Toad’s: Business or Pleasure?

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// WEEKEND

Tessa Berenson ’14 and Lisa Lin ’14 can’t quite describe Toad’s. Lin looks at her computer screen thoughtfully. Pondering the York Street nightclub, Berenson seems at a loss for words. And then, suddenly, Lin starts and exclaims: “Wait! Remember that article?” Going from pensive to determined, she begins to type. Berenson watches. “Here, it’s called Eight Underappreciated College Campuses You Have to Check Out.”

Lin reads from the Total Frat Move article. “Number six: Quinnipiac University/University of New Haven/Yale.” The post goes on to explain, “the only reason these schools are on this list is because of Toad’s … It’s not so much a bar as it is a massive portal to hell where morality is forgotten.”

When interviewed, Yale alumni speak to a similar vision of Toad’s, sounding amused and even a little wistful. “Toad’s was drunken and crazy. It had a wild hook-up scene,” said Emma Gardner ‘06. “I would definitely say that one of my most distinct memories of Yale is being at Toad’s.” She remembers the “athletes and athlete groupies” at the bar and a ground sticky with urine and sweat. “It was disgusting.”

Disgusting or not, Toad’s has been on the forefront of the Yale social scene since it became a dance club in 1976. With penny drinks and dependable Wednesday and Saturday night emails promising “DJ Action and Mark spinning all your favorites,” Toad’s seems as tightly woven into the fabric of New Haven as Yale itself.

But if Yale and Toad’s are unable to reach a settlement soon, this social staple could be upended. On April 30, 2013, Yale filed a lawsuit against Toad’s for allowing its employees and patrons to trespass onto University property. Toad’s exits spill onto the adjacent walkway leading to Morse and Ezra Stiles, property under the University’s purview. And with the case set for trial as early as April, a majority of Yale students — if the decision goes in the University’s favor — could be forced to find a new place to conclude their Wednesday and Saturday nights.

***

Yale and Toad’s have found themselves embroiled in this particular dispute for some time. In 1978, Michael Spoerndle, then-owner and operator of Toad’s Place, entered into a revocable license agreement with Yale to allow Toad’s staff and patrons to access the University’s adjoining property in case of an emergency — an arrangement that either side could revoke at its discretion with 10 days’ notice. James Segaloff, Toad’s’ corporate attorney, said Yale offered to extend the license for another ten years in 2008.

Toad’s’ current owner, Brian Phelps, who had taken over ownership of the nightclub by this point, refused to accept the agreement with the revocation clause intact. Yale then terminated the contract on July 21, 2008.

Two years later, Yale filed a trespassing complaint, claiming patrons of Toad’s were using the emergency exits “for improper purposes,” such as “smoking, drinking and littering,” according to the Summary Judgment Ruling released on Nov. 29, 2013.

Phelps is seeking a solution whereby patrons, like they’ve been able to in the past, can exit Toad’s onto the adjoining Yale property in the event of an emergency. Unlike the past, however, he wants this agreement to be set in stone, not tied up in a “revocable clause” with the University. If the two parties cannot reach a settlement within the next two months, the case will go to trial. Scheduled for an April start date, the trial and its outcome will likely determine the fate of a club that has hosted the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, U2 and Billy Joel in its 40-year history.

“If Yale prohibits the use of the side entrances, then Toad’s has no egress,” said Segaloff. “All we are asking for is to use the exit doors in an emergency situation.”

According to University spokesman Tom Conroy, Yale is seeking a permanent injunction enjoining Toad’s and its employees from entering or trespassing on Yale property. He noted Yale is still willing to enter into a license agreement affording Toad’s access for emergency purposes, contingent on the prevention of improper use of the property. Indeed, it’s not the institution itself that has Yale running for the courthouse — “Yale isn’t interested in having any negative effect on Toad’s business,” he said — it’s the question of property rights.

“The purpose of the litigation is to protect Yale’s property rights and to establish that Toad’s may not use Yale’s property without the University’s permission,” Conroy said. “If Yale prevails, there is no reason, in Yale’s view, why an agreement between Yale and Toad’s cannot be achieved.”

