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ONCE Somerville to close because of losses attributed to COVID

JJ Gonson, owner of Cuisine en Locale and ONCE Somerville, says she ran out of funding to keep her businesses afloat.
JJ Gonson, owner of Cuisine en Locale and ONCE Somerville, says she ran out of funding to keep her businesses afloat.Dina Rudick

The hits just keep coming for the local music scene. On Wednesday, JJ Gonson announced the permanent shutdown of ONCE Somerville, the event space associated with her catering company, Cuisine en Locale, which is also closing.

The club, which has hosted live shows ranging from Evan Dando and Amanda Palmer to Mitski and Orville Peck, joins a growing list of local performance venues forced to close due to the pandemic. They include Great Scott (which is relocating in Allston under new ownership), Thunder Road and Bull McCabe’s in Somerville, and Bella Luna & The Milky Way in Jamaica Plain.

ONCE — the name comes from the catering business, One Night Culinary Event — ran a successful GoFundMe campaign after shutting down in March, which allowed the club to stay afloat temporarily. But that largesse soon ran out.

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“We very carefully allocated the little bit of government money we got,” says Gonson, a photographer known for her early pictures of Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. She applied for emergency funding through the National Independent Venue Association, “but that won’t come through fast enough.” A proposed “Save Our Stages” bill to assist live music venues has languished in Congress.

“There’s no relief,” Gonson says. “We’re not making enough money.”

The building on Highland Avenue, built in 1914, originally housed a silent movie theater; later incarnations included a bowling alley, a law firm, and a hair salon. It’s a quirky space, with an old chandelier hanging over the entryway to the ballroom and a mezzanine-level lounge area. There are churches above and below, says Gonson: “We’re a church sandwich.”

She likes to joke that the singing that takes place in the churches inspired her to book more shows: “We got loud because they were loud.”

She is making plans to store the club’s P.A. system, which previously amplified shows at Harpers Ferry in Allston and then T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge.

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Her landlord has been “absolutely, 100 percent cooperative,” she says. “No one has shut us down. It’s COVID.”

Even before the decision to vacate, ONCE had already shifted to a “virtual venue” setting, livestreaming concerts and karaoke. “We’re going to try to hang on virtually until we can figure out our next phase,” Gonson says. “We’ll hold our community close virtually.”

She’ll gladly run through a list of shows she’s proud to have promoted at the club, but that would be a long list. One favorite: Scream Along with Billy, a raunchy, anything-goes series of tributes to big names such as Prince, David Bowie, and Lou Reed.

“Total laughter and gaiety and ridiculousness,” says Gonson. “That’s my happy place.”

Now she’s holding out hope that she can find another happy place.

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.