by Mary Donohue
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. FALL 2008
As my interview with club owner Brian Phelps began, the story of Toad’s Place and other small, gritty clubs in countless American college towns unfolded. Phelps, who has been there almost since the beginning, joined Toad’s in October 1976 as manager, becoming part owner in 1984, and gaining control in 1995, when he bought out founder and co-owner Mike Spoerndle, has booked bands ranging from jazz and blues greats to legends of rock to today’s emo bands. Here we present a short history in pictures.
The bright green awning in the middle of a New Haven retail block announces Toad’s Place with a depiction of a green toad dressed in a three-piece suit “trucking” down the sidewalk. The original owners chose a toad (who looks more like a frog) to represent the French restaurant they had opened on the site in 1975. A tiny toad ornaments the club’s first menu.
Inside the club, the walls a recovered with a vintage patina of posters promoting the hundreds of acts that have performed there, autographed photos, beer signs, and dust. The performance space is tight, with a large, square bar in the c enter, hardwood floors, and a small main stage. For many years, a chain link fence separated the over-21 set (allowed to drink, so sequestered by the rear bar) from the younger patrons. A second bar area off the main stage has a rain forest theme. Because there’s no stage door in the back, bands must unload their equipment on the street and wheel it through the front door. Very simple, Spartan dressing rooms are in the basement—within spitting distance of some of the most rustic restrooms on record.
Toad’s longevity is based largely on its embrace of a huge range of live-music genres. Opened only two years a fter the legendary night club CBGB’s in New York City, ztoad’s (like CBGB’s) looked for touring legends and unsigned bands playing original music. Toad’s relies on a booking agent in Providence, Rhode Island that books acts for four clubs (including the second Toad’s, in Richmond, Virginia, that opened in 2007). Local bands are booked on-site by a Toad’s staff member.
Small clubs face a tough market, including competition from large venues and the casinos with their multiple concert settings. CBGB’s, despite its loyal following and legend status, closed in 2006. But authenticity can’t be faked. Toad’s proud track record, its wall-to-wall posters, sticky floors, and stale-beer smell give this rock shrine its enduring character.
Special thanks to Brian Phelps, who unscrewed the Plexiglas that protects the vintage posters and signed photos that decorate the walls at Toad’s to let us choose images for this photo essay.
Read all of our stories about Connecticut music history in the Fall 2008 issue
Read all of our stories about Connecticut’s art, music, theater, and literary history on our TOPICS page