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Ann Arbor community rallies to save Johnny's Speakeasy music venue

Community rallies to save Johnny's Speakeasy music venue in Ann Arbor
Community rallies to save Johnny's Speakeasy music venue in Ann Arbor 04:39

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CBS DETROIT) - Referred to as Ann Arbor's "worst kept secret," Johnny's Speakeasy was destroyed in a fire in the summer of 2022. 

Now, community members are rallying to save the beloved space, which has hosted hundreds of musicians from around the world. 

The speakeasy was housed in resident John Williams' basement, who operated the underground music venue for three decades. 

Williams surveyed his home from his burned-out kitchen.  

"The fire started in the bathroom, and it just spread through the house and, of course, my beautiful cabinets, everything's just gone," Williams said. "The saddest thing for me, I'll come in here, and I'll see something one of my kids made years ago, some ceramic thing or something, and it'll be destroyed." 

The former special education teacher started hosting musicians in the more than 100-year-old former fruit cellar in 1998.  

"I did it about once a month when I was teaching, and then when I retired, I did it two or three times a month because people kept asking me -- and they were all great musicians -- so I said, 'Yeah, of course.'" 

Both performers and audience members heard about it largely by word of mouth.  

Williams said he never had to advertise to bring in acts. 

Doug Selby is a residential builder who renovated Williams' home years ago.  

Over the years, he's also become a good friend. 

"This is a special space," said Selby. "It's nothing like I've ever seen before, and I've seen a lot of live music in my life. It's almost like a cradle for music or something where people can allow themselves to be a little more creative than they would, and I think that's really important." 

Selby said Williams' insurance company, AAA, offered only half of what would be needed to bring him home and reopen the speakeasy.  

He also challenged AAA's assessment that the home needs to be remodeled. 

"I've been through the house extensively," said Selby. "I've been building and mostly remodeling homes for 30 years. I can tell you for a fact that this house cannot be remodeled. Especially in the city of Ann Arbor, which is one of the most stringent municipalities in the state to work ... no structural engineer that has concern for his license would sign off on something that has been burned as badly as this house has." 

Since the fire, Williams has been staying in a 140-year-old one-room school house he owns 220 miles away in Antrim County, which he said is barely heated. 

Insurance temporarily paid for housing costs, but he said those payments recently stopped. 

Williams makes trips back to Ann Arbor to try and make progress with his case. 

"I had no idea how messy this was going to get, and they're not your friends," Williams said of dealing with AAA. "They don't just say, 'no.' They say, 'no' in a really mean way, so that's kind of where I'm at now." 

"I'm sure if you're an insurance company, and your actuarial department would say, 'Okay, we've got a 75-year-old guy on a pension, let's draw this out on a long time and then swamp him with legal costs,'" said Selby. "And that's probably a good way, in most cases, to get someone to settle for far less than what they're due." 

AAA sent the following statement to CBS News Detroit about Williams' case. 

"The Auto Club Group Insurance Company (ACGIC) has issued multiple payments on Mr. Williams' claim and is working diligently to resolve the issue in a fair and amicable manner." 

The community has been rallying to save the speakeasy, protesting outside AAA's offices, and creating a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause. 

Selby helped organize a benefit concert at The Ark in January that raised funds for Williams, who said he's humbled by their efforts. 

"I am overwhelmed with the love and support I'm getting," he said. "Financially, it means a lot, but also, it keeps my morale up. There are times that I wake up in the morning and think, 'I'm 75 years old; what happened to my life? Why am I fighting this conglomerate?' And I'm just so happy to have this support.'" 

"The space itself, it really belongs in this community," said Selby. "It's deeply ingrained at this point, and I know Johnny's speakeasy, part of it has only been around for 30 years, but it's been long enough to have an international reach, actually. He's got bands from around the world that come here and play." 

As the months dragged on, Williams said his goal was simple: To come back home. 

"I thank the community for supporting me," he said. "I'm just so fortunate to have so many people looking out for me ... I want to come home." 

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