Business Spotlight: Balloons
Balloons Restaurant & Nightclub; Best Little Blues Bar In E’ville
By Jack Smeltz
The village of Ellicottville, on a good day, has around 200 full time residents. Nestled in this hamlet is a gem of a music club/restaurant/ bar called Balloons. While there are many places to eat and drink in this town one area they excel in is live music.
Balloons started out in the space where Double Diamond was which is now Gado Gado and Natures Remedy and in 1988 they moved into their current location and almost 30 years later they are still going strong and live music has a been a huge part of that success.
Not long after moving they decided to start having music on Saturday nights with Tommy Z from 4-8. Mike Kerns, who took over after his father died and who was a bartender at the time met Tommy and they hit it off and the band still plays there every couple of months. They then decided to have Only Humen on one Thursday each month and called it Birthday Thursday. If you had a birthday that month you could come in and get a free drink and celebrate. This eventually evolved into music every Friday and Saturday.
Four or five years ago Mike decided to book a traveling or working band and he hired Ana Popovic, she is now a headliner on the blues circuit, who was followed by Bryan Lee, also known as the Braille Blues Daddy because he was blind. It wasn’t until he hired Bill (The Sauce Boss) Wharton that a change in direction came about. Bill hooked him up with an agent who worked with blues bands from Florida and Balloons started booking traveling bands on a regular basis. Once word of mouth got around the Chitlin Circuit bands started calling Mike.
Few are aware that there’s a large apartment above the bar where Mike’s dad lived and Mike started offering lodging for the out of town bands and this made it more affordable to bring in big name talent. As time has gone by Mike started to fill the apartment with antiques and unusual collectables that tend to appeal to the artistic mind. Aside from the doll heads in the gumball machine and a full sized moose in the crucifix position hanging from the ceiling over the rattan four post bed in the living room, there’s also a full kitchen and washer and dryer. For a band that may travel 180-200 days a year this is heaven.
Many is the time I’ve seen band members roaming around town several days after a show enjoying the scenery or maybe doing a little fishing to ease the monotony of life on the road.
I asked Mike if there were any crazy stories involving the Bands that play here and a couple he related were when Ana Popovic went on break she had to run up stairs to the band house to breast feed her baby that was only five weeks old and then there was some guitar player, who will remain anonymous, that was spotted running around in his boxers on Monroe Street trying to impress one of the Balloons employees.
This upcoming ski season will see some international acts starting this Saturday with The Jeremiah Johnson Band, out of St Louis, who play countrified blues style originals and get air play on B. B. King’s Bluesville.
October 19 Mark Hummel, Anson Funderburgh and the Golden State, Lone Star Review that incorporates Chicago, California and Texas style blues will be in town. Mr. Hummel has been nominated for a Grammy and Mr. Funderburgh has been nominated for a Blues Music Award.
While Balloons occasionally charges a cover for weeknight shows, most of these acts are free. Covers for these bands usually is $20 and up in larger venues.
When I inquired about the future of Balloons Mike said he’s very happy doing what he’s doing and doesn’t plan on going anywhere. A second floor over the back bar is a possibility down the road. He didn’t rule out another generation of Kerns carrying on the tradition.
The luxury that we have in this little village to see acts of this quality are one of the reasons I moved here from Cleveland when I retired. I hope that the Kerns family will continue to go out of their way to provide entertainment of this caliber and the locals will support it.