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The Attraction of Toad’s
With its wood paneling, Welsh Rarebits, and team portraits, the Mory’s Association is arguably the best-known temple to the Yale of yore. And Toad’s Place, which is located just one door down from Mory’s on York Street, couldn’t be further away in spirit. Boasting a roster of superstar performers from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones (who opened their 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour there with a surprise appearance) to Billy Joel and James Taylor, it is considered one of the top pop music clubs in the country. But electricity makes strange bedfellows. When a tornado blew out the power in the middle of lunch at Mory’s in 1989, manager Karl Bauer was not about to stand on tradition. Instead, he called Mike Spoerndle, the founder and owner of Toad’s, who has a separate power line to keep his amplifiers hot no matter what happens at the Goffe Street substation. And Spoerndle immediately ran a cable across the alley between the buildings. “It would have been tough cooking by candlelight,” says Bauer’s neighbor. “Karl would have done the same for me.”
There are still some in the Yale community who wrinkle their noses at the presence of Spoerndle’s high-decibel institution in their midst (the odor of stale beer can have a similar effect the day after a major concert). But as time goes by, Spoerndle is becoming an increasingly familiar figure on the campus. He has been invited to lecture to Yale psychology classes, worked with Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg and the Yale Concert Committee, and—yes—has become a prominent member of Mory’s. Even the upper echelons of the University administration are coming around to the unusual allure of Toad’s and its master of ceremonies. Just last year, Spoerndle was made an associate fellow of Trumbull College in recognition of his role in undergraduate life, and former President Howard Lamar showed up as a guest at a benefit with one of his special assistants dressed in a toad costume.
Although Toad’s may at first seem out of place in the shadow of Sterling Memorial Library—which looms above it across York Street—it is very much a part of the undergraduate culture, and is one of the few places where Yale students and New Haveners get together with such ease and enthusiasm. Whether they are dancing to the music of Sonic Youth, jumping to the 1950’s-style rock of NRBQ, or witnessing rock history during a musical visit from Cyndi Lauper or Bruce Springsteen, the crowds are a testament to town-gown relations at their most up-to-date. As Spoerndle sees it, Yale and the New Haven business community ought to have these kinds of interaction. And participating in the life of the College has become his way of making a difference.
Originally from Cleveland, the 41-year-old Spoerndle came to New Haven to attend the (since departed) Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation, he decided to stay in the area and open a restaurant. “I decided I’d try something away from home, so if I went broke I could go back,” he explains. “Luckily, it didn’t work out that way, and I got to stay in Connecticut.” In 1975, Spoerndle took over the space vacated by an earlier restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s in the York Street building that had once housed the Yale Co-op. The source of the name? “I started with $12,000,” Spoerndle recalls. “We had very few tables and chairs. Coming up with some funny French name for this funky little place didn’t make sense.” Back in Cleveland, “toad” was used to describe someone who never left the house. Dubbing the restaurant “Toad’s Place” seemed to Spoerndle to sum up his goal of attracting a new crowd.
Success was by no means instantaneous. In June of 1975, Spoerndle says, “the business was going broke, and I decided to learn a little something about the music and bar business.” By the end of the year, he was booking such blues greats as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor, in addition to local rock acts (crooner Michael Bolton opened for bigger names in the early 1980s). And the names grew steadily in stature. Bruce Springsteen visited in 1978, and U2 made its first U.S. appearance at Toad’s. One of the selections from Billy Joel’s live album, “Songs in the Attic,” was taped there.
The club has grown bigger and better-equipped with the prominence of the performers. Spoerndle takes special pride in the sound and lighting systems, which can turn the place from a rock arena to a dance club with the flick of a few switches. And the musicians clearly appreciate the fact. “It’s one of my favorite clubs,” says Al Anderson, guitarist for the critically acclaimed band NRBQ.
Making contact with the Yale community took longer. According to Charlie Hunter, a 1981 Yale College graduate who started a Toad’s tradition by painting custom-made, wooden window signs to announce upcoming bands, the management didn’t immediately reach out to its potential Yale audience. But nowadays they are in a close embrace. Spoerndle’s club is a hot spot for two reasons. One is that it has become the premier place for any band to play between New York City and Boston. The other is its variety of musical offerings. Toad’s hosts a dizzying array of musical artists and styles, creating a yearly roster that some of its more famous New York City counterparts find difficult to match. In any given week, clubhoppers can catch acts ranging from national names to New Haven locals, and music that spans the spectrum from African to the spicy Cajun rock called zydeco. This past summer, blues guitarist George Thorogood appeared within days of lounge singer Tom Jones.
