Frank Heath has co-owned Cat's Cradle for about 25 years. It's a business he knows well. At this moment, though, it's undergoing a string of extreme renovations, the first major changes the venue has seen since moving to its current location 18 years ago.
He's just explained that the construction has been completed in phases, due to the Cradle's busy schedule, but he's lost his train of thought. He chews on an ice cube as he stares out the windows of Amante Gourmet Pizza, just a few doors down from the Cradle. He finally turns back to the conversation, shakes his head and laughs: "I've got so many things running around in my head."
Heath is a busy man. He heads up booking for the 600-capacity Cradle and the shows it presents both at smaller spaces like the nearby Local 506 and Raleigh's Kings, and bigger venues such as the Durham Performing Arts Center and Raleigh Amphitheater.
Today Heath tries to explain things quickly, but he digresses into long thoughts on the future of the club. Given the scale of the reconstruction, his wariness is easy to understand: Improvements will include a new side door, which will serve as the Cradle's main entrance, and an expansion of the club's main room. The risers that ringed the space have been torn out, as have the wall and hallway that separated the bar and bathroom area from the concert hall. Crews are building a new, centered stage in place of the previous one, which sat at an angle to the audience. The ceiling is being removed to add sprinklers. The greenroom area is getting a complete makeover, and two poles that blocked key sight lines are being removed. Heath hopes these changes help secure the concerts he's been unable to land for the Cradle.
"I just don't like seeing a show that seems to have an open date and then seeing it not wind up in my club," he says. "I feel like doing this will give us a better chance to get more shows."
The changes, most of which will be complete when the club reopens Wednesday to host The Hold Steady, may also alter its capacity. Heath declined to set a target figure, but he indicated it could be as high as 900. While he's adamant that such a move wouldn't prevent smaller local acts from playing the club, it's likely that the expansion will affect the way shows are booked.
"It's hard enough for a local band to bring a few hundred people," says Django Haskins, whose Durham-based Old Ceremony will headline a free show at the Cradle on Thursday to showcase the alterations. "When that starts looking like a half-empty room, I wonder how that will affect the transfer of energy during a show."
Heath says the cost for the renovation has already broken six figures, and future improvements like a digital soundboard and a new PA will cost additional thousands. It might seem to be a curious investment, given that Heath will likely have to move the club soon. The strip mall where the venue is located is the site of the 300 E. Main St. development project, which will include a 144-room hotel and a six-level parking deck. Heath says the estimates he has received give him anywhere from two to six years before the Cradle will have to relocate. He believes the remodeling will maintain the Cradle's national credibility in the interim while giving him a glimpse of what it means to run an even larger space.
"I'm not necessarily a person who likes being a couple million dollars in debt," he says, joking about the cost of building a new Cradle. "By doing this, I get to avoid taking that big of a step, but I still get to make some upgrades that I feel will pay themselves off."