In the summer of 2017 Steve Rodgers, then owner of the Space, the Outer Space, and the adjacent Ballroom, began to lose his voice. And he made a big decision.
“I needed to step away from the all-ages Space — the Space Space — by the end of the year,” he said.
Since Rodgers announced that he was closing the Space at the end of December and dropped out of sight, people have been asking, “How’s Steve?” — with the concerned affection for someone who made a music scene happen for all ages in New Haven and nurtured it for decades.
Rodgers answered that question in an interview at his home on Monday with the Independent and New Haven Register. He looked and sounded exhausted, but also glad to be home, as he told the story of how he came to decide to move on from running the music complex he’d built. (Click here for a story about the transition to new operators and the planned rescue and rebirth of the Space and the Outer Space.)
“It was taking my time and energy away from my family — from me, spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally,” Rodgers said