The Wonder Bar

An Interview With Patrick Schiavino

The story of the Asbury Park music scene is often told through its venues. Convention Hall has long been a major concert location. In the early days of the scene, The UpStage, Student Prince, Sunshine Inn and other names have become enshrined in the history of the area. The Stone Pony became internationally known and helped usher in another wave of great venues such as the Saint and the Fastlane, which have hosted national acts, or helped local bands break into the national consciousness.

In recent years, The Wonder Bar has begun to establish itself as the heir of that legendary tradition, not only bringing more great live entertainment to Ocean Avenue, but also nurturing a newfound diversity that mirrors the musical history of the area itself.

In 2002, one of the great figures of the Asbury story, Lance Larson, and his girlfriend Debbie DeLisa purchased and renovated the interior of the Wonder Bar, located on Ocean Avenue across from the beach. They didn't have a liquor license, but established the spot as a popular location for parties, benefits and other events.

Eventually, the building itself was purchased by developers, who are now Larson's partners in making the Wonder Bar into an increasingly popular spot for live music of all kinds. One of those developers, Patrick Schiavino, is an internationally-recognized artist, who started in the music business in 1980 and booked and promoted national acts for over 20 years. He was the entertainment buyer for Club Benè, built and owned a jazz club in Montclair, NJ from 1977 to 1980, and also managed television personality Uncle Floyd from about 1981 to 1990, booking most of the acts on his TV show.

All of this has created a venue that is uniquely Asbury, combining both the rich history - for better and worse - of the area, and the future of the city - which also reflects the hopes and fears that have long been present there. Larson's history firmly roots the Wonder Bar in rock and roll and the "glory days" legacy that has made the city an international tourist destination. Schiavino's experience has helped expand the venue's audience - they've recently started a successful jazz brunch series - and there aren't too many people who are more familiar with the city's development saga.

Chorus and Verse is fortunate to have conducted this fascinating interview with Schiavino to document an important era in the history of one the country's most vibrant - if often unheralded - music scenes. As the Wonder Bar prepares for what should be a successful and exciting 2006, we wanted to learn all about a venue that's as interesting as its owners, and reflects the heart and spirit of a city and its musicians that is truly unique.

For our readers who might not be familiar, start off with a bit of background of how you became involved with The Wonder Bar. What made the Wonder Bar an attractive property for you at the time?

You know, life has a way of taking you full circle. I was in the entertainment business for 20 years, booking national acts for clubs, colleges, concert venues. All the time that I was doing this, I was investing in real estate in Asbury Park, and pursuing my career as a painter [and] visual artist. In the year 2000, I decided that I had had enough of the entertainment business. My art career was beginning to take off, I had done some really great shows and was selling a lot of work, and I decided that it was time to make a career move. John McEnroe took a liking to me, and I was involved in two shows at his gallery on Green Street in Soho. The last show was a rain forest benefit hosted by Trudy Styler and Sting, and it was really cool. It was the biggest show of my life, and I almost killed myself that night, after a bit too much partying, on the Parkway coming home, when I fell asleep at the wheel. I think at that moment, after spinning my car several times and ending up on the median, that I realized that life is fleeting, and you better do all you want to do today, because there may not be a tomorrow. So, I retired from the entertainment business, and started to look for a building in Downtown Asbury Park to house my studio, living quarters, and gallery. As luck would have it, when I purchased my building on Cookman Avenue, The New York Times ran a big story on me and my move to Asbury Park. You know like, "Prominent New Jersey artist moves to Asbury Park." It was really something to see my picture in The New York Times. Well, anyway, my phone started to ring off the hook, not from people who were interested in my artwork, but real estate investors interested in what was going on in Asbury Park. So, because I had been involved in Asbury Park for, at that time, some 15 years, and because my quest to purchase my building led me to every landlord and property downtown, I was really an expert on what was happening here, and thus became the "realtor du jour" in Asbury Park.

So, ironic as it may seem, the building that I bought to pursue my full-time art career is still not completed, five years later, and I haven't touched a paint brush since the day I moved my gear into the building. I have done nothing but real estate for the past five years, and have been involved in some of the biggest real estate deals, and most of the commercial and investment transactions in Asbury since. I am very proud to be able to say that I have had a lot to do with the gentrification of the Downtown Business District of Asbury Park, and when people ask me if I miss painting, I simply point to Cookman Avenue, and say, 'this is what my newest creation is.'

