This week, legendary club owner and impresario David Carroll died at 81 years old. He opened his first Philly club, Artemis, in 1970. In the early 1980s he opened the Starlite Ballroom, and introduced Philly to New Wave and hardcore punk music, booking acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys. For another 30 years, he was the notable genius of Philly nightlife. But for us he was something else: a mentor, a friend, and a guiding voice when we most needed one.
It was 1999 and we were doing our first show. We’d had the idea for a theater company for years, and we had the name way before we had any idea what we were gonna do with it. Blue Box — like the Tardis, like the color of our VHS-integrated TV when the tape finished, blue like International Klein Blue, like the Blues, like Blue Trane, like the color of our tears, and we had so many back then. We made our first show at Second Stage at The Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street. It was tumultuous, it was glorious, it was as dreadful as it was beautiful. We taped it; we never watched it. Then converted it to DVD, still unwatched.
But Carroll watched it. We showed up at his bar, Bar Noir, on 18th Street around the corner from the theater, near every day after rehearsal, then after every show. The first time we walked in, down two exterior flights into the dark basement bar, we felt transported. It was like walking into a bar in the East Village, where we’d wanted to move to after college but couldn’t, because we were priced out. We were smitten with Bar Noir, and if we may, Carroll was smitten with us.
He was a classic impresario club owner, knower of talent and scene. He spotted us that first night, and we told him how much we loved his space. We told him how it felt like there was a back door that exited onto Avenue B, that the bar had the feel of a portal into New York City. We told him about our show, and he came, brought friends, and said he loved it. When the show closed, we wanted to do more, but we’d blown all our cash on the show and had not even remotely recouped. City Paper, Philly’s weekly, called us Too Little Too Soon, because even back then, and as ever, we were ambitious beyond our skills.
Carroll offered us Bar Noir. Again, the name came first. We wanted a party name, a name like the art shows we went to, so we called it Sticky, because all good things are sticky. Carroll liked the idea of theater — specifically, 10-minute plays in his bar. Sticky was a bar play series, where the action was performed environmentally. The bar was also the set.
We were nervous. What if nobody came, how would we make it work? We had a friend who was a sound designer and could mic the actors, but the twist was that Carroll didn’t want us to charge a cover. He just wanted it to happen in front of the patrons, who might or might not listen. That’s a scary way to do theater, but he knew it would work somehow, because he always knew what would work.
That first Sticky was terrifying until the lights went up, and the actors’ voices came through the sound system. He was right: we grabbed them. After the first play, we were scrambling to get the mics switched when he came up to us smiling. “Relax,” he said, he gestured around the room. “Let it sink in, there’s no rush.” From then on the half-dozen mini intermissions in which to mix and mingle were a part of the show, almost as important as the plays.
Every space he created worked, and Bar Noir was no exception. Quite quickly it went from a chill spot to one of the hottest bars in town, often filled with celebs and sports figures, and Sticky got more popular, too. We usually had no money, of course, and he knew that, so he let us drink and eat on credit. Once the lines started going down the block on Friday nights, we’d scamper past them, past the velvet rope, and always there was Carroll with his wink and smile. The man was magic.
DJ Bobby Startup was there from the beginning. He’d been working with Carroll since 1970. When we first saw Bobby spinning the tables at the back of the room, we were floored. Bobby had spun at Revival, an all-ages club that was a weekly haunt in high school. He’d played Morrissey, The Cure, New Order, Electronic, Siouxsie, Ministry, 808 State, Prodigy, Cocteau Twins, all the hits for weirdo kids who danced instead of played sports (Libby, not Dave), who felt alienated by top 40 and lived for the alt charts. At Bar Noir, he played Brittney Spears, and we chided him for it, then blew lines of cocaine off the black marble of the washroom counter tops, danced on table tops, and shook it to “Oops I Did It Again,” then again.
As the Stickies progressed and increased in heat, we brought in an MC, local performer Jeffrey Marsh. He was a trained cabaret singer, a chanteuse in a suit vest, skirt, and heels who had by far the best legs of any of us, the best legs in the entire city. He sang whatever he wanted, and we were beyond grateful for his grace, spontaneity, and exquisite presentation.
One night, in a stroke of absolute genius, Marsh sang “Downtown,” and it felt like we were a light, a beacon shining in the futile darkness of everything, making space for all our voices, our love, and our need to create and express. It was magic, it was a night sprinkled with pixie dust, and Carroll had made it happen. He knew Marsh was a marvel, destined for greatness, and so did we. Marsh performed with us for years when we made the jump to New York, and went on to become a social media star, LGBT activist, and author.
One afternoon after work, we were walking home to our shabby little studio apartment and found two members of our theater company sitting on our front stoop. Moments later, we knew that one of the founding members, Eric Buckwalter, had taken his own life. Not knowing what else to do, the four us went to Bar Noir. Other members were already there. Carroll had cordoned off a section for us. More of us arrived. Nobody had cell phones, they just knew where to come. He held us kids in his space, soothed us, let us know our pain was real.
A few nights later there was an open-mic poetry jam with the band Clutch Cargo, regular performers at Bar Noir. We often came out to hear them play, and Dave had performed poetry with them. This night he performed a poem for Eric, who he told the crowd had recently passed. It was angry. Dave threw his sunglasses on the floor. We were theatre kids, after all.
A few minutes later, a British guy asked if he could perform. He dedicated his poem to the punk star Ian Drury, who had also recently died. Afterwards we hung out and he asked if we wanted to party at his hotel. We politely declined. We were grieving, and not up for strangers.
The next night we went back — we went back nearly every night. Carroll said, “So that was something, huh?” We looked confused. He said “You have no idea who that was, do you?” We shrugged, and he told us it was Liam Gallagher from Oasis. Dave said, “You could have told us.” Carroll laughed and said, “It’s better this way. I heard him on the radio this morning, he talked about it, he said ‘I liked this guy what threw his sunglasses.”
Carroll was right, of course. It was better. He knew it would have changed how we looked at Gallagher and ourselves. He wanted us to think of ourselves as equals. He used to say, “If you ever see a reserved sign at a table, anywhere, just sit down. It’s for you.” As we moved to New York City two years later and ran Sticky there for 13 years, we carried Carroll’s wisdom and advice with us. There would never have been a Sticky without him.
Our story is just one among hundreds, likely thousands, of the artists and troublemakers Carroll championed and helped. He made everyone feel like a star. He made magical spaces filled with life, joy, and a pulsing coolness. He made the world more fun, the night more alive. So rest in peace, friend. Somewhere up in heaven we know a new space just opened up, and it’s amazing.