Lee Mrowicki

Long-Time Stone Pony DJ Makes A Difference

Shore standard

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/3/03
Reprinted here with permission of the author


Three tourists from Toronto met Lee Mrowicki at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and found themselves in heaven.

Patty Pappas and David and Shannon LeCour had come to New Jersey for three of Bruce Springsteen's 10 concerts at Giants Stadium. In their free time they -- like so many Springsteen tourists -- made their way down to Asbury Park to check out the landmarks and see what inspired so much of Springsteen's work.

Mrowicki, a longtime disc jockey at the Pony, gave the visitors a tour of the club and then recommended they check out Jersey Freeze, the beloved ice cream shop at routes 33 and 9 in Freehold, and E Street in Belmar, from which the E Street Band got its name.

Mrowicki, who began working at the Pony when it opened in 1974, is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of the '70s Jersey Shore music scene. He is less known for his behind-the-scenes work at the club, helping to organize its many benefits and charity shows.

Mrowicki is now in his 50s, and, as he's grown older, his volunteer work has become more important to him.

"First and foremost, I'm a DJ," he said. "But what really makes my day, more than knowing I can rock the crowd, is knowing I've made a difference to somebody who needed help."

In the '80s, Mrowicki helped found Jersey Artists for Mankind, a group of musicians, including Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, that released a single, "We've Got The Love," on Arista Records in 1986. Sales of the single and of J.A.M. T-shirts raised money for food banks and other charities.

Mrowicki also has organized benefits for, among many other causes, local musicians in need, Toys for Tots, the Make A Wish Foundation and World Hunger Year, the hunger relief organization founded by songwriter Harry Chapin. WHY is one of Bruce Springsteen's favorite charities, and Mrowicki said Springsteen and Chapin have influenced him.

"Bruce does so much good work around here, and when I found out he liked Harry Chapin, I began looking into what he did," Mrowicki said. "I was so impressed with Harry's dedication to World Hunger Year that I came up with a new word: 'Chapinism.' I say now that I'm a Chapinist."

Singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, daughter of the late Harry Chapin, has played in Asbury Park several times -- including a gig Thursday at The Saint -- in part because of Mrowicki and the Pony.

"Lee has always been super supportive of my music and in helping to support WHY," Chapin said. "He gets it -- the potential synergy between music people and charity work. You don't have to be a do-gooder saint to do good things; you can take what you normally do, like working in a club, and reach out to other people."

Eileen Chapman, a longtime member of the local scene who managed the Pony while it was owned by Domenic Santana, said Mrowicki helped the club become more than a place to hang out.

"The Stone Pony has a legacy of giving back to the community," Chapman said. "It has since Day 1. Over the years, we averaged a couple benefits a month."

Born in Jersey City, Mrowicki moved to Neptune when he was 12. He now lives in Jackson with his wife, Donna, whom he met at the Pony when she was involved in efforts to save Asbury Park's carousel, and their 5-year-old daughter, Stella.

When The Stone Pony closed in 1991, after original owners Jack Roig and Robert "Butch" Pielka went bankrupt, Mrowicki left the music scene and turned to his other love, baseball. He became a scout for the Chicago Cubs and continued his charity work.

"It seems that people, because of my background at the Pony doing fund-raisers, look to me for assistance," Mrowicki said.

Mrowicki had hoped to buy the Pony himself, and bid against Steven and Judy Nasar, who won. Steven Nasar ran the place from 1992 to 1998, when the club closed again. Meanwhile, Mrowicki managed Freehold Music Center and brought his spirit of volunteerism there, too. He encouraged local musicians, such as saxophonist Eddie Manion of the Jukes, to give music lessons to kids.

Mrowicki returned to the Pony when Domenic Santana bought the club in 2000, and he's one of the few "old-timers" to remain under the ownership of Asbury Partners, which closed on the sale this month.

Caroline O'Toole, the Pony's new manager, is grateful for Mrowicki's presence.

"He's phenomenal," she said. "He fills in a lot of gaps for me. His knowledge of the history of this place is amazing and the work I know he does for charities -- his spirit toward it is very sincere, and I admire him very much for it."

Mrowicki has plenty of stories about the "glory days" of the Pony and the more recent days at the club. He can name-drop like there's no tomorrow, but has decided not to write a book about his experiences there out of fear of alienating the famous and infamous.

One of the cuter, and innocuous, anecdotes involves Mrowicki's relentless promotion of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at the Pony when Mrowicki worked at WJLK in Asbury Park. Mrowicki organized a WJLK broadcast of a Jukes concert at the Pony in 1976.

Years later, Southside Johnny Lyon, always self-deprecating, e-mailed Mrowicki, saying, "Thanks for playing our crud."

But Mrowicki's favorite anecdotes center on the people who benefit from events at the Pony.

At a Christmas party for mentally handicapped and autistic teenagers and young adults, guests were entertained by Christmas carols performed by John Eddie, Bobby Bandiera and other local musicians.

"They were just finishing singing and we were going to break to eat," Mrowicki recalled, "and all of a sudden, a young man went on stage and grabbed the microphone and started singing 'Silent Night.' Now you couldn't understand the words because of a speech impediment, but he sang in a booming, operatic voice.

"So, we gave him a big round of applause, he goes back to his table and we started the food. We thought, 'Nice job,' but nothing more of it.

"About half an hour later, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, 'I want to thank you so much,' and gave me a big hug. It turns out it was her son on stage, and after he sang he went back to his table and started talking to his friends. His mom said he hadn't said a word to anyone in a year and, all of sudden, that song poured out of him.

"Now, to me, that's really the power of music."

©2003, Asbury Park Press

Special thanks to Kelly-Jane Cotter for graciously giving us permission to republish her article.

Kelly-Jane Cotter

Kelly-Jane Cotter is a Contributing Writer to the Asbury Park Press.