Owners, artists discuss The Mill’s past, present, and future

While the announcement of the owners of The Mill stepping down means another blow to Iowa City’s live music scene, owners and artists reflect on past experiences and what The Mill’s future still could hold.


Katie Goodale

Aloe Mean delivers stand-up during the Comedy Showcase at the Mill on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. As a part of Witching Hour, comedians joked about the 2020 presidential campaign, rich people, and getting married.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

Another blow to Iowa City’s downtown music scene came with the announcement that The Mill’s owners, Dan Ouverson and Marty Christensen, will be stepping down after 17 years.

The restaurant and music venue indefinitely closed on May 2, with no word on future plans. Until then, the restaurant offered takeout orders because of a statewide ban on dine-in restaurant operations. On June 18, Ouverson and Christensen’s announced on The Mill’s Facebook page that they were selling the venue.

Ouverson and Christensen’s departure could make this the third downtown live music venue to close its doors in less than a year. While The Mill has seen changes in ownership in its nearly 60 years, this particular event follows the closure of Blue Moose in September 2019 and Union Bar in April.

Despite the venue losing its current ownership, Christensen said he’s hopeful for the future of Iowa City’s music scene and is confident that The Mill will return to be a part of it.

“I’m excited to see how someone else might carry on the tradition and make the right changes to keep the place running long into the future,” he said.

The Mill has been a music hub since it opened its doors in 1962, according to The Mill’s webpage. At that time, it was owned by Keith Dempster, who turned the venue into the center for Americana music in the Iowa City community.

The venue has seen a plethora of artists pass through during its time, including Joe Price, Bo Ramsey and David Zollo. In recent years it has also provided an intimate performance space for rising musical artists and performers, including comedians, poets, and actors.

The Mill’s stage was one that not only jump-started careers or hosted bigger names— it was one that made headlines, too. In 1977, while Dempster owned The Mill, an impersonator claiming to be John Phillips, lead singer of The Mamas and Papas, performed. He was exposed by an investigation from The Daily Iowan shortly after.

Dempster moved The Mill to its current home on Burlington Street in 1972. The restaurant and music venue transferred ownership to Ouverson and Christensen in July 2003 after it had been closed for one month. Ouverson and Christensen owned The Mill for 17 years before announcing that they would step down.

The duo aimed to keep The Mill a special place amongst otherwise cookie-cutter buildings and chain restaurants, and to create a home for local artists, according to their website. When they took over in 2003, their goal was to keep it open “as long as possible.”

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“One of the main reasons I bought it from Keith and Pam was because that is a very special music room,” Christensen said in an email to the *DI*. “I had so many great gigs there before Keith announced his closure, I felt like the venue had to continue… There really isn’t another venue in the area like it.”

Patrick Tape Fleming, a musician who has performed at The Mill several times and frequented their concerts, agreed that the venue is special.

“The music room is pretty unique,” Fleming said. “When you’re performing, it’s like theater of the round, there’s people on all sides of you, people can be right on top of the band. The stage is only about a foot off the ground, so there’s a lot of interaction between audience and performers.”

Fleming hopes to see The Mill or venues that resemble it return to Iowa City.

“I think it’s so important to have places where people can share art and be inspired by artists. Music is a magical thing,” he said. The Mill was also home to Run of the Mill Theatre Productions, a non-profit theater company.

Natalie Black, the company’s producer, and Rich LeMay, co-founder of Run of The Mill and former events and production manager of The Mill, were already working to convert the company to an online format until 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns, but said they were sad to see the owners go because they created an atmosphere the two of them loved.

Black said the formality of theater culture didn’t feel right for what she hoped to accomplish with Run of the Mill. She chose The Mill for its casual atmosphere, so people could relax without worrying about adhering to proper theater etiquette during performances.

“I didn’t grow up a theater kid, I always thought it was kind of stuffy,” Black said. “I think having theater at The Mill makes it less stuffy. I feel like I can be myself there.”

Black and LeMay frequented karaoke nights at The Mill and said that their time singing with Run of the Mill members made them feel like family.

“Run of the Mill Theatre productions wouldn’t exist without The Mill,” LeMay said. “We want to continue doing theater there if possible. It’s always been our home, and the atmosphere itself really just adds that missing puzzle piece to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Mill is an Iowa City local landmark in its own right. It’s been a focal point for music in Iowa City for 58 years, which is why some are hoping for new owners to carry on the venue’s legacy.

“The Mill is very special and complicated to run — because it is so many different things at different times,” Christensen said. “But it is always comfortable, welcoming, and full of history.”