Just a few years ago Bill Miller and his Icon Entertainment Group weren't a fixture on the Nashville tourism scene. The best-known sites for visitors were names such as the beloved Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry.
Then, in 2013, Miller, a Johnny Cash mega-fan from way back, announced the opening of the Johnny Cash Museum. Some wondered how popular it might be, as close as it is to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a large institution with plentiful music memorabilia.
Miller proved that there's no limit to the public's appreciation of the Man in Black. By December 2017 the Johnny Cash Museum had seen more than one million visitors come through its doors and added a café to feed sightseers.
With the success of the Johnny Cash Museum, Miller and his wife Shannon, Icon co-founder, also proved they have a rare talent—the ability to anticipate new tourism trends while honoring, appreciating and preserving the past. In just five years, Icon Entertainment Group has built a collection of destinations that are the best of old and new.
"We didn't set out to create an empire. When the Johnny Cash Museum opened and people actually came, our thought was, 'Hey, we can pay the light bill!' We are motivated because we are having so much fun. It is just the biggest blessing," Miller says.
Icon's newest project, which opens April 9, 2018, is perhaps its most unusual and offbeat. And that says something, given that this is a company that hung a full-size Cadillac from the wall of a honkytonk.
House of Cards is a magic venue that is part performance space and part museum, hidden in the basement under both the Johnny Cash Museum and the Patsy Cline Museum, the homage to the "Crazy" singer that opened in 2017. "We were members of the Magic Castle when we lived in California, and we miss it," Shannon Miller says of Los Angeles' famous venue, a members-only club for people 21 and older and their guests. House of Cards isn't a members-only attraction; locals and tourists alike are welcome to come see the shows, slights of hand and eat dinner. But like the California inspiration, they must follow a dress code (sports jackets and cocktail attire required; ties are not) and shows are for grown-ups, though kid-friendly Sunday brunch shows may be added in the future.
Like much in this well-designed space, looks can be deceiving. What was once a standard basement now includes a stone-lined staircase, 24-karat gold-foil ceilings, optical illusion mirrors and moving bookcases.
Jason Michaels, a Nashville magician who is now House of Cards' director of entertainment, is excited about the caliber of magic that the venue will offer. "This is really world-class. This going to put the Nashville magic community on the map." The idea is to have a consistency of acts, both in the 50-seat showroom and at small tables throughout the dining area, so that both first-timers and repeat attendees will be entertained. House of Cards is a strictly no-photo space, so none of the surprises are leaked. (To that end, you'll find no spoilers here, suffice to say, these aren't kids' birthday party-style tricks.)
On the walls are framed pieces of art, including some of the rarest playing cards in any collection: one dates from 1490. Artifacts of Harry Blackstone, Sr., a famed 20th-century magician, came from an auction; Miller says he outbid big names such as David Copperfield for the memorabilia, in part because there was a connection to suburban Nashville in their provenance. Blackstone Sr. once headlined at the Ryman and was a member of The Nashville Magic Club.
That makes sense as most of Icon's projects are intrinsically connected to Nashville's history. Nudie's Honky Tonk, which opened in 2016 on Broadway, honors Nudie Cohn, the man who dressed country stars in sequins. The live music venue, which boasts a bar embedded with nearly 10,000 silver dollars, has many "Nudie Suits" framed and hung on the walls, as well as Cohn's aforementioned Cadillac.
Last year Icon bought even more of Music City's history in hopes of preserving it. In 1948 Skull's Rainbow Room opened in Nashville's historic Printers Alley, with burlesque dancing, live jazz music and more. Years of changing tastes caused it to close. In 2015 Skull’s relaunched, now with dinner, updated drinks and a tie to the past. In 2017 Icon acquired a majority interest in Skull's as well as the Southern Turf building which houses it. This is Icon's fourth acquisition in the downtown area in the last three years; the company now owns 73,872 square feet of commercial property downtown. The 1895 building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Also in the works is the Merle Haggard Museum, scheduled to open later this year. At the Johnny Cash Museum, Icon partnered with beloved local coffee-maker Bongo Java for its on-site café. At the Merle Haggard Museum, Icon is bringing another time-tested brand downtown. Since 1952 Swett's Restaurant has been a southern food destination for locals (there's also an outpost at Nashville International Airport). Swett's will be the kitchen at Merle's Meat + 3 Saloon. The company's Music City Threads make t-shirts and other clothing sold in Icon attraction gift shops, as well as in the Omni hotel and at the airport.
"It is really exciting to work with Swett's family, like other things we've done, but it is reaching into Nashville's past and history," Miller says. "David Swett said, 'This Bill Miller guy must be really smart because he asked about what we do.' Well, I'm smart enough to know to go to the best."
"This is not the end of what we're doing. We have the Southern Turf building and just went under contract on another historic building," Miller adds. Stay tuned to see what Icon conjures up next for Nashville.