The Side Door just marked its first anniversary as a concert hall for all ages in what was once a Safeway grocery store. Appropriately ironic, as music is food for the soul. Located at the newly bustling corner of Fourth Avenue and Franklin Boulevard in Curtis Park, it is owned by veteran music couple Vivian Llamas-Green and John Green, and adjacent to their renowned teaching center, The Fifth String.
“The Fifth String started as a retail instrument/teaching chain – John and his brother Skip were both teaching at the Berkeley store,” Llamas-Green says. “I always wanted to play guitar, and I saw this phenomenal musician at a friend’s house, decided to take lessons – and well, John and I fell in love.” She had planned on heading to UC Santa Barbara, but the Green brothers wanted to return home to Sacramento and open a Fifth String here. “John asked me to join him – so we three opened The Fifth String in 1981 in a Victorian at the corner of 20th and L. John and I lived upstairs.”
For more than three decades and several locations, thousands of area music lovers learned, played (and had John, a CPA, do their taxes) via this lively store.
But with the crushing influence of the Internet, the state of retail at their East Sacramento location changed. By mid-2017, the Greens decided to cease selling stringed instruments and concentrate solely on their highly talented teaching staff. “We were just driving around, looking for space just for a teaching facility. We headed down Franklin – and I saw this place that looked to be vacant.” It had been the short-lived ESH Antique Gallery, and before that artist studios. And, in the 1930s, a Safeway grocery store.
Behind an inside door was something the Greens had not reckoned on, but always longed for – a 1,500-square-foot space that could be cleaned out and remodeled into a live music listening room. “We had lots of helpers (primarily our teachers and musicians) who worked on creating this. All of their other skills – construction, carpeting, painting, wiring – were amazing. Everyone pitched in. We could not have done this without them.”
Camaraderie figures large in all ways with the Greens. “There has been a decline of the value that is placed on live music and it is very sad,” Llamas-Green says. “Our focus with The Side Door is to make the experience wonderful for the musicians – and to pay them well. As a result, our audiences benefit from that. Creating a listening room takes the focus away from the booze, the louder socializing of a bar – it is a concert. And it is exciting to have all kinds of local, regional and national music here, not only the bluegrass that the Fifth String was always known for.”
Irish rock bands, folk, blues, country, jazz and singer-songwriters are all performing here now, usually every weekend.
Curtis Park resident Eric Bianchi runs the sound system with “the board” (his iPad), so each band’s specific mix needs and settings are saved for when they return.
Most of the teaching staff are well-known performers with their own followings, and they have the potential to bring in all ages.
“Our majority demographics right now are from age 30s to 70s,” Llamas-Green says. “I do want to have more diverse audiences and so we want to bring in diverse music, even stand-up comedy. I’d love to have a female mariachi band!”
In March, Llamas-Green retired from Sacramento State University as associate registrar managing the graduation offices. Her behind-the-scenes-life for more than three decades with The Fifth String will be much more visible as she takes on promotions and co-booking duties with John.
“Music forms our character and will evolve, but the purpose stays the same – it unites people,” she says. “It lets us heal and express ourselves. I enjoy teaching and singing because it feeds my soul.”