But while Segaloff agrees that the issue is certainly “resolvable,” he adamantly disagrees with Yale’s approach to its relationship with Toad’s. “What they did was meaningless for all intents and purposes,” he said. “If you can revoke the agreement at any time, then what good is it?”

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The situation in which Toad’s finds itself today is the result of legal disputes intertwined in a storied—and controversial—cultural history.
Michael Spoerndle and his two co-managers opened Toad’s Place in January 1975, replacing the short-lived Caleb’s Tavern with a family-friendly establishment—a restaurant. As touted on a 1975 advertisement, Toad’s offered “the finest continental cuisine” with dishes like Beef a la Wellington and Veal Cordon Bleu.

Spoerndle was a Cleveland chef with big dreams, and when the restaurant proved financially unsuccessful, he added music to the mix. Local Bluegrass bands began performing at lunch, afternoon entertainment became “evening entertainment.” By the late seventies, Spoerndle had renovated, expanded and eliminated all meal service.

Toad’s was officially a music hall. And given its proximity to the New Haven Coliseum—a nationally renowned entertainment arena—big-name artists, like Billy Joel, would stop by the dance club after their performances.

“We were young, and the world was our oyster,” Phelps, enlisted as manager in 1976, said. “We wanted to go for it and bring in the best artists we possibly could.”

Bruce Springsteen was the first superstar Toad’s snagged. “People couldn’t believe that he was here,” said Phelps of the 1979 concert. Billy Joel performed a year later and his first live digital recording featured a song played at Toad’s, “Los Angelenos.” Newer, alternative artists followed suit—both Debbie Harry and the Ramones made their way to the York Street nightclub in 1989.

Toad’s was for locals, a place where “good musicians who [hadn’t] made it nationally [could] show their stuff,” remarked Spoerndle in a 1979 News article. A police officer at the time described Toad’s as “a nice place to go out – lot of the fellows bring their girlfriends or wives here.”

But Yale kids, for the most part, weren’t interested. The article’s headline reads: “Club draws top names, but students stay away.” In the same article, Spoerndle expressed a fledgling desire to branch out and appeal to the Yale community. Students “used to walk on the other side of the street,” he said. “But then some of them came to this side of the street. And now they’re looking in the windows to see what’s going on.”
It seems just the reverse of what the headline might read today—”Club draws students, but top names stay away.”

By 1981, however, Spoerndle had tapped into the collegiate market: on Tuesdays, the so-called “Night of the Toad,” draft beers cost only 25 cents each. According to Phelps, Yalies were “timid at first” but soon enough, Toad’s “became a part of the University.”

With its large capacity and convenient location, Toad’s became an iconic campus bar. Barbara Bush stopped by about three times a week, according to Phelps. And when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 passed, forcing bars and clubs across America into bankruptcy, Toad’s didn’t budge. And in 1989, Spoerndle and Phelps opened the venue to all ages, further securing the bar’s dominance of the Yale social scene. Today, Phelps says Toad’s’ major sources of revenues stem from Wednesday and Saturday night dance parties, adding that the two are key tenets of Toad’s’ business model.

While local resident Edward Cooke remembers the Toad’s crowd in the late eighties as “a melting pot for all of Southern Connecticut,” Amanda Poppei ‘01 found that Saturday night parties ten years later were “essentially populated by Yalies.” Gardner remembers a similar scene during her time at Yale. “It was all just Yale students and Q-Packers.”

Phelps speaks to the notion that, as Toad’s became increasingly popular with students, it also began to forge ties with the Yale administration. When asked how he emails the entire student body on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Phelps shook his head. “It’s a secret,” he said. “I can’t tell you.” He’d been chatting and laughing just a few minutes before, but then he grew terse and said, “if I do the wrong thing at the wrong time, they would shut me down in a heartbeat.” It’s a comment that suggests a long-standing relationship of sorts between Toad’s and Yale. But even in spite of this apparent “partnership,” Yale and Toad’s have been engaged in multiple disputes, even apart from the current lawsuit, for decades.