It has been very rewarding in so many ways to be here right now, to have had this opportunity to do such positive things in this city that I love. Which brings me back to your question. What was the question? Oh, yes, The Wonder Bar.

Let me start off by telling you about my partner, Pat Fasano. Pat is a true wildcat investor. I got together with him in 2000, and we spent the next three years buying up as much property as possible, spinning, turning, borrowing; it was insane. We were the only ones down here at the time, and the whole downtown was boarded up, and everything was for sale. So we bought it, and what we couldn't afford, I sold it to other investors as the broker. When the dust settled, virtually the whole downtown had changed hands, and we were involved in some way, shape, or form, in just about every deal. It was an exciting time. We also purchased liquor licenses, some with homes and some without. Now, when you purchase a liquor license which does not have a home, this is called a pocket license. You have two years, by law, to find a home for this license, or the State of New Jersey can seize it. So, Pat and I had a pocket license which we needed to find a home for. Lo and behold, Pat and I were attending a party at The Wonder Bar, which was operated by Asbury Park rock and roll icon, Lance Larson, and his partner Debbie DeLisa. They were both in recovery and operating the venue "dry," without a liquor license. The whole thing was set up as a bar, everything was there except there was no liquor. We looked at each other and the light bulb went off. We purchased the building an closed within a month and became Lance and Debbie's landlords, with a liquor license. We let Lance and Debbie operate the business while we went on to do our various other things in town, and they ran the place for about a year. During that time, I became more interested in the possibilities of the venue and in April of 2005 I decided that I was going to invest some real capital into the building, and make it a real venue. So, I found a partner - Carmine's Restaurant - to do the food, and I went to work with the renovation. We built a new kitchen, new HVAC, moved the stage, purchased a tremendous sound system for live bands, put in windows, on and on and on. Now the place looks and sounds killer. The food is great, and people are coming, more and more every week. And we continue to invest and continue to make it better all the time. I am expecting a huge summer at The Wonder Bar. It just feels right.

There have been a number of improvements and upgrades to the venue since you took over the property. Can you describe some of the renovations that have been made to the space and the sound system and equipment that's set up for performers?

I kind of touched upon that before. Let me tell you, I was involved in the Pony deal when Domenic Santana bought the building from Steve Nasar. The Pony was in terrible condition back then, and I kind of knew what kind of money he had to spend just to get it up and running. Well, quadruple that at The Wonder Bar. My philosophy about real estate and buildings in general is fix it right the first time, so that you know what you have. I just went in there balls to the walls, and did everything that I thought the place needed. New roof, new HVAC, upgraded the electric, built a great new kitchen, all new windows to open it up to the beautiful views of Convention Hall and The Berkeley Carteret Hotel. Moved the stage so that the bands could be seen from the entire room. Purchased a killer sound system for the bands. New floors, carpet, paint, the list goes on and on, and we are still not done. We have a killer lounge in the back, which is kind of a semi-private space that I want to finish this spring. All in all, the place turned out great, and I am really pleased with our progress. I just wanted to create a great entertainment environment, a comfortable place to come and see a band with great food. The kind of place that I would like to go to; and, consequently, I do.

One of the most notable aspects of the performance space is the large Sharon Stone mural. What's the story behind that photo, and is there any reason to believe that she's aware of it?

Well, first of all, I don't think that anyone is quite sure that that is Sharon Stone. Some people say that it may be Bridgette Nielsen. I don't really care who it is, she's hot.

No, I don't think that Sharon Stone has a clue, nor that she even knows that we exist. I'll tell you one thing, though, if it is her, and she does know about it, and wants it back, she is going to have to deal with me personally for it. Maybe I might make her wrestle me for it and whoever gets pinned first loses. The way I look at it is that I win either way.

