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After swerving off-course, a grab for the wheel


The founder of Toad's Place crashes its 25th birthday party with a lawsuit over who's in charge.

By Molly Ball

Like many former drug addicts, Michael Spoerndle is grateful he got his life back. Now he wants Toad's Place back, too.
COURTESY BRIAN PHELPS
Senator Joseph Lieberman, MC '64, LAW '67, with the Drifters, after winning an 1981 election to become Connecticut attorney general.

Spoerndle founded the popular York Street club in 1975 and hired Brian Phelps to help him in 1976. At first, Spoerndle and Phelps had a good relationship. "He used to be my right-hand man," Spoerndle says. "You know, he would stand at the door and break up fights." He trusted Phelps and gave him shares in the business. But in the '80s and '90s, Spoerndle succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction, and Phelps gradually took over.

About five years ago, Spoerndle came to Toad's and found himself locked out. "A guy who worked for me for 20 years was standing at the door saying, `I'm supposed to call the police if you show up,'" Spoerndle says. "I said, `Oh, I guess I'm not welcome.'"

By 1997, "[Toad's] was in bad shape," Phelps says. "There was no money left—[Spoerndle] took it and spent it all. I told him he had to either close the place or give me control." Spoerndle signed over control of the club—he claims he was told the agreement was temporary. Now, thanks to a 12-step program, he says he's been sober for over two years, but he's still locked out of Toad's. In May, he filed a civil suit in New Haven Superior Court, claiming Phelps took advantage of his debased condition and fraudulently induced him to give up his property.

"At that time, I was totally out of my mind. I mean, I was in and out of eight or 10 psych wards. The aliens were at my house, I thought," Spoerndle says. "And, you know, people sometimes take advantage of people who are out of their minds. But there are laws that protect people." Spoerndle hopes that those laws will eventually put Toad's back in his hands.
COURTESY BRIAN PHELPS
Phelps with Cyndi Lauper.

A Toad's progression

The storied history of Toad's is written all over its walls. The Rolling Stones kicked off their Steel Wheels tour here in 1989. Bruce Springsteen stopped by for a jam session after a show at the New Haven Coliseum in 1978. Billy Joel recorded "Los Angelenos" at Toad's for his 1981 album Songs in the Attic. Bob Dylan played the longest set of his career here in 1990—five and a half hours. R.E.M., U2, and Stevie Ray Vaughan played Toad's long before they were household names. Joe Lieb-erman, MC '64, LAW '67, used to hold his state-office and Senate campaign parties here. David Bowie, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Santana, the Kinks...the list goes on and on.

"You name it, we'll bring them in if we think we can sell tickets," Phelps says. "If you try to sink yourself in one niche, you're just limiting yourself. What's music to some people is tin cans to other people." That's how Toad's has survived a quarter of a century, where most nightclubs only last three or four years.

It's hard to imagine now, but Toad's was once a French and Italian restaurant. Spoerndle, a Cleveland native, moved to New Haven to attend the Culinary Institute of America, which has since relocated to Hyde Park, N.Y. The restaurant, started on a $12,000 shoestring and nearly went bankrupt, so in 1976 Spoerndle bought out his two partners and changed the concept to live music in an intimate setting. "Starting a nightclub scared the heck out of me," Spoerndle says. "But it turned out to be easier than running a restaurant. You don't have to worry about food going bad, that kind of thing. You just book bands and create an environment that makes people happy."

At that time, Phelps, a recent graduate of the University of New Haven, was working in a karate school above the old Cutler's, one of the buildings recently torn down to make room for Urban Outfitters. In October 1976, Spoerndle hired him.

Since its inception, Spoerndle wanted to make a difference—not just music—in New Haven. He helped start a children's soup kitchen, raised money for research for juvenile diabetes, and even served as an associate fellow of Trumbull College in 1992. In 1993, he received the Elm-Ivy award for contributors to Yale-New Haven relations, an annual honor bestowed by the Mayor of New Haven and the President of Yale.

