Larkin Stallings has spent 40 years opening and running bars, restaurants and nightclubs, mostly in Houston, Texas. How he arrived on an island off the coast of Massachusetts and how he came to own the iconic Ritz on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs is a Vineyard story of the best kind.
Q. Larkin, when did you buy The Ritz?
A. I’ve owned The Ritz going on about six years now.
Q. And what made you buy it?
A. Well, not great sense!
But my wife Jackie and I got a home up here about 15 years ago, so we’ve been living here on and off and in Houston on and off. One winter, snow was coming down and I was walking down Circuit Ave. And there was a sign in the window that said “For Sale by Owner.” I walked in and saw Janet King, the owner. We started talking about it and before I knew it, we owned The Ritz!
Q. But wait! In Houston, how did you even hear about this Island, let alone buy a home here?
A. Oh, this is a good story! My wife and I married 32 years ago. And when we first met, or soon after, she said, “Someday we’ll live on Martha’s Vineyard.” I was like, “I don’t even know where that is.” She said, “It’s an island close to Cape Cod.” Turns out she’d never been there either.
Q. So how did she hear of it?
A. As a Mexican-American kid growing up in South Texas, her parents were Kennedy-philes. My wife was named Jacqueline Lee after Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy and she wrote a paper about her in middle school. That’s when she learned Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was buying a compound on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s how she first heard of the Island. Then she read a bunch of Judy Blume books where the Island was featured and she just liked the idea of the place.
A. So we visited on one of our anniversaries, in the wintertime, and it was pretty awesome. We loved it and started coming back with the kids in the summertime and then bought a home.
Q. Back to The Ritz. What did you know about its rather colorful reputation?
A. I knew that it had been around since 1944. I also knew that for the longest time, The Ritz had had a kind of nefarious reputation. It was the place where you went and dragged your dad out, the place where you had your first illegal drink. It was known to be more of a working man’s local bar.
Q. So did you want to change it?
A. When we got ahold of it, we wanted to do a lot of things, but luckily when we finally got it, it was right before July Fourth weekend and we just let it run. That’s when we learned a great deal about what it meant, what history it had, how special it was…so we did very little to change it. My wife and I know we own a Vineyard tradition, and we just added a bit of southern charm to it.
Q. So now it’s a music place, a restaurant, a bar or all three?
A. I own restaurants, but that is not really my forte. I am much better at the entertainment side of the business. So we tried a couple of ways to serve food. We hired chefs and cooks, even spent a season with Ben DeForest running a kitchen for me. The food was great but a little too much for The Ritz, which is more casual.
Finally, just before Covid hit, we got together with Adam Rebello, who is a great young Island man who had Dilly’s Taqueria in Oak Bluffs. He lost his location up the street, we started talking, he needed space, and I needed someone to run the food program. We put Dilly’s in The Ritz. It’s his business. He now runs that part of it.
Q. So for you, it’s the music?
A. For me, the music has always been kinda heart and soul. It’s what keeps us real, you know? It has always been a really important part of our mission. We want to give tourists and locals a place to listen to great music. And we want to give musicians a place to come and work! For me, that’s the most fun.
Q. How did you get through the Covid shutdown?
A. Oh my god! I’ve been at this about 40 years and I have never had a year like last year. That was nuts! Jackie was polishing the bar rail on the 16th (of March), getting ready to rock and roll for another great season, and on the 17th, we were absolutely closed down. As were all my venues in Texas, right? For the first time in my life, I was out of work and we had no income!
Q. What did you do?
A. We went into full survival mode. God bless the federal government for giving us the PPP money that helped us get through, pay our bills and keep our core staff.
Q. How great is it to be open again?
A. I swear the night that we opened, with Rose Guerin’s show and then the McMahon brothers, people were crying. Crying! It was wonderful!
Q. Is there something special about doing this work on the Island?
A. Oh my goodness, absolutely, yes! What this Island is is the craziest nexus of people from here and people from all over, and I can promise you this Island breeds the very best musicians in the country.
You’ve got Johnny Hoy, probably the best front man in R&B and Blues today. He is! He’s the best. Cool baritone voice, great harmonica and his presence is great, band is great.
Jeremy Berlin is awesome. He’s not only a well-rounded, phenomenal musician, but he’s also committed to the business of music.
There’s this guitarist I met. Delaney Pickering. She’s 22 now. And she is probably one of the best Blues guitarists you will hear anywhere. Anywhere!
Q. Any challenges in doing this here?
A. I have the same challenge that comes up for everyone. Island housing is the challenge. It’s ours, it’s everyone’s. We need to find a way to provide a good, safe, comfortable place for people who do the work on this Island to live.
The housing bank is such a natural for this Island! This place wouldn’t be much fun if there was nobody working here.
Q. What gives you your greatest satisfaction?
A. Besides being able to work with the Island’s finest musicians and provide a place for them to play, I would have to say my incredible staff. I’ve been so blessed to be surrounded by fine, hard-working, interesting folks. The last one has to be the customer base. They are amazing and so diverse. I’ve made life-long friends from hanging out and working at The Ritz!
Paula Lyons is a former television consumer journalist living in Vineyard Haven.