Four schoolteachers and a nurse change Rehoboth forever
It was never supposed to happen the way it did. After all, young Sydney Arzt had it all figured out: graduate high school at 16, earn her master’s in elementary education, teach for 18 years and advance through the system to assist schools with disadvantaged students.
So how in the world did she become an enduring legend here in Rehoboth Beach? How did she single-handedly pioneer live music in the off-season? And how did she help establish the now-famous Rehoboth Beach Autumn Jazz Festival? Sydney deftly answers all three questions: “There is no rational explanation.”
For the full-time teacher and mother of three, a 1982 New Year’s trip to the beach seemed like the perfect distraction. She, two other teachers, the principal and the school nurse piled into a car and descended on the Atlantic Sands Hotel. They were greeted with snow, icy winds and lots of boarded-up windows.
The five frozen friends strayed off Rehoboth Avenue and found themselves at 22 1/2 Wilmington Ave. (which years later would become the west-side building of La La Land). One thing led to another, and thus was born restaurant and bakery American Pie.
The cook in the group arose at 4:30 every morning to bake the croissants, and Sydney journeyed to Virginia every few days to pick up the dough. Their first year wasn’t very successful. Sydney again removes all doubt: “We were four schoolteachers and a nurse! What did you expect?” I asked if the second year fared any better. “We lost more money. And everybody quit.” Except for her.
Though she was still commuting and teaching school, she added lunches and expanded the menu, and lo and behold, she “broke even.” (That’s restaurant-speak for “paid the bills, but the owner got zilch.”)
In 1986, some friends from the Baltimore Blues Society suggested that she feature live music. She did and people loved it. She took a leave of absence from teaching (never went back), bought out the partners, changed the name to Side Street Café, and opened the doors year-round.
Sydney reminds me that, “In the ‘80s, Rehoboth was very entrepreneurial. Small people starting small businesses.” She struggled through the seasons alongside the Back Porch, Blue Moon, Front Page, Café on the Green, Potpourri, the Seahorse … some remain; some are gone.
In order to get closer to the action on Rehoboth Avenue, she moved the restaurant to 25 Christian St. (an old schoolhouse, no less), and renamed it Sydney’s Side Street Restaurant and Blues Place. Quite a mouthful, and it promptly became just … Sydney’s. People liked the Creole cuisine, but they loved the steady lineup of talented musicians.
Even in 1989, Rehoboth Beach was still a ghost town after Labor Day. People needed to know that there were still things to eat, buy and listen to, so Sydney teamed up with an adjoining business to form the Rehoboth Beach Downtown Business Association.
The group’s very first Autumn Jazz Festival was a single solitary concert at the Bandstand - but restaurants picked up on the idea and scheduled live music on that weekend.
The festival’s second year was graced with none other than jazz luminary Ethel Ennis, and even more restaurants got into the act.
Music was turning Rehoboth into a fall destination.
By the mid-2000s, Sydney Arzt was just plain weary. She sold the jazz club that started out as American Pie, and that was the day the music died.
The entertainment business demands that you stay on the leading edge, and she returned to teaching “to see what young people were thinking and doing.”
Her son Rick, the lead singer in Dewey Beach’s popular Love Seed Mama Jump, was performing at Bethany Blues in Lewes when managing partner Kevin Roberts suggested that regular music might be a good thing. Mmmm … barbecue. Beer. Blues. Kevin and Sydney exclaimed in unison, “It only seems right!” And so the music lives again.
This fall, on the Sunday of the 22nd annual jazz fest weekend, Sydney will host her Music Revival and BBQ Birthday Bash to benefit the nonprofit Delaware Charitable Music Inc., of which she is vice president. “This is my new purpose. It’s just something that arrived in my life, and it runs pretty deep.”
I suspect that few would disagree that Sydney’s impact on the history of Rehoboth Beach runs a lot deeper.