Meanwhile, though, Spoerndle struggled with addiction. "I lost my family, my business, everything that mattered to me," he says. "I made a lot of bad decisions, made a lot of bad choices, and I ended up in a place where nothing short of an act of God could get me out." In 1998, Spoerndle spent two and a half months in a 12-step recovery center in Kent, Conn., and cleaned up his act.
JOY LEE/YH
Another sweaty Saturday night.

"I'm not the hotshot I used to be, but I'm happier, I'm more at peace," he says. "I'm extremely grateful I lived through it, grateful to be free. I believe I was allowed to live so I can help others." Spoerndle currently devotes his time to volunteer work at 13 detox and rehab centers in the area, "helping people get out of that tortured place and have lives."

Struggle for the helm

Spoerndle's lawsuit alleges that Phelps "knew that Michael Spoerndle was suffering from mental and physical problems which rendered him incapable and incompetent to han-dle his own affairs" and took advantage of this knowledge to "induce...Spoerndle to sign away his property and his right to control over the Toad's Place business." Phelps's reply to the lawsuit, filed earlier this moth, denies these claims. Even if everything Spoerndle says is true, the burden of proof is still legally on him to show that he was too severely incapacitated to be held accountable for the papers he signed.

Phelps, a meticulous and ambitious businessman, is upset by the charges. He would rather focus on other things—like his plan to open Toad's franchises in other cities. A larger version of the New Haven club is slated for Adriaen's Landing, the new mall scheduled to open in Hartford late next year. Phelps has also been discussing the idea with possible franchisers in Boston, Virginia Beach, and West Palm Beach. He believes the combination of dance club and live-music venue is a formula that can succeed elsewhere.

"Most places are either dance clubs or live entertainment facilities," Phelps explains. Doing both requires more know-how, from setting up the Booty Cam to making connections in the music industry, but the combination has made Toad's both a destination for performers and a fixture of the Saturday night scene. But it's a lot of work, and Phelps does most of it himself.
COURTESY TOAD'S PLACE
A young U2, with bassist Adam Clayton pledging his allegiance to the Toad.

"I have four different desks," he says, gesturing at the offices upstairs from the stage. "This one is for meetings, the next one is for bookkeeping, the next one is for booking, and then there's the one in the basement where I sit at night." A few years ago, he realized he was paying a bookkeeper and assistant for nearly 70 hours a week for a job that he could be doing himself. "Now I do the whole thing in five hours, including payroll," he says. "I have an accurate log of where the money is, and everyone gets paid."

The price of Phelps's micro-management is a busy and unorthodox schedule—a typical day for him begins at 1:30 p.m. and ends long after Toad's has closed for the night. "I enjoy the work, and I have a vision of what I'm trying to do and what I want Toad's to be," says Phelps, who lives in Guilford with his wife and three children. "I do the best I can."

An uncertain future

According to the agreement Phelps and Spoerndle made in 1997, each man owns 49 percent of the shares in Toad's, and two trustees each hold 1 percent, an arrangement intended to serve as a tiebreaker. Whether or not that contract is valid, "At minimum, [Spoerndle] owns half the business, and he's been totally frozen out," Spoerndle's lawyer, James Graham, says. "We can't even get a hold of [business] records without a fight. Right now, [Phelps] does everything, and that has to stop. He doesn't understand that."

Phelps and his lawyer, Gary Sklaver, declined to comment on the suit. Spoerndle, for his part, believes that the serenity that has kept him away from his former habit will see him through this battle as well. "There'll have to be some kind of corporate divorce—either I'll have [Toad's] or he'll have it or the company will be sold," Spoerndle says. "It'll be the best it can be, and I'll be fine with that. It's not worth my life. Toad's isn't my life anymore—it was for decades. But now, we'll close this chapter, and we can all move on."

Toad photo courtesy Toad's Place.

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