Eric Wang

Everyone at Yale knows Toad’s Place. It is a New Haven staple that many walk past every day or dance through several times a year. But most know nothing about the roller-coaster story of its survival in this city. Even after the founder’s tragic death, a friendship turned sour, a major lawsuit with Yale and a 90-day shutdown for underage drinking, the toad keeps hopping. Its journey begins with a 1970s robbery that introduced the current owner of Toad’s to one of its founders.

“The guys I was with wanted to kick some ass”

In 1975, Brian Phelps owned a karate school in New Haven. It was around the corner from the newly opened French restaurant and music venue, Toad’s Place. One winter evening that year, a man broke the glass door of Phelps’ newly inherited enterprise and stole the sandwich board that served as an advertisement for his business. Phelps and a few friends went in search of the culprit. Ultimately, they found the sandwich board lying in front of Toad’s and decided to go inside. Phelps and his boys quickly found their perpetrator and were ready to take matters into their own hands.

“The guys I was with wanted to kick some ass,” Phelps recalled. But before the commotion could escalate, Mike Spoerndle, one of the owners of Toad’s Place, ran to the scene to prevent the fight and called the police to arrest the thief. In that moment, a friendship and business partnership were born.

Forty-three years later, Phelps is the sole owner of Toad’s Place, and Spoerndle has passed away after his yearslong battle with substance abuse.

“If that guy had never broken the door of my karate school, I would never have met Mike, and I would never have been involved with Toad’s,” Phelps explained, sitting back in his second-floor office overlooking the Sterling Memorial Library. After that night, the two men became fast friends. They were both young entrepreneurs: Spoerndle opened Toad’s at age 23, and Phelps inherited the school as a senior in college. Spoerndle encouraged Phelps to come work for him at Toad’s as a general manager once he graduated. Phelps decided to give it a shot, marking the beginning of a partnership that would turn a French restaurant into a historic, locally notorious nightclub — a venue that would become essential to the fabric of the New Haven community.

“Phelps was the business head and sensible guy, while Spoerndle was the social butterfly”

When Phelps agreed to come on as general manager for a year, Spoerndle was in the process of buying out his two other partners. One year at Toad’s turned into 10, and in 1985 Phelps found himself ready to move on. But, Spoerndle didn’t want to see him go and suggested Phelps buy into the business.

“So I did it, and we became partners. It was a 60–40 deal,” Phelps explained.

Phelps recalled that one of the first moments he spent with Spoerndle after the sandwich board robbery was when Spoerndle was in front of Toad’s, collecting money at the door. According to Phelps, he had his foot up on the door to control traffic going in, while he simultaneously collected money in one hand and kept a troublesome man in a headlock with the other.

“Spoerndle had stuff like that going on, crazy stuff,” Phelps laughed. “He’d take a bottle of beer, put it in his mouth, dip his head back and drink the whole bottle of beer, without touching it.”

Spoerndle was well-liked by musicians, customers and even Yale administrators.

“He was always really cool,” remarked Rohn Lawrence, a musician who started the Monday night jazz tradition at Toad’s Place nine years ago.

“Mike put together Toad’s Place. … He was just wonderful. He was the consummate music guy,” said Keith Mahler, President of Premier Concerts, a company acting as the facilities manager for College Street Music Hall, one of Toad’s New Haven competitors.

In contrast, Phelps admittedly “didn’t know anything about music” when he first joined the Toad’s team.

“I mean, I knew the Beatles and I knew Elvis, but I really didn’t know a lot. So it was a learning process for me in the beginning.”

Phelps recognized early on that Spoerndle was closely connected to the music industry.

“He was good friends with a lot of the bands. Mike was a really talented guy, congenial. Everyone loved him.”

Phelps was always more of a businessman.

“Phelps was the business head and sensible guy, while Spoerndle was the social butterfly,” Lawrence, the Monday night jazz musician, explained. Before Spoerndle’s life took a turn for the worse, he and Phelps were close friends. In fact, the duo bought a house together in Branford and lived there for several years.

Lloyd Suttle, deputy provost for academic resources at Yale, met Spoerndle in 1993 when the two planned the inauguration party for the then-newly selected University President Richard Levin. “Spoerndle was gregarious and filled with ideas,” Suttle remarked. “It was sad when he died. He had a lot of friends.” Since Spoerndle’s death, Suttle added, Phelps has picked up the chalice at Toad’s. “Especially in the later years, Brian was essentially running the place anyway,” he said.

