Gypsy Rose Lee reputedly stripped here. Cus D'Mato, the trainer who discovered Mike Tyson, used to hold boxing matches within its walls. And, in 1947, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters performed on the stage--there's even a poster of that bill in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
In 1911, four brownstones on the corner of East 15th Street and Irving Place were converted into a performing arts space. Today, New York City's Irving Plaza is a three-story music club with a capacity of 1,800. The New York Swing Band Society, which is located on the fourth floor, holds its Swing Night every Sunday. Most other nights, the club plays host to an extremely varied list of rock bands--some about to become household names, some already there--all of whom enjoy the club's intimate setting.
"In the 70s and 80s, it was actually a dark room, except on the weekends, when bands like Talking Heads and the Cramps would come in here with different promoters," explains production manager Jeff Webster. "Everybody was in here back then."
In 1991, Bill Brusca (formerly of the Ritz, now Irving Plaza's president and general manager) created the club's present incarnation. In December of 1997, Delsener/Slater bought the business and a 10-year lease on Irving Plaza.
With a degree in political science and a background in restaurant management--but a passion for music--Webster started working as the first intern Irving Plaza ever had in 1994. "In January 1993, I first came here to see a show. A year later I came back, knocked on the door, and asked them if I could be an intern," he says. "I'd gotten a recommendation from Ken Lesnick at TicketMaster, and I told them, 'I want to learn everything about clubs, and I'm willing to do anything.' After four months, they hired me to be the in-house production person."
During the summer of 1995, Webster and then in-house sound engineer John Burns started doing research for a new PA system. "At that time, Metropolitan was about to become the club's exclusive promoter," Webster explains. "We looked at everything, and then we actually contacted John and Helen Meyer [of Meyer Sound Labs] directly. They said that they would love to have a showcase room for their products, so we were able to work out a deal."
The current FOH sound system includes: eight Meyer MSL 4 speakers, eight Meyer 650 subs with Meyer amplifiers and processors, one 40-channel Crest Century GTX console, one Lexicon Super Prime Time digital delay, one Yamaha SPX 900 reverb, one Yamaha SPX 90 reverb, two 31-band TEQ equalizers, eight Channel Valley people gates, and one Sony 361 CD player. The monitor system consists of one Crest 40-channel LMX console with meter bridge, four Ashley 3102 dual 31-band equalizers, and two TDM four-mix crossovers. The DJ system features two Technic Quartz SL1200MK2 turntables and one BIAMP SCM7600 mixer. Amps are a mix of four Crest CA 4s, three Crest CA 12s, and one Crest CA 18. Delays include three Meyer UPM 1-A speakers, one Meyer UPM 1-A processor, one EAW C-6, and one Crown Micro Tech 1200. Microphones include two Shure SM58s, seven Shure SM 57s, five Shure Beta 58s, one Shure Beta 57, two AKG D112s, one RE20, three Electro-Voice EV 408s, one Sennheiser 421, one AKG 451 condenser, two Audiotechnica AT 33R co ndensers, two TOA KY condensers, and two Sennheiser MD 504s.
Burns installed the system, and still works at the club part-time, but he is now concentrating on getting his Ph.D. in education. Although he was gearing up to go on tour with Biohazard at press time, Bruce Robbins is the club's most recent FOH sound engineer. "I used to work here before Jeff was here," Robbins says. "It's always been a solid venue, and there have always been good acts. It's a lot of fun to work here, which is one of the reasons why I liked making it a home."
Robbins originally started off by filling in for the monitor engineer, but now he primarily mixes from the front of house. "I'd been touring quite extensively--with bands such as Biohazard and Type O Negative--but at one point, I didn't have any tours going on, so I just decided to continue here. The room is all premier equipment, and we maintain it really well. Plus, everyone here is very professional. One of our advantages is that everyone has toured and knows what it's like to be in someone else's house--to be a guest and to be treated well. As a touring person, I would consider this to be one of the top 10 clubs in the US."
The number and names of acts who have performed here just within the past few years are far too numerous to print here. But Robbins points out that the venue lends itself to diversity. "Certain rooms are known as a rock, or country, or a nice jazz room, but this room can handle anyone's sound, from Morcheeba to Holly Cole's Christmas show with string players to Slayer to comedy acts," Robbins says. "It's also really nice when we get a big name in for an intimate house performance, like Eric Clapton in 1994 or Tori Amos last year."
More often, the acts booked have yet to hit it big. "Bands will often break here and then go on to bigger venues, and we're in turn also doing the same thing with our staff," Webster says. "We're bringing in young kids who in a few years may be doing big productions or coming through here with a band. You never know what's going to happen."
The venue does all this by offering unpaid internships in exchange for practical experience. "I'll offer almost anybody an internship; that's certainly how I started," Webster says. "These guys love the fact that they have an extra hand, and if it's not a crazy day, they'll spend some time with the interns, teaching them whatever they're interested in. We have four interns a year down at the main office, who learn about everything. We also have interns who are strictly in production, who want to just hang out and listen and find out how to mix sound or whatever. We presently have three people who show up occasionally. They call ahead and let us know when they're available."
"If they're willing to learn, to put forth the effort, and they really want to make the commitment, I'll be more than happy to show them what's going on," Robbins says. "I usually let them stumble a little bit at first and see if they pick themselves up or if they go running and crying into the corner. It can be a very high-stress situation at times. Some people can take it really well, and some people can't at all. You learn quick. Or you fail quick. It's one way or the other. So it's always nice to give somebody the chance to see how it all works."