Yale and Toad’s first went head to head in 1985. Spoerndle and Phelps had leased the 300 York St. location from the Kligerman family, and when “Old Man Kligerman” died, Toad’s was put on the market. Both the University and Spoerndle made competing bids on the building, appraised at a value of $1 million. Although Toad’s offered well under the appraisal at $800,000, Yale offered $1.3 million. Nevertheless, due to a rights of first refusal clause in the lease, the family gave Spoerndle and Phelps 30 days to come up with the difference. They did.

Today’s lawsuit, almost thirty years since this episode, signals what Phelps believes is Yale’s desire to “control” real estate in downtown New Haven. Suing Toad’s, he said, is just another part of this “grandiose scheme.”

But according to Douglas Rae, a professor at the Yale School of Management, Toad’s is just one of several business properties that Yale’s Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65 has been “assertive” with in his tenure. He added that Alexander, a senior executive at the Rouse Company for 25 years, has been more vigilant in assessing the loss of property value and rights than those before him.

“My impression is that he’s guarding the University’s legal interests,” Rae said. “I certainly don’t think he’s behaved in any way badly — he may be a little tougher and sharper than his predecessors, but I don’t think that he’s been out of line at all.”

Since the 1980s, Yale has sought to reform nightlife culture in the areas surrounding campus. Following the real estate crisis of the late ’80s, the University bought storefronts along Chapel Street and Broadway — two of the most trafficked streets in New Haven. When Richard Levin became president of Yale in 1993, the administration tried to revamp the Shops at Yale, the retail district near campus.

The University sought to eliminate so-called “bottom-end establishments,” Rae said. Yale gained nearly complete control of the real estate along Chapel and Broadway by the mid-1990s, and according to Rae, was largely successful in “changing the culture” in these areas. Indeed, whereas 1 Broadway used to be a “horrendous bar where people would be thrown out the windows every once in a while,” the street is now home to the likes of J. Crew and Jack Wills.

And while changes like this have been viewed, on the whole, as positive, Phelps has no interest in seeing his institution reformed along similar lines. According to Phelps, Toad’s occupies arguably the most secure nightlife space for Yalies. Unlike spots like Box 63 and Elevate, Phelps believes that his institution caters to Yale students of all ages and keeps them safe while doing so.

“They can have a couple of drinks and be sloppy, but they don’t have to worry about being hurt,” Phelps said. “People feel good about this place — we watch over Yale students, and I think that’s really important.”

***

For Alex Fisher ’14, Phelps’s belief that Yale students “feel good about this place” is a stretch. With the increasing influx of Quinnipiac students on Yale’s campus each Saturday, Fisher believes Toad’s has left Yale in a less-than-desirable state.

In a Yale Daily News op-ed on Nov. 16, 2011, Fisher accused Quinnipiac students of “creating scenes of squalor.” “Perhaps we ought to send a garbage truck filled with trash, vomit and urine and deposit it outside a Quinnipiac dormitory; this would serve only as minor recompense for what is done to our campus several times a week,” he wrote. Ultimately, for these reasons and the culture of Toad’s overall, he believes the club is “simply an unsafe environment to have in the middle of our University.”

Emma Poole ’17 expressed similar sentiments, noting that Toad’s caters to a warped sense of personal fulfillment. “It’s validation of the most primal kind — like, is the back of my body attractive to a random, heterosexual male?”

A belief that Toad’s is “a citadel of vulgarity,” as Fisher put it, reflects a similar doubt in the venue’s musical relevance. Many students today have trouble reconciling the bar’s illustrious past — The Rolling Stones in 1989, Bob Dylan in 1990, Dave Matthews Band in 1994 — with its current offerings, such as Aaron Carter and Snoop Lion. Of course, booking costs have skyrocketed, and Phelps admitted many big name bands “won’t even look at this place. You’ve got to catch them on the rise.”