Spoerndle’s eclectic taste is reflected in his office, which is papered with pictures of Bob Dylan and autographed glossies of the likes of country singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter, rockers the Smithereens and Joan Jett, and bluesman Albert Collins. Booking such variety—and quality—is a demanding task. “Mike doesn’t miss anything,” says Hunter. “He’s made use of everything he’s got.” In the space of half an hour, Spoerndle is apt to make plans with his booking and promotions manager Katherine Blossom (a Yale alumna), pay a stack of bills, set a price for negotiations with a rock band called Widespread Panic, and attend to alcohol orders for the restaurant.
In recent years, Spoerndle’s whirlwind has come to include a variety of Yale-related activities. “Mike has always wanted to go to Yale. I’m sure he’ll do anything to get in,” jokes Al Anderson. Nowadays, the photographs of music stars share space with framed letters from Trumbull College master Harry Adams, and an announcement for a Trumbull Master’s Tea, at which Spoerndle was the primary speaker.
Spoerndle’s involvement with Yale dates back to the mid-1970s. “I did a Spring Fling,” he recalls. “I put Beaver Brown, NRBQ, and, I think, Jake and the Family Jewels together to do a thing in Commons, which is really an acoustical nightmare. We did it, though. We pulled it off.” From little things big things grow: Spoerndle and the Toad’s staff were instrumental in helping the Yale Concert Committee bring Bob Dylan to the campus in the winter of 1991. He seems thoroughly happy to help out, and doesn’t charge for his services.
Students work with the club for reasons other than bringing rock stars to sing on campus. More often, Toad’s can provide some extra income, and work there might pay off in bigger ways than one might think. “It was really interesting to see the attitudes that townies had about Yalies, and vice versa,” remembers Donna Tiburzi, a 1991 graduate who served drinks at the club for several months. Other Yale students have worked at the club as security guards, disk jockeys, and receptionists.
Most often, Spoerndle’s contact with Yale students takes place at the club, but he is now showing up in the classroom. Professor Kelly Brownell, who lives near Spoerndle in Branford, has used him as a guest lecturer in his health psychology class to discuss the effect of stress in the music business on health.
In return, Spoerndle has put Brownell’s faculty music group—the Professors of Bluegrass—on the Toad’s stage twice in the past academic year. “I think Mike does a lot of this stuff out of good will,” Brownell explains. “My impression is that he’s very devoted to becoming more involved with Yale. The fact that he’s had our group play is evidence of that. we’re certainly not known by our reputation.”
Harry Adams of Trumbull College, where Spoerndle holds the position of associate fellow, knows how well his neighbor works with students. The club owner was elected to the fellowship in the spring of 1992, entering a select company that includes Robert MacNeil, Peter Jennings, and Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally. Spoerndle has recently opened up Toad’s especially for Trumbull students. “He had his whole staff there,” Adams recalls, “and they turned on the smoke and the flashing lights—the whole bit. It was just a great event. He said it was the ‘First Annual’—we’re going to have it every year.” As part of his Trumbull duties, Spoerndle joined the members of the college in the academic procession during the 1992 commencement. “Marching in the commencement was more exciting than anything I ever expected it to be,” Spoerndle says. “Here I am, Mike Spoerndle, cap and gown, marching with the fellows, watching people smile because their kids are graduating. It was great.” This fall, Spoerndle helped organize the Old Campus bash for undergraduates following President Levin’s inauguration.
Not surprisingly for a neighborly sort, Spoerndle continues to help out at Mory’s and at the other restaurants along York Street. After a Toad’s event, which can generate a hefty amount of trash, he sends crews to the nearby parking lots to clean up the leftovers, whether or not they come from Toad’s. If Mory’s or Yorkside Pizza needs refrigerator space, Toad’s can help. If a window gets broken by a celebrating senior, Toad’s carpenters are quick to respond.
Perhaps the best example of how the exchange between the worlds of academe and popular music is working took place when the rock star Cyndi Lauper arrived in town for a gig and Spoerndle took her to Mory’s for dinner. “The Whiffenpoofs came up and sang ‘Time After Time’ to her,” recalls Spoerndle. “And she just started crying.” When she’d recovered, Lauper invited the Whiffs back to Toad’s to join her for a number during her own show. “Good neighbors,” says Mory’s Karl Bauer. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
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