Mike Spoerndle, founder of Toad’s Place, died earlier this month.
It reminded me of a weird afternoon I spent with him once in the mid-1990s, ostensibly interviewing him for the New Haven Advocate. It was a seemingly random chat, not geared to any particular event the club was hosting, or to any big change in the place itself. I later realized that Spoerndle was asserting his dominance, trying to get back in the papers as the famous face of Toad’s Place because he was getting squeezed out of the day-to-day operations of the club. He was being deposed for good reason, by all accounts (including, occasionally, Spoerndle’s own). His drug problems weren’t just legendary during that period; they were public, reported in great detail in the local newspapers he was then trying to court.
Anyway, that particular afternoon I spent with him was set up through the encouragement of the Advocate’s publisher at the time, Gail Thompson. She and Spoerndle shared Cleveland, Ohio roots and had formed a fast friendship despite some otherwise major differences in taste and lifestyle. At her urging, I dutifully met Spoerndle for lunch and an hour-long tour of Toad’s, in search of a story. There wasn’t one, except for the one I didn’t feel like telling just then, about the end of a magical era in local club rock.
For someone barely hanging on to his empire, and his sanity, Mike Spoerndle had an awesome swagger, the balls of a dinosaur. I was (and am) an underground and indie-rock fiend, but all he would talk about was the very biggest bands who’d graced Toad’s, and how he’d convinced them not only to play his place but leave autographs or memorabilia behind. He told a long story about the lengths he’d gone to in order to get the exact type of grand piano Bob Dylan needed for his pre-tour warm-up show at Toad’s in January, 1990. According to Spoerndle, during that entire four-hour, five-set evening, Dylan approached the piano only once and played just one quick chord on it. This story, to me, explained Spoerndle’s overbearing attitude: he was playing in the big league of egos.
In the late 1980s, when I worked at New Haven City Hall, I remember Spoerndle calling to complain because Mayor Daniels had declared a snow emergency downtown—a blizzard was due, but so was a Toad’s Place dance party. Spoerndle was livid and unrestrained in his vehemence. I’d never experienced such chutzpah from a local businessman directed at the local government, let alone at the weather gods.
There are those in New Haven who will tell you that Toad’s Place was never the same after Spoerndle left. That’s unfair to Brian Phelps, who’s ably kept the club going all these years. It’s the music industry that changed, not Toad’s. In the 1970s, considered the golden age of live party bands at the club, it helped that the drinking age was only 18. In the ‘80s, when Toad’s truly lived up its motto “where the legends play,” it helped that many of the up-and-coming superstars who played there did so as opening acts on package tours arranged by promoters and record labels. The sheer volume of signed acts which visited the club improved the odds of many of them becoming hitmakers down the line. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Toad’s scored appearances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and The Rolling Stones (Spoerndle’s litany and legacy), it helped that there were no casinos in Connecticut yet, and almost no clubs and large and well-kept as Toad’s in the state.
So the club was at the right place (on the touring circuit between Boston and New York) at the right time (when touring was still mandatory for breaking a new album).
At the same time, Mike Spoerndle was the guy who made the canny decision to give up on his main career choice—chef and restaurateur, a field he’d prepped for by studying at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America—and turn his European eatery into a nightclub.
It was Spoerndle’s idea to set the Toad’s stage against one of the wide sides of the club rather than fitting it to one of the narrow walls, as most clubs do. This strategic placement meant not only that sightlines were good from just about anywhere in the room, the openness had a pronounced psychological effect on bands, who would strut and posture and interact with the audience in ways they wouldn’t on more confined stages.
Then there were the T-shirts—those $5 fashion necessities that found their way into the wardrobes of countless rock stars, and earned Toad’s eternal renown when one was worn by a member of U2 in a popular poster during the band’s first flush of international success.
Somehow, during our conversation that afternoon, it had come up that I didn’t own a T-shirt. I guess Spoendle assumed that, because I was in his club several times a week, I had dozens of Toad’s shirts in my closet. I didn’t have any, I confessed—a local band CD or a third rum & coke always seemed a more pressing purchase.
“I’ll give you a shirt,” Spoerndle insisted. He must have repeated the offer a dozen times during our lunch at Yorkside (right next door to the club) and again as we ascended the stairs to his office. As I geekishly scoured the Toad’s filing cabinets for fun info (a Ramones rider; tech requirements for Todd Rundgren), Spoerndle pretended to sit at his desk and go to work. Almost immediately he spilled a giant glass of soda all over the desk.
At which point, he reached into a box under his desk, pulled out several pristine Toad’s Place T-shirts, and mopped up the spill with them.
I never got a Toad’s Place T-shirt from Mike Spoerndle. It seemed like he’d forgotten I was there. I wandered about the office, said muted goodbyes and slipped out sheepishly.
I ran into Mike Spoerndle a number of times in the following years, everywhere from the Branford Green to Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre. He was always effusive and energetic and open-hearted. In the space of very short conversations, he could confess, unsolicited, some very large sins and talk about what he was doing to overcome them. He developed the fervor of someone keen to rehabilitate himself.
That’s how I’ll remember him: as grand and multi-faceted a Connecticut character as the great P.T. Barnum—a showman, an ambassador, a philanthropist, a one-man maelstrom, a rocker.