“Phelps is the glue that has held that place together”

According to Phelps, Spoerndle started going downhill in 1992. At that time, he started getting arrested for drug use so often that it looked like Toad’s might lose their liquor license. That’s when the two started growing apart. Because he was still the minority partner, Phelps had a hard time dealing with the business while Spoerndle started losing control. But he did everything in his power to keep Toad’s financially stable.

Charles Cunningham, who met Phelps at the karate school before Toad’s came into the picture, has worked part-time with him for the last 25 years. Cunningham spends about five hours a week keeping the books for Toad’s.

“When I came there were bills that were six months behind. And Brian knew it. But when Spoerndle was here he couldn’t really do much about it,” Cunningham explained. “There was a lot of money going south, there’s no doubt about it.”

It got to a point where Phelps had to buy Spoerndle out in order to keep the business from plummeting. After getting majority control in 1995, Phelps bought him completely out of the business in 1998. Finally, in 2001, he bought the other half of the building from Spoerndle, which ended Spoerndle’s financial ties to Toad’s. From that point on, Phelps became the sole owner of the business and the property. In 2000, Spoerndle told the Yale Herald: “I lost my family, my business, everything that mattered to me. … I ended up in a place where nothing short of an act of God could get me out.” Phelps said he tried to remain friendly with Spoerndle and invited him to come to Toad’s any time. But Spoerndle had many inner demons to face and mostly stayed away. In 2011, Spoerndle was found dead in his home at age 59, after a long battle with substance abuse.

Cunningham explains that Phelps made Toad’s dramatically more financially stable.

“I don’t think Brian ever lost faith. I think he knew he could handle it. And he was right. He did and he can. And he still does.”

“Where the legends play”

During the evolution of Phelps and Spoerndle’s relationship, Toad’s was booking some of the biggest acts in music. “Everybody played [at] Toad’s place. It was where the legends played,” said Keith Mahler, the president of Premier Concerts, an independent concert promoter that books business for College Street Music Hall. Mark Zaretsky, a staff reporter for the New Haven Register and musician who has played Toad’s, added, “It’s one of the places that puts New Haven on the map.”

Phelps can talk for hours about the artists that have come through Toad’s as he flips through his decades-old photo album. One of the first big shows came in 1979, when Bruce Springsteen played the venue. After Springsteen came Billy Joel in 1980. U2 played Toad’s three times. Ed Dingus, a 27-year Toad’s employee and current general manager, explained, “The first time U2 played here they were an opening act,” demonstrating how the nightclub often gets performers on their way up, before they are well-known. In January of 1990, Bob Dylan performed the longest show of his career at Toad’s, lasting almost 6 hours, according to a Rolling Stone review from March 1990.

“There were no casinos at the time, so there weren’t as many places where these bands could play,” Phelps explained.

In the early 1990s, Cyndi Lauper came to play two sold-out nights.

“On the Monday of one of her performances, I brought her over to Mory’s, and they gave us a private room. The Whiffenpoofs were singing,” Phelps recounted. The famous Yale a cappella group performed two songs, one of which was Lauper’s, “Time after Time,” moving Lauper to tears. According to Phelps, she invited the group to join her on stage at Toad’s the next day, and, of course, they did.

“There aren’t many people who get paid to see concerts and enjoy music”

After my interview with the general manager, Ed Dingus, he walked me around the room where dozens of pictures of artists who have played Toad’s over the years still hang. We walked past David Bowie, the Ramones, Muddy Waters and Kanye West. When we got to Meatloaf, Dingus remembered the rock star falling off the Toad’s stage and scarring his leg.

“You never know what you are going to see here and what you are going to interact with,” he said, smiling.

The rich musical history and memories of wild concerts enabled Toad’s to reach No. 14 on Rolling Stone’s 2013 list of “best big rooms in America.” Arguably, the brightest moment in Toad’s history came in 1989, when the Rolling Stones put on a surprise show. Before their international Steel Wheels stadium tour, the Stones were practicing in Washington, Connecticut. They wanted to do a warmup show a week before the tour started and got in touch with Jim Koplik, the booking agent for Toad’s at the time.

“You could get in to see the Stones that night for $3,” Phelps laughed. “They were the biggest band in the world, and they were here.” Despite trying to keep the performance a secret, word leaked out, and thousands of people crowded the streets outside Toad’s Place. After a one-hour set, the Rolling Stones got a police escort out of town, making history in New Haven.

“I’m trying to create good memories for people,” Phelps said, explaining that his favorite part of the job is getting to witness the audience’s reaction as an artist finishes a set. “As he finishes the last note, everyone lets out this big cheer in unison like it was choreographed. … Bang!” Phelps’ voice became louder as he rocked in his chair, visibly excited to relive this experience. “In that moment, everyone is … one with the artist. And I feel it. It’s just incredible.”

