Behind the Stone Balloon
Part 1 of 2 Part Series: The Balloon Rises
Published: Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Updated: Sunday, July 19, 2009 05:07
"It was the total hotspot. It just engulfed and took over the town," he says. "There were major lines, and every band wanted to play the Stone Balloon."
Tucker is black, and his group plays mostly rhythm and blues, both of which raised eyebrows in the early '70s at a bar like The Balloon. Stevenson's gut had chosen Tucker, though, and he wouldn't let anyone convince him otherwise. Tucker turned out to be the first act to gross $1,000 on a Thursday night with happy hour specials, and this experience was just one of many that would prove Stevenson's instinct to be uncanny.
As the Balloon's popularity increased, so did the quality of the bands. It became almost a symbiotic relationship, with the bands popularizing the bar and the bar getting out the name of the bands. Stevenson nurtured the local music scene, and local bands would get a chance to play early in the week. If he liked what he heard, Stevenson would let them play all week.
Ed Shockley, drummer for the Jack of Diamonds, was also one of the earliest performers to play at the Balloon. Stevenson first saw Shockley and his band playing at a fraternity party on campus, but it wouldn't be long before the band became a regular at the bar.
Shockley describes the band's first performance as both exhilarating and nerve racking. They were supposed to open for Bruce Springsteen, but when Springsteen had to cancel at the last minute, the Jack of Diamonds became the headliner.
"It was like baptism by fire," Shockley says, laughing. "It was a showcase venue. There was nothing to compare it to in the area. People got dressed up when they went there, too. It felt like you were some place."
The momentum of the Balloon's popularity would roll into the next decade. Springsteen rescheduled, and approximately a year after he played there he was simultaneously on the covers of Newsweek and Time. Other acts would include Pat Benatar, Hall and Oates, Chubby Checker, Robert Palmer, Blood Sweat and Tears and David Crosby, besides a long list of other nationally recognized, high-profile entertainers.
The structure of the bar also grew with its reputation. When Stevenson bought the property it was maybe a fourth the size it is today.
Stevenson built multiple additions, and each one would revolutionize what people had thought was possible. He made a loading dock in the back so alcohol distributors could easily unload kegs. He expanded the inside, adding new bars and a sound booth. He added an outdoor patio on the side, and handicapped ramp in front for returning Vietnam veterans. The stage was the most remarkable addition, as he lowered the floor so people at the bars could see while others squeezed into the pit in front. Behind the stage was another loading dock on which bands could unload their equipment, opening the door for even larger acts.
At its peak, lines were often around the corner or stretching all the way to Grotto Pizza. From various visits to Studio 54, Stevenson got ideas like a newsletter and hotline for the bar, both of which further legitimized the bar. MTV broadcast live from the Balloon after Stevenson pitched them the idea, Playboy named it one of the best college bars in the country and at one point Budweiser rated it as its highest seller nationwide.
Not everything ran smoothly for Stevenson, though, and suspicion accompanied his sudden success. In his book, he looks back and wishes he had a better idea of what he was getting into when he bought the bar. He attributes his inexperience to many of the problems that would occur during his ownership and would taint the image Stevenson and his employees worked to maintain.
The IRS would eventually become involved after Stevenson failed to pay back a loan, which was a relatively small $8,000 when compared to the millions the bar was earning. Undercover agents would be sent to the Balloon to give information to Delaware police, who would pass it on to the FBI. Nothing was found to incriminate Stevenson, though, and he even claims one agent sobbingly confessed his secret motives after a night of drinking.
Stevenson sought to build a high-class liquor store and winery behind the bar, but his dream was halted by town officials who refused to rezone the property in order for him to do so, suspecting he had bribed a city solicitor. An FBI inquiry found no wrongdoing, but the town would never allow him to finish building.
Drug use in the late '70s and early '80s was also a part of The Balloon, but Stevenson says not to the extent people believe. In his book he estimates spending approximately $50,000 on cocaine during a six-year period, and says he probably gave half of it away to anyone who asked, with plenty of bands asking for some in order to perform better.
Stevenson expresses his most regret about the death of a girl behind another store on Main Street who was erroneously linked to The Balloon. Rumors were spread she had been beaten in the Balloon's parking lot, when she had actually been found four businesses down the street, with various chain link fences between.
The Wilmington News Journal published a front-page article stating it all had occurred near The Balloon, though, and later articles confirming otherwise were buried inside the paper. He says the entire incident hurt the Balloon's image, but he acknowledges first that it was not an issue compared to the horribleness of the girl's death.
"I wish she had really been in The Stone Balloon parking lot. Then she might still be alive," Stevenson says, somberly. The sheer amount of people that were always around the bar at the time would have discouraged any type of assault, he says, but he installed lights all around the parking lot afterward to doubly eliminate the possibility.
Stevenson also had issues with a divorce case between he and his first wife, Jill Jacobs, who today is married to Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). They had married in February 1970, when Stevenson was only 23 and Jacobs was a student at the university, but drifted apart and were divorced in 1976.