Local Legends Born At Dill's, Golden Garter Revue
By Craig Manning | Jan. 10, 2021
For more than two decades, it was one of the hottest spots to spend a summer evening in Traverse City: Dill’s Olde Towne Saloon, not just a restaurant, but the home to a musical variety show called the Golden Garter Revue where a cast of college-aged entertainers would whip audiences into a frenzy night after night. Dill’s is gone today – the owners sold it in 1999 and the downtown building is now home to Blue Tractor Barbeque – but the Golden Garter Revue still holds a fond place in the memories of many locals. It also casts a long shadow, with an impressive array of alumni who have gone on to headline Broadway shows, captivate audiences on national TV, and more.
According to former Dill’s owner Larry Avery – who now works locally as a financial advisor – the origin story of the Golden Garter Revue actually dates back more than 50 years. It was John Meeske, the one-time owner and president of Shanty Creek Resorts, who initially brought the Golden Garter concept to northern Michigan.
“This was back in the day, probably in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and [Meeske] saw the concept at the Gaslight Club in Chicago,” Avery recalls. “The idea was singing waiters and waitresses, basically. And he brought that idea to Brownwood Acres [in Central Lake], and then to Schuss Mountain and Shanty Creek.”
Those venues established the precursors to Traverse City’s Golden Garter Revue: the Honeybees at Brownwood and the Schussy Cats at Schuss Mountain. Avery, then a college student at Ball State University, sang with the Honeybees starting around the summer of 1970. Pat Corso, a fellow Ball State student, was one of the original Schussy Cats. A few years later, Corso and Meeske bought a recently foreclosed building in downtown Traverse City and started Dill’s. Avery bought in, and in 1976, the group started the Golden Garter Revue. By 1979, Avery was running the show – a role he’d keep until Dill’s closed 20 years later.
Committed to giving Traverse City world-class entertainment, Avery spent weeks every spring traveling the Midwest, visiting colleges and universities and auditioning potential cast members. Once the cast was in Traverse City, Avery and his confidantes – a team that included choreographer Judy Harrison and music director and arranger Mindy Rohn – would lead the performers through an intensive rehearsal process that Avery dubbed “17 days of hell.”
“It was a daunting mission,” Avery laughs. “We were up working on this show 12-16 hours every day.”
While those 17 days were brutal, they morphed each Golden Garter cast into a slick, professional performing company capable of nailing three shows a night, six nights a week. That could be why the list of Golden Garter alumni includes a slew of successful entertainment industry professionals. One example is Nicole Parker, who spent the summer of 1998 at Dill’s and ultimately became a Broadway star, playing the lead role of Elphaba for a stint in the musical Wicked. Another is Laith Al-Saadi, who made it to the finale of The Voice in 2016.
The list goes on, too. Bobby Poynton, an ’81 Golden Garter, plays with The Lettermen, a pop vocal trio that in 2020 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Cynda Williams, an ’87 Garter, starred alongside Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes in the 1990 Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues. Everett Bradley, recently featured in Rolling Stone, has starred in Broadway shows and toured as a percussionist and background vocalist for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Hall & Oates. And Avery’s son, Justin, currently works as an arranger for American Idol.
Locally, the Golden Garter Revue has helped shape the landscape of entertainment and arts education. Harrison, for instance, is a well-known local entertainer and the creator of SwingShift and the Stars, while Rohn has spent the past 20+ years as a musical theater instructor at Interlochen. Both credit their time at Dill’s with helping to build the foundations for the rest of their careers.
So does Jeff Cobb, who now serves as the choral director and director of music programs for Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). Cobb, a Grand Rapids native who was attending Western Michigan University when Avery hired him, had minimal ties to Traverse City at the time. Working at Dill’s, Cobb says he “fell in love with the community and fell in love with the people” – feelings that would ultimately bring him back to the area when a choral directing job opened at Central High School in the ‘90s. Cobb can even thank the Golden Garter Revue for his marriage.
“It was in my second year [with the Garters] that I met my wife,” Cobb tells The Ticker. “It was actually my birthday, and we were celebrating on stage with toasts and all the birthday revelry, and she happened to be in the audience.”
Another Golden Garter alum is singer-songwriter Levi Britton. Now a fan favorite on local stages – at least in non-pandemic times – Britton says he wasn’t much of a singer when he joined the cast at Dill’s. In fact, Avery initially hired Britton as a guitarist, and did so at the last minute to replace Laith Al-Saadi when the future Voice contestant decided to pursue a different summer opportunity. Dan Myers, another Garter who would ultimately become Britton’s bandmate and songwriting partner in the groups Down the Line and Stolen Silver, recalls being highly skeptical of Avery’s decision.
“Larry pulled me aside and said, ‘Well, Laith couldn’t make the gig, so I found this high school kid and he’s going to play the show,’” Myers says. “And I was like, ‘Larry! High school? Are you kidding me?’ And then I see Levi get off his motorcycle and take off his helmet, and he whips out his big head of hair, and I’m going, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to hate this guy.’ Of course, 20 minutes later we were pals. And then Larry starts feeding Levi some tunes, and it turns out he sings like he does.”
“It literally changed my life,” Britton says of the Dill’s job and Avery’s encouragement. “To this day, it's a huge reason why I do what I do, musically. I can’t emphasize enough that Larry has changed so many lives.”