Many of Phelps’ employees share a similar passion, keeping them coming back for years. According to Dingus, the three most senior bartenders have over 80 years of combined experience at Toad’s.

“It’s a tough job some days, … but as long as I can do it, I want to do it,” he said.

Yale and Toad’s: “It’s kind of like two siblings fighting”

Toad’s location halfway between New York and Boston makes it a logical pit stop on the East Coast tour route, one reason why many bands have played there over the years. But on a more local level, Toad’s is at the heart of Yale University’s campus, which has led to both difficult clashes and friendly collaborations with the administration and students.

Toad’s first major interaction with Yale was in 1985, when Phelps and Spoerndle were trying to purchase the property where Toad’s Place sat, after having rented it for the first 10 years of the business’s existence. Three sisters by the name of Kligerman had owned the property until this point. By 1985, they were anxious to move and wanted to sell the building. The property was appraised for $1 million but, “We were trying to snag it for $800,000,” Phelps remembered. But the Kligermans’ lawyer, David Faulkner, contacted Yale to let them know the property was up for sale. Yale said they would buy it for $1.3 million, but Phelps and Spoerndle were given 30 days to match the offer, and they did.

“Yale didn’t think we had the money. They would have went higher if they knew we did,” Phelps said. “We caught a break there. It was like destiny that we were supposed to have the place.”

Yale and Toad’s had a far more contentious real estate clash years later in 2010, when Yale sued Toad’s over a property dispute.

“The administration came into contact with Toad’s because we got a series of complaints from the groups that use the Off-Broadway Theater,” said Bruce Alexander ’65, director of New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development. The Off-Broadway Theater is a Yale building situated directly behind Toad’s that was affected by the “smoking, littering and drinking” of Toad’s patrons exiting the back doors, according to the summary judgement ruling issued by the Connecticut Superior Court in 2013.

“Somebody had a conversation with Toad’s asking if they could clean up their act, and they weren’t very responsive,” Alexander added. He explained that Yale wanted to be a good neighbor but had to protect the assets of the University, so they sued Toad’s for trespassing.

A large part of the dispute hinged on a license agreement Spoerndle signed with Yale in 1978, which gave Toad’s permission to use two back exit doors on the University’s property for emergency purposes. The agreement was revocable by Yale. Phelps said the problem with the agreement was that the University could close Toad’s emergency exits any time, making it harder for the venue to obtain the necessary safety approval from the fire marshal.

According to Phelps, Toad’s Place and Yorkside Pizza are the only buildings on that section of York Street not owned by Yale.

“Yale wants ultimate control over all this stuff,” Phelps explained. “I’m one of the few, last cinder blocks in the way. I’m a friendly cinder block though. … I play ball with the school.”

When asked if Yale would like to gain ownership of the property of Toad’s Place, Alexander responded, “If it were up for sale, we would consider it, … but we’d evaluate it at the time.”

Ultimately, Toad’s was forced to seal multiple exit doors and had to sign an agreement with Yale that it would use only the remaining doors in case of emergency. The lawsuit lasted several years and cost Phelps “a lot of money.” But Toad’s survived.

“We got it worked out. That was the main thing,” Phelps commented. “We try and accommodate what they want us to do here so we don’t run into any problems.”

Dingus explained, “It’s kind of like two siblings fighting. We had the fight, and now we’re back on talking terms.”

Phelps concluded, “I think they like us to a certain extent … and accept us being here as long as we stay inside the lines and don’t do anything dumb.”

“It’s part of the fabric of the University”

Yes, the nightclub and University have had their battles, but the two also depend on each other. Toad’s certainly depends on Yale students for a lot of its business. And Yale students depend on Toad’s to add to the University’s social scene. Hundreds of students pile into Toad’s every Wednesday for special Yale-only dance parties that are affectionately referred to as “Woads.” Dingus explained, “It’s not Toad’s to them, it’s Woads. It’s part of the fabric of the University for students who come out and party.” Phelps said he hopes that Toad’s plays an important part in Yalies’ memories of their college days.

Suttle highlighted Phelps’ generosity with Yale students. Every year, Phelps hires a student as a Yale promoter, acting as the official link between the school and Toad’s. He also partners with student government and Greek life organizations for their fundraisers. Inside the nightclub’s main room, Phelps proudly displays pictures of the “Yale Toads,” the nickname for the Yale football team’s offensive line. For the last 25 years, Phelps has invited the linemen in for a photo-op and to receive free Toad’s T-shirts. He also invites Yale athletic teams to the venue after major victories to toast them and throw parties in their honor. For all of these reasons, Toad’s has cultivated a strong relationship with many Yalies and is an important part of their community.