Even Poppei, a 2001 graduate, remembered Toad’s as “definitely a place to see great artists, though it had been more so before.” She attended a Dar Williams show as an undergraduate and found the concert incredibly intimate. “I was only 10 or 15 feet away from the stage.” And Cooke, a Connecticut native who missed the legendary 1989 Rolling Stones concert by a matter of minutes, described a Johnny Cash performance three years later as “the best concert I’ve ever seen. The acoustics were phenomenal, you know? It was a night I’ll never forget.”

Today, Toad’s caters to a different set of concertgoers. Many recent Rap and Hip-Hop Grammy nominees have passed through the New Haven venue, including Drake in 2009 and Kanye West in 2004. But while Sophie Dillon ’17, a New Haven native, has attended numerous rap and hip-hop concerts at Toad’s, she still laments the paucity of quality acts.

“People who have never played an instrument before are playing on the same stage as The Rolling Stones,” she marveled.
According to Fisher, this perceived decline in Toad’s’ safety and musical offerings indicates that it’s time for Yale to step in more aggressively.

“Toad’s has demonstrated an unwillingness to acknowledge [Yale’s] basic right [to private property], which shows there is no basis for a productive relationship between the two,” he said. “I think it’s very clearly time to move away from having a place like Toad’s in the heart of Yale’s campus.”

But Yalies like Lin, Berenson and Keilor Gilbert ’14 contend that views like Fisher’s are, for the most part, anomalous. All three cherish their memories of Toad’s, spanning almost four years at Yale.

“I went to every Woad’s last semester,” Lin admitted.

According to Gilbert, “people just fall into this sort of loyalty” to the institution. Berenson added that “Toad’s is important to the culture of New Haven … it’s a Yale staple.”

The three seniors know the concert scene has dwindled. They know that the place gets pretty rowdy. Still, they don’t care — “We go there to dance.”

With the outcome of the lawsuit — and Toad’s continued presence on York Street — still up in the air, some students find it hard to entertain the notion of a Toad’s-less New Haven.

For Thomas Aviles ’16, the possibility of Toad’s’ absence seems unfathomable. “It’s iconic,” he said. “You can love it, hate it or not really care, but you can’t deny it’s a formidable presence on campus.”

Phelps plans to enlist the help of students like Aviles in ensuring that his club remains on York Street. Arvind Mohan ’14, who has served as the Toad’s’ campus ambassador since his sophomore year, controls the nightclub’s social media presence and reaches out to campus groups about renting the space. He is currently working with Phelps to organize a student letter writing campaign for Toad’s to present to the administration.

“The goal,” Mohan said, “would be to raise awareness that students do in fact support Toad’s’ place on campus.”

***

Ultimately, Phelps is confident in his nightclub’s chances in court. From his office above the dance floor, he recalls the 2010 conflict between Yale and Bespoke, a restaurant on College Street. The two fought over a small slice of property in the alleyway, owned by Yale but used as a second entrance by the restauranteurs, Arturo Camacho and Suzette Franco-Camacho.

“After the trial, Bespoke was broke,” Phelps intones. While a state appeals court ruled in favor of Bespoke in their trial versus the University, the Camachos told the News in a January 2010 article that the high costs of structural adjustments and litigation forced the restaurant to close.

Phelps pauses for a moment, and pulls out photos of the legends that have sold out concerts on Toad’s’ stage. Joan Jett. Bon Jovi. The Barenaked Ladies. He rocks back and forth quietly in his chair, flipping through the thick albums. The fluorescent lights buzz. He holds a Dunkin Donuts styrofoam cup but doesn’t drink from it — after two hours of talking, the coffee has gone cold.

When asked if Toad’s could share the same fate as Bespoke, if the trial could leave him penniless, Phelps shakes his head. “No.”

Behind him, Sterling Memorial Library looms ghostly and stately. It’s 10 p.m. on a quiet Tuesday night. The stacks shine bright. A student on the fourth floor peers down into the office.

“No,” Phelps repeats. “We see this as a fair fight.”

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