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"Door guys," that's what we call them, or perhaps "bouncers," if we think they look the part. But the best of our city's night-club concierges deserve better, and Paul Stark, who has worked the door for the last five years at Off Broadway, was one of the best. A gentleman and a genuine music fan (and fellow DJ at KDHX, I should disclose), he greeted patrons warmly and patiently, setting the tone for a room that, with the exception of its blues-based near neighbors, has been presenting original, live music longer than just about any night club in the city.
This month Stark retired from his work at Off Broadway, ending a run that saw him stamp the hands of some 200,000 fans over the span of 1,600 shows at the venue. I sat down with him over coffee to reminisce about his time at the door.
Roy Kasten: When did you begin working with Off Broadway?
Paul Stark: In August 2007. Frederick's Music Lounge [where Stark previously worked] had been closed for more than a year. When Fred's closed I thought I didn't want to deal with rock & roll clubs; it was a headache, worrying about people calling in sick, making sure the bills were paid, things like that. The only thing I did with music after we closed the club was the Chippewa Chapel Traveling Open Mic; we went somewhere every week for the open mic night. We settled in at Off Broadway for a one-year run.
During that time, a couple of months after Frederick's closed and Kit [Kellison] bought Off Broadway, probably springtime 2006, I got to know Steve [Pohlman, the co-owner]. He was working the door himself, and he was at that point in the learning curve that he figured out that bartenders tend to make more money than the owner.
I remember when he had that revelation.
I said, "Why don't you tend bar for a while, and I'll watch the door?" It allowed me to be involved with music without having to worry about running a music club.
The first night I worked was September 1, 2007. It was a big rockabilly show, five bands. That was the first day that they decided to become a nonsmoking venue. I looked across the room, it was a crowded night, and I knew that something had changed, architecturally. Looking at the back wall, I was trying to figure out what they did. Well, you could see the back wall because there weren't 200 cigarettes burning! I could see the wall for the first time!
How many total shows did you do?
Let me see.
You actually kept track?
Yeah. A little more than 1,600 shows. About 3,700 bands. You figure two-and-a-half bands a night. I guess that's a pretty long run.
I'd say so.
It started out just helping once in a while, and then it became five nights a week. I pretty quickly picked up other responsibilities. I managed some of the ticketing, did the MySpace and then Facebook pages, and I maintained the website. I was the concierge and helped bands load in and out. And I was the janitor, sweeping up sidewalks, shoveling snow. And I'd also settle up with bands at the end of the night. It then turned into doing something almost every day, and I got to listen to music every day.
Tell me about the most memorable shows.
I'd put them in different categories. There are those artists that I admired and listened to for years and years and finally got to spend time with them. Jonathan Richman, Asylum Street Spankers, Marshall Crenshaw, Webb Wilder, Southern Culture on the Skids, Brave Combo, Rosie Flores, John Doe. Then there were new acquaintances who would come through about once a year, and I would see them so frequently that I consider them friends. Susan Cowsill, for example. When I was nine years old and she was nine, I had a huge crush on her. Ellis Paul, a great guy; when he comes through he records for Musical Merry-Go-Round [the show Stark hosts on KDHX], and he has his family records, his ethical, humanist music. I consider him one of the inheritors of Woody Guthrie.
And then there are those bands I never would have heard of if I hadn't been at the door. The School, who recently played the club, from England — they wowed me. I bought the whole catalogue that night. And bands like the Boulder Acoustic Society, the Wiyos, Hot Club of Cowtown, April Smith and the Great Picture Show. I didn't know these artists, but I got to learn about them at the club.
A third category would be artists playing for the first time onstage. The open-mic nights, for example, when someone would be up there with a nice PA system, cool lighting. I felt I could help them with their nervousness. The Folk School student showcases were really neat, with 70 to 80 students who had just finished their sessions and would perform recitals for their families and peers. We also did some burlesque shows, and Lola Van Ella had her school. Instead of mandolins it was pasties and feathers backstage. But they had practiced, and now they were going to perform for the first time.
I got to watch bands grow up in the club. Pokey LaFarge started playing little tiny shows at Off Broadway, and then he'd play another and another, and now he's outgrown the club. That's cool, to watch someone grow within that venue.
There were also some shows that were almost too big for Off Broadway and maybe shouldn't have been in that small of a room. Mumford & Sons had booked this tour, 300 to 400-seat rooms.
I remember not being able to get into that show.
The record had just come out, and they could have bailed, but they did it. From my perch behind the stage, I could see all these people singing those songs like they'd known the band all their lives. The record had only been out for a few months. They knew they were never going to get to do this again, to see a band in a club like that, to look the band straight in the eye like that.
Another memorable show was one of the early crawfish boils. I didn't work that night, but I came back two days later and the place still stunk of crawfish. I think every stray cat in the neighborhood was hanging out in the courtyard. I noticed that the smell of crawfish was still in the room, coming through the air conditioner. Turned out some joker had thrown his crawfish shells up on the roof by the air-conditioning unit.
What would you say was the least pleasant interaction you had with an artist or a patron?
Very rarely with an artist. If you're good enough to draw as an artist, you're smart enough to be polite. There are a few that think they are too big for their britches. But they're always pleasant to me, and I think that's because of how I, as a concierge, treat them. It's like life. If you're nice to them, they'll be nice to you.
There have been some patrons who get too rowdy, which is associated with bands that get rowdy. Some bands play that kind of music, and the audience takes the shtick too seriously. At an original music venue, it's actually pretty rare that you have to bounce someone. Maybe if they've had a little too much drink. But at an original music venue people come to hear the music, not to look for a fight or to get laid. But there have been times. I've had eyeglasses broken, a hand broken.
You punched someone?
That was from helping someone exit the venue. So there are a few bruises, but it was so infrequent. Those times when I've had to ask people to leave, I've always tried to present it as being in their own best interest: If you leave now, you might be able to come back again. If you don't go now, you won't be coming back. But it all goes back to that first conversation: Welcome to Off Broadway, glad you're here. I want you to have a good time.