderful conversation with songs in between.”
Having developed a close friendship with Pogorelski, McComb said he is “a little protective” of his Clinton hideaway, and he is hesitant to share it with those who wouldn’t appreciate it or might “come in and screw it up.”
“(Tim and Randi) make it a place you want to be,” he said. “There is a handful of places across the country where we sell 1,500 or 2,000 tickets, but I would rather play to those 60 people in that room. I’d rather sit in front of that room 100 nights a year than so many other places.”
That is music to Pogorelski’s ears.
“It’s an important part to me to make those guys feel like they want to come back, and to have them say, ‘If you want me, call me anytime,’” he said. “It sets us apart a little bit from the other places. Not in a cocky way, but it’s like your kid ... you’re just proud of ‘em.
“I’m proud of what we’ve established here.”