If These Walls Could Talk
Legendary Saranac Lake venue closes in on 50 years.
By Garret K. Woodward
Photos provided by Waterhole
A Brief History
Originally built as a horse stable in the 1800s, the Waterhole went through several different businesses before becoming a bar in May 1970. The upstairs music hall was constructed in 1991, which has a capacity of around 400 people.
“The Waterhole is built into the natural hillside, so when you go up, no matter what floor you end up on, you’re at ground level,” said Eric Munley, co-owner of the Waterhole. “It has this really unique feeling. It doesn’t feel like a box, which some music venues feel like.”
To those in the know, the Waterhole in downtown Saranac Lake is the melodic heart of the Adirondacks. The three-story Main Street establishment is a beacon of light and sound for lifelong locals, passerby tourists and the cosmically curious alike since it opened its doors in May 1970.
“It was the exact place I was looking for, as far as a bar and a venue goes in a town,” said Eric Munley, co-owner of the Waterhole. “It was one of the big things that really attracted me and completed Saranac Lake for me. Because of my love for music, finding a music scene where quality bands play in a small town is a rare thing, I believe.”
Munley and his life/business partner, Kira “Kiki” Sarko, officially purchased the building in June 2018 after two years of leasing the property and business from longtime owner Billy Allen. But, Munley’s professional association with — and deep admiration for — the Waterhole goes back many years.
Munley first rolled into the small mountain town when he started attending nearby Paul Smith’s College in 2006. After almost a year on campus, he decided to move to Saranac Lake. Eventually, he found an apartment above the China Jade restaurant on Main Street, which is just a stones throw to the Waterhole.
“When I finally turned 21 in 2009, I found myself at the Waterhole and met the owners,” Munley said. “I started coming to shows, which, at that time, were lightly attended. I cut out a deal with the owners to get some free beer and get into shows for free if I put up some show posters and helped with promotion. Then, I started coming to every show.”
The unofficial home to the annual Saranac Lake “Winter Carnival” since its inception, the Waterhole also became a live music hub with the construction of the upstairs concert hall in 1991. With bands seemingly onstage every weekend or during the “Party on the Patio” series, the venue has played host to thousands of groups, many of which were already successful national acts, including New Riders of the Purple Sage, Donna the Buffalo, The Del McCoury Band, Soulive, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Bela Fleck & The Flecktones with Sam Bush (the legendary surprise moe. show on June 29, 2010, also immediately comes to mind).
Around the time Munley started to frequent the Waterhole, several acts became staples on the local music scene. Within that raucous bunch, you had beloved North Country musical ambassadors Lucid and its Massachusetts counterparts Hot Day at the Zoo, whose acclaimed 2009 live album, “Zoograss,” was actually recorded at the Waterhole.
And it was those musicians and the large entourages that usually ended up across the street at Munley’s for an after-party of pickin’-n-grinnin’ over drinks held high and in unison.
“There would be after parties that would start at that apartment even if we didn’t go to the show,” Munley laughed. “People would still show up afterwards at 3 a.m. and we’d be like, ‘Well, we’re watching a movie, but come in and let’s party.’”
During those after-parties, Munley and some close musician friends held court in his apartment, trading acoustic licks and slowly finding an original sound with the songs each brought to the table. Those late nights into early mornings led to the formation of The Blind Owl Band.
“When I met Arthur [Buezo] and James [Ford], I was getting ready to leave town. I had only planned to stay in Saranac Lake for four or five months after I graduated college — I was looking at where I was going to next,” Munley said. “But, the fact that we could develop The Blind Owl Band here and create a name for ourselves by playing regularly at the Waterhole definitely made this place plausible. I think if we didn’t have the Waterhole, we’d had sought out another situation.”
In September 2015, the Waterhole closed due to financial logistics at the hands of the owner at the time. The property then reverted back to Billy Allen, who was looking to find the next owners, next bountiful chapter of the venue.
“It just had closed and I bumped into Billy on the street. I told him to let me know if he was looking for someone to take it over,” Munley said. “We talked a bunch of times, and I tried to get numbers from him, but all we talked about was music and the history. The Waterhole was his baby and he wanted to find the right person to pass it down to, which was Kiki and myself — he helped make it happen.”
Now with Munley and Sarko at the helm, the Waterhole reopened in February 2016, during “Winter Carnival,” arguably the busiest week the entire year for the business.
“The band we booked for Friday cancelled on us the day before. We couldn’t get our full liquor license in time, but we got a temporary beer and wine permit. And we had a completely untrained staff. Kiki and myself had never tended bar before,” Munley reminisced. “I was just running everywhere, answering all the questions. Then, we closed out Saturday night with The Blind Owl Band playing. That weekend was really exciting, and it was nice to get a little bit of money into our hands after working nonstop getting it open.”
May 2020 will be the 50th anniversary of the Waterhole. Munley’s already making plans for the celebration. But, for the most part, he’s lately been going through old boxes of photos, show posters and memories he inherited when the building became his.
“Everybody understands the lineage. The Waterhole started as a college bar. Those first groups of regulars who were young college kids have slowly grown old or passed away, and there’s a presence of all those people still, especially in the downstairs bar,” Munley said. “This building holds a lot of memories for a lot so many people — the 50-year celebration will mean so much to everyone who ever stepped foot in here.”