But, seriously, the real story behind that picture, and some of the other "characters" at The Wonder Bar, such as "Wonder Dog" and "Wonder Gargoyle," is that these are relics from the past history at the bar, and we have chosen to keep them as part of our family, and history. It just adds to the character and funky flavor of the room. My partner and good friend Lance Larson, also has a good eye for garbage picking. He lives in Deal, and those people throw away some good shit. Sometimes he'll show up with stuff, all excited and proud about his new find, like when your cat brings in a bird from outside, as a token of his love and appreciation. So Lance shows up and we call an executive meeting with all the partners to decide on where we are going to put our new found treasures. It's all good; it's fun.

The Wonder Bar has been continuing the Asbury Park tradition of supporting charities and social causes, including W.H.Y. and Boys & Girls Club benefits last year and an upcoming Upstage Benefit. Do you feel that it's important to have a social aspect to your programming and you feel any obligation to be supportive of such events?

You know, we are all Asbury Park folks here at The Wonder Bar, and there is something very special about our community. We have all had great history here, and have survived through some very tough times. It is still tough trying to make it here. What we all have in common is a heightened sensitivity to other's needs, because every one of us has been there. We've all needed a helping hand at one time or another in our lives, and when you get down to it, what is more important than giving or lending a helping hand to someone who is going through a hard time, or an organization who helps other people who are in need. I have to tell you, of all the shows that we've had, the benefit shows are the best. Not because the music is any better, it's the feeling of camaraderie in the room. The true feeling of the artistic community banding together for a cause that is bigger than all of us. It is really heart-warming to see humans behaving so humane. It is reassuring to me that there is still some hope for this world to come together as one, even in our little microcosm at our little bar.

To answer your question, yes, our doors are always open for such events, and I speak for us all at The Wonder Bar. We are all family here, and we treat everyone like family.

The Wonder Bar gained a lot of attention for its reproduction of "Tillie" that so prominently welcomes fans to the area. Are you very conscious of Asbury Park's history and how do you hope that the Wonder Bar will fit into to the mythology of the area?

Well, the way things are going, The Wonder Bar may be the only thing left standing in the near future, and I know that we are on borrowed time. Listen, it is no secret that these developers have no history here, nor do they even give a shit about the history of Asbury Park. All they care about is maximizing their profits, which means that everything is gone. You know, I am history here, Lance, Debbie, a lot of the musicians and friends who hang out here are the history of Asbury Park, and although they may take our buildings down, and destroy our landmarks, and everything else that made Asbury Park so magical and mythological, they can't break our spirits. We are going down, but not without a fight. If you are familiar with our work downtown, my partner, Pat Fasano, has literally taken old post cards of what the downtown looked like 70, 80, 90 years ago, and rebuilt them in the same fashion. We understand the importance of keeping the historical aspect in place through gentrification. Look around the world at all the places that tourists like to visit, and I would venture to say that most of those places have a great history, which makes them a destination. Asbury Park will be built out, even over built; it will not be what is used to be. Those days are over, folks, so if you still want a taste of the old Asbury Park, come here now, come to The Stone Pony, The Wonder Bar, Howard Johnson's, Asbury Lanes, The Baronet Theater, Convention Hall, The Paramount Theater. Come here now before all you'll have left are the pictures, and post cards, and stories from people like us who actually lived it.

It saddens me to think that this is going to be so sterile, so white bread. It's just going to be rows and rows of big buildings with no character. How boring. But that's "progress," I guess.

It seems like I keep drifting here. You asked about Tillie. Well, this is a great story. Last year [2005] was the 50th anniversary of the Corvette. Chevrolet wanted to do a photo shoot of a vintage 1955 Corvette "Sting Ray," along side its new 2005 edition of the Corvette. They wanted to do a picture with a cool 50's feel, so they came down to Asbury Park in the winter of 2004 to scout out a location for the photo shoot. They decided that the famous Palace Amusements building was perfect for the shoot, so they took some pictures of the building with the Tillie Faces and went back to the execs at Chevy to get their approval. So, Chevy approves the shoot, and they put the wheels in motion to do a shoot in the summer of 2004. So, they hire the Goo Goo Dolls as models for the shoot, they dispatch two tractor trailers from Detroit with the Corvettes, and the film crew all converge on the Palace Amusement site in the summer of 2004 for this big photo shoot.

