If you’ve been around the Delaware coastal area for a while and you appreciate jazz and blues music, the name Sydney is familiar. And if, for the last four years, you have missed Sydney’s – the beloved night spot in downtown Rehoboth Beach – you can raise your glass and rejoice once more. The music influence of Sydney Arzt is alive and kicking again.
Arzt’ first business endeavor at the beach started in 1982. Along with three other school teacher friends and a nurse, they partnered in opening a café and bakery on Wilmington Avenue called American Pie.
“We thought it would be a fun thing to keep us busy during summer vacations,” she recalled.
A couple of years later, Arzt bought out her partners and decided to go it alone. She called her new business the Side Street Restaurant. By then, she was living full-time in Rehoboth, and the business plan evolved to include music. Side Street moved to Christian Street in 1988 and became Sydney’s Side Street.
“Then my clientele told me to drop ‘Side Street’ altogether. They said that they just called it Sydney’s and I should, too. At first, I was reticent. I wasn’t looking for notoriety; I just wanted to provide fine dining and memorable music,” she said.
Although she was involved in the restaurant’s cuisine, Arzt had executive chefs who had responsibility for day-to-day kitchen decisions. But it was Arzt herself who booked all the greats of jazz and blues that delighted Sydney’s patrons over the years. Sydney’s became known nationally as a venue of renown for the up-and-coming and the forever gold.
It was in her booking role that Arzt found the brand name “Sydney’s” to have the most pluses.
“People would remember that Sydney was on the phone to talk about playing at Sydney’s, and at the end of the day, Sydney would pay them for the gig. It made it easier to have that kind of name recognition,” she said.
When asked about best recollections of evenings at Sydney’s, performers such as Gerald Veasley, Stanley Jordan, Kim Waters and Clarence Spady immediately came to the mind of devotee Anita Holleufer.
“It was an intimate, cheerful environment, where you know people came because they shared your love of good, live music,” she recalled. “You could arrive alone, chat, tap your feet, dance, leave alone and come back another time to be welcomed by familiar faces.”
Jake Banaszak, guitarist for the local blues band Lower Case Blues, remembered it was Arzt who gave them their first big break when they arrived in Rehoboth to live and play full time.
“Playing at Sydney’s was like a dream come true,” he said. “We were so proud to add Sydney’s to the list of places we played.”
He added, “When Sydney’s closed, the whole music scene changed. There were plenty of rock and cover bands. But the musicians who played at Sydney’s, who are the masters we hope to become, stopped coming.”
From American Pie to “the day the music died,” the mood of blues and jazz aficionados in Rehoboth was as bleak as if a grand old New York theater had gone dark.
Indeed, Arzt said closing Sydney’s was the hardest thing she has ever done.
“It wasn’t because the business wasn’t viable,” she said. “But the minus side of Sydney’s and me being ‘as one’ meant that I gave it 16-hour days, seven days a week, year round. I needed time to rediscover myself.”
What Arzt hadn’t expected was the feeling of loss she experienced.
“There was a huge emptiness,” she said. “It was like losing my identity.”
Gradually, her life has re-focused. First, she became involved with the non-profit organization in Dover called Delaware Charitable Music Inc. Its mission is to “…honor and promote jazz and blues, the two original American music forms and to educate and support young area musicians statewide and allow them to interact with some of the world’s finest performers in a professional concert atmosphere.”
“Bringing harmonica great, Rockin’ Jake, from New Orleans to Rehoboth Elementary School to talk about Katrina and then watching the kids playing washboards reinvigorated my spirit,” said Arzt.
Then she went back to her first love, teaching. She has been a substitute teacher in several Sussex County schools. “Being around young people keeps me in touch with what’s really important,” she said.
And now, the refrain “Sydney is back” cheers the spirits of old Sydney’s fans and new blues and jazz lovers alike. Arzt is currently promoting the music genre associated with her name for the owners of Lewes’ Bethany Blues on Route 1 and Ruddertowne’s The Cove in Dewey Beach.
In next week’s Coastal Point, read more about how Arzt got back in the game and of the musicians she is bringing for the enjoyment of everyone at the shore. As a tease, next Wednesday, June 23, head out to The Cove for the sultry, sophisticated style of the Felicia Carter Quintet. And remember that all parking in Dewey Beach is free on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.