One of the full-time crew's newer members, monitor engineer Charles "Chas" Boyer, got started in the music industry when a friend introduced him to Roberta Flack's tour manager. "My first big show was doing a load-out for a Cyndi Lauper show," Boyer says. "After that, I went to school at the Institute for Audio Research. My interest in sound started with a passion for car stereos when I was kid and grew into a full-time job."
While working at Rocket Studios, Boyer met Webster. After doing both tour and studio work, he called Webster up looking for a job. "I've been at Irving for about six months now," Boyer says. "My job is to make the artists hear what they want to hear in their mixes. So I send it to them and make them sound really nice. It's a little stressful at times, because there are various egos to deal with, but for the most part, when the show goes off without a hitch, you know you've done a really great job."
"Chas is doing very nicely in monitors," Robbins says. "It is a tremendous hot seat--the stress level in monitor position is unbelievable. I've been there. Front of house is a little less stressful, but I have other considerations, including making sure that the entire system is operating properly."
Overseeing all of the lighting is Greg Bullock, who came to Irving Plaza to handle the lighting for Edwin McCain in August 1997. "They didn't have an LD on the road and they were coming into New York, so they wanted to be sure to have somebody who had experience," Bullock explains. "So that worked out well, but at the same time the house LD was leaving to tour with another band. So I filled in for him for about a week or two, and then he left for good and I've been here ever since."
One of Bullock's first projects was to redesign the lighting system. "All the lights were all the way upstage on one plane, right over the stage," Bullock says. "So in two days, I stripped the entire house system, came up with my design, and redesigned the conventional lighting units. I left the automated lighting (four Clay-Paky HPEs) the way it was.
"The new truss layout adds more depth to the stage, and it also makes it more user-friendly to visiting LDs who come in," Bullock continues. "It's nice that other LDs can look forward to coming to Irving Plaza. It's a small lighting system, but it's very functional and it's a good system for the size of the stage."
After Bullock reorganized the lighting, he put over 200 preset programs into the Celco Navigator console. "It's a dinosaur desk, but it's reliable," Bullock says. "I've gotten used to it, so it's not hard for me to program for LDs who come in. I like having a lighting system of my own to practice my craft. I can also pick up ideas and techniques from the other people who come in here. I actually get to run 60-70% of the shows that come in here. So I get a lot of opportunity to light national headliners."
While the LD enjoys designing, he takes equal pleasure in working with visiting designers. "I really like the freedom here, because we meet a lot of different people in the industry," Bullock says. "I spent several years out on the road doing lighting production and design, and a lot of times I found it isolating, because you don't see or meet anybody else other than the people who are in your own entourage. Here, I'm able to practice and play with lighting, but I also accommodate all the LDs that do come in. It's a good balance."
The club's current lighting system includes: 42 PAR-64s with 1K MSL lamps, four Clay Paky Golden Scan 1200 HPEs, eight PAR-46 250W ACLs, one 6x16 1K Altman profile zoom spot, four 6x12 360Q 1K lekos, 20 PAR-36 pin spots, the aforementioned 208-channel Celco Navigator console, one 32-channel Lightronics TL 3256 desk, three Lightronics RE82D eight-channel, 2,400W dimmers, and two Applied AE 1200/four-channel 1,200W dimmers. The venue's video equipment includes: one Panasonic camera WV-D5100HS, one EIKI LC-5200U projector with BNC/RCA video inputs, 25-pin SCSI inputs, RCA video/audio inputs, and Sony Superbrite, one 9' x 12' screen, four Toshiba 25" monitors, and two Sony 20" monitors. The video control booth contains: three Panasonic 4" monitors, one Sony 9" monitor, one Sharp VCR VC-H986, one Aiwa VCR FX-2000, one Gemini PMX 2001 audio mixer, one Denon CD/cassette DN-610F Combi-Deck, one Sony CDP-361, one Videonics MX-1 digital video mixer, and one Videonics PTM-1 Titlemaker.
Even with all this gear available, some acts will bring in their own sound and lighting equipment, but the venue tries to discourage this practice. "We do have a noise restriction here at the club, which is a New York City law," Robbins explains. "The system here will exceed the limit without any problems at all. Bringing in extra front-of-house cabinetry is really not necessary."
"It just makes a long day for everybody," Webster adds. "But equanimity is a very important criterion for this job. So if somebody insists that they need something extra, we'll do our best to make it work."
Although music acts fill up most of the club's nights, the venue also hosts its share of alternative entertainment. "We do rentals," Webster says. "Especially during Christmas, we have lots of parties booked. Some of them totally transform this room."
While last year's renovation didn't drastically change the club's appearance, the improvements have helped everything run a little more smoothly. "The renovation started in January 1998, because when Delsener/Slater bought the business, they wanted to do a little bit more cosmetic work here," Webster explains. "We added some doors so people can flow out easier, and we added some firewalls upstairs. It was done by all the appropriate codes; they spent good money on getting it done right."
Because the crew members all work on other projects, the club also has a list of freelance technicians on hand. "We try and keep a good rapport with the A and B list people we call," Webster explains. "So when someone is sick or wants to take some time off or gets a touring gig, we can draw from the same type of people and the same attitudes.
"When I first started, there were three of us working here full-time," Webster says. "We don't mind growing somewhat, but we want to keep good, close relationships with everybody here. We want to preserve the family atmosphere we have because it makes it better to work together."