There was only one problem. When they got to the location, the Palace Amusements building was just a big pile of debris. It had been torn down in the meantime. So, now what? As it turned out, the photo director was an old friend of Lance Larson's. Lance called me up, and notified me that they were basically in deep shit, and that they had all this equipment, the cars, hired all this help, and had no place to shoot. So, I suggested why not do the shoot at The Wonder Bar? Now, at the time, the Wonder Bar was still pretty much a wreck. Lance called me back and said that it really didn't have the 50's look any more, did I have any other ideas. I said yeah, let them paint the building. You know what? That's exactly what they did. I had an old picture of the vintage Wonder Bar, which I gave to them, and they loved the look of the place back then, it was perfect. So, they made some calls, and within a couple of hours there were like 10 artists there painting the building to look like it did in 1950. It was great! It made all the local papers. I also introduced the idea of painting the Tillie face on our monolith on top of the building, which they agreed to do. Within two days, the building was completely painted, with Tillie smiling happily again enjoying his rebirth, and new home. Chevy did the shoot with the Goo Goo Dolls, and The Wonder Bar has now been immortalized by being in print all over the world as the backdrop for the Corvette's 50th anniversary advertising campaign. We then hired the same artists back to do some other work on the building such as the roller coaster, and a second Tillie facing south up Ocean Avenue.

Just an aside to this story. When the developers tore The Palace building down, they were forced by the city to remove the two Tillie faces on the building. They actually had to cut out the concrete blocks and have them lifted by cranes and flatbeds to an undisclosed location for safe keeping. No one has seen them since. But the funny story is that some people believe that because of the Tillies being painted on our monolith on top of our building, they actually think that these are the original Tillies that were cut out of the Palace, and placed on our roof! Well, we're not denying it, unless asked. It's fun to have people believe that, it's like believing in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Tillie at the Wonder Bar, I'm not going to ruin the excitement for them. When they're old enough, they'll figure it out for themselves.

It seems like you've greatly expanded the types of music being showcased over the past several months. You've had regular jazz brunches, as well as funk events, along with the regular local rock acts. Is this an intentional effort to bring in a different audience and expand the scope of music that you present, and do you expect to continue to do so in the future?

You know, I am a music guy. I spent 20 years booking music at Club Benè and nobody had a more diverse menu of attractions than we did. I mean, we had everyone from Howard Stern, Jay Leno, George Carlin, to Pat Metheny, Spyro Gyra, to the Ramones.

My feelings are that you can be a music snob or just enjoy good music. I enjoy good music. I can't stand bad music. So that is how I book the room. I really don't care what you play, as long as it is good. Now, having said that, as I said before in this article, I am trying to create an atmosphere at The Wonder Bar where I would like to go and hang myself. So, my theory is that if I create a space that is clean, comfortable, that has great food, great drinks, very friendly employees and staff, that people will come back. I really wanted the Wonder Bar to be the attraction, not so much the bands. I want to have great bands consistently, whether they do jazz, funk, blues, rock, folk, or even cover bands. We'll have them all, and people will come here knowing that the cover charge will always be about $5 on weekends, and that they are going to see a great band, no matter if they know who it is or not. They will develop a confidence in the room, that they know that they will have a good time, and they can bring their friends with no surprises.

As a property owner and manager in Asbury Park, you must follow progress in the Asbury Park redevelopment effort very closely. What are your thoughts on the progress of that effort and are you optimistic for how things will continue over the next few years?

You know what, I have very strong feelings for what has happened, is or isn't happening now, and have a whole slew of comments on the subject. I am angry about a lot of things that the city has let happen here. I have never been a politico, and do not have any intentions of becoming involved in city government. Having said that, I feel that it is not my place to place any blame, or take cheap shots at the then-acting city council or city government that was in place at the time. There were a lot of tough choices that had to be made at the time.

Let's just say that I hope by now we have all learned something about who we are involved with, and take whatever legal steps necessary to right the ship which seems to have been drifting in which every way it has chosen to go thus far.

How could the redevelopment effort affect the status of The Wonder Bar over the next several years? Is there any concern that the property could be rezoned for alternate use and the bar would have to be moved?