90 days down, $90,000 under

Phelps has a difficult job and faces many challenges as the owner of Toad’s. But he said his biggest concern is “trying to keep all the kids safe and within the limits of the law.”

“I’m always worried about some crazy thing happening,” he admitted.

One of these crazy things occurred in 2005, when Toad’s was raided by police for serving alcohol to underage patrons who snuck in with fake IDs.

“We were trying to use an outside promoter that night to help us out and bang business up a little bit … and because it didn’t affect him, he didn’t care,” said Dingus. “He let things slide that he shouldn’t have let slide.”

According to a Yale Daily News article published in November 2006, police found 87 underage patrons in possession of alcohol. As a result of the bust, Toad’s had to pay a $90,000 fine and shut down for three months in the summer.

“That was one of the lower points in our history,” Phelps recalled. “Since then, we have really tightened things up. Everything is more legit now. We are tight around the IDs.”

Dingus said that dealing with underage drinking is an ongoing battle, and that “as technology gets better, it becomes more and more difficult.”

Phelps emphasized that they do their best, using black lights and other fake ID–busting technology and creating physical separation between the main floor and bar spaces.

New competition for new times: Is Toad’s past its prime?

“I think Toad’s has taken a hit for a while,” Lawrence, the Monday night jazz musician, speculated. He pointed to how the rise of the casinos hurt the business because they started booking all the acts and could outbid Phelps.

“Booking acts in Connecticut has become a lot more competitive in recent years,” Zaretsky added.

Toad’s current booking agent, Jack Reich, said, despite increased competition in town from College Street Music Hall and nearby at the Webster Theater in Hartford and other new venues, “I’m not worried about the future of Toad’s.”

In Phelps’ eyes, College Street Music Hall, which opened in 2015, is his number-one competitor in New Haven. The music hall has twice the capacity of Toad’s and bids on all the acts. The venue is primarily a theater rather than a nightclub, and it provides seating as well as food and drink.

“There are more expenses to running a business now,” Phelps said, who acknowledges that it was easier to make bigger profit in the ’80s when there were fewer city and state regulations, and when insurance costs were lower. “But as long as we’re making a profit, which we’ve been doing for decades year in and year out, I think we can maintain it.”

“We are certainly not getting the Stones anymore,” Reich, the booking agent, admitted. “But it wasn’t long ago that we got Kendrick Lamar.”

Phelps argued that Toad’s is still doing the big-name acts to a certain extent, and that people just don’t realize it.

“Bands have to start out somewhere. And they’re still coming. It’s just that you don’t see it until later on.”

There seems to be some truth to this statement, considering many of today’s top hip-hop artists, including Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, have played Toad’s at least once.

“Toad’s is still a legendary room,” Lawrence, the jazz musician, concluded. “It still has its place in the world of touring musicians.”

Survival of the fittest: “We move with the times”

Phelps credits the “total nightclub experience” for helping Toad’s survive as long as it has.

“We have the concerts and we have our dance parties. The blend of these two things really helped us a lot.”

Dingus believes Toad’s ability to change from night to night has been the secret to success for the past 43 years; its versatile range of music and types of entertainment allows it to stay relevant. The nightclub’s awning flashes the words, “funk, jazz, hip hop, rock, metal, dance.” Toad’s tries to be everything for everyone. And thus far, it has worked.

“I’m not at all surprised Toad’s has lasted this long,” Zaretsky said. “They’ve survived by being adaptable.”

“We are always fighting to keep it going,” Dingus said with an air of finality. “It’s Brian’s livelihood. And he knows it affects many people and it’s our livelihood as well.”

When asked if he would ever sell Toad’s to a large entertainment corporation, Phelps explained that it’s hard to say.

“I don’t cross out any possibilities, especially as I get older.” But, he said, whatever he decides to do in the future will be in consideration of not just himself, but also of his employees, to whom he feels an obligation. Phelps, now 63, is still healthy and currently working hard on a book and a documentary about the history of Toad’s Place.

Toad’s history is a saga of ups and downs. It tells a story of friendship, surprise, spectacle, heartache and, most strikingly, survival. Few people, including Phelps, are certain Toad’s will still be here in 10 years. But few would be surprised if it were. After all, it has lasted this long. Forty-three years after the thief broke into the little karate school around the corner, the toad is still hopping.

Eric Benninghoff | eric.benninghoff@yale.edu