Well, The Wonder Bar, The Stone Pony, The Fast Lane, The Baronet Theater, Asbury Lanes, are for all intents and purposes gone. The land in the redevelopment zone has been rezoned and the property owners have no say when the condemnation comes. As far as relocation, the city is only obligated in assisting you to move your business to another location. There is no law which requires them to relocate you, nor do they have any obligation to compensate you for your loss of business.

To answer your question, when they come, the landlord will get "fair market value" which is an absolute joke. You should see the appraisals coming in from the appraiser hired by the developer for the beachfront properties. You can't buy a shack in Neptune for the same kind of money. And they are obligated to pay you some money towards your moving expenses. If they put you out of business, oh well, tough cookies. This is democracy at work, folks. Better wake up and smell the coffee. Eminent domain laws have to be changed. The original intent in giving municipalities the right to condemn properties "for the good of the whole" was for bridges, roads, tunnels, schools, etc. It was never designed to be used as an instrument by which a city could be empowered by a developer to take land for the sole purpose of a private developer to make huge profits. It isn't fair and needs to be continually challenged in court until they revise the law. Too many Americans are being put out of their homes, businesses, etc., in the wake of these developers, and no one seems to care about their rights provided by the Constitution of the United State of America. This country unfortunately is guided by big money, to the point where that is the only factor that is paramount in these decisions. It is my feeling that the fair way would be to let the developers buy the properties for their use at the real fair market value, which is what they or anyone else would be willing to pay with an arms length transaction. This a much better way for the little guy to get a fair price for his or her property, which may or may not be their livelihood, or their home, or their nest egg for retirement. To be able to put people out of business, out of their homes, sometimes people who have been there for their whole lives or several generations, is a complete travesty and goes against any idea or theory by which this country was founded. I just hate it.

What do you think is the state of the live music scene in Asbury Park, as in New Jersey in general? What changes do you see now from when you started booking at Club Benè in the early 1980s?

You know, take a look at Asbury Park. You have what, The Saint, The Pony, Crossroads, Asbury Lanes, The Wonder Bar, The Deep, Red Fusion, The Fast Lane reopening as a venue for live national acts this summer. What's that, eight live music clubs? Add to that Paradise and The Circuit dance clubs, and I'd say that you would have to be hard pressed to find that many venues with such a thriving music scene anywhere else in the world in such a small town. And we are really a small town. What are we, like, one square mile and some 17,000 people?

I mean, we have a lot going on here, that's why I love it so much. I don't ever have to leave town to find a good time. Add to that all the really superior restaurants that have opened up over the past couple of years. It's perfect. As far as the music scene in New Jersey, we are the music scene in New Jersey. Period.

What's in store for The Wonder Bar for coming months? What would be some of your goals for the venue moving forward and why do you think fans should pay a visit to Ocean Avenue in Asbury Park?

In the coming months, we are booking more great bands. More and more bands have discovered the room and the great sound and vibe here, so we are getting calls from a lot of different agents who want to work with us. Some of our goals are to continue the renovations, continue to "tweek" the room, and make the adjustments necessary to bring our customers the best experience possible. We have just hired a great chef from the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, one of the top restaurants in the country, so we are now going to be offering a bar and restaurant menu with an authentic Creole flair. I am very excited about that. I think that we may be the only restaurant offering that type of fair in the market, which kind of gives us a niche. Also, we are planning a grand opening introduction for our new chef and menu on March 10th, with Lance Larson and the Wonder Band, hosted by WRAT FM, that is exciting.

All in all, I think that The Wonder Bar has been very successful for the short time that we have been involved with it. We have made huge changes in the look and feel of the place, and we are continually making new friends every week. The word is out on the street, and I am getting nothing but positive feedback from our customers. I will continue to work hard with my partners and staff to constantly provide the best possible product for our customers, so that every experience at The Wonder Bar is a good and positive one.

As far as visiting us on Ocean Avenue, as Bob Duley used to shout, "C'mon down!" Don't miss out on the great things that are happening in Asbury Park, and when in town stop into the Wonder Bar to say hello. After all, our motto is: "The Wonder Bar, where you're only a stranger the first time you walk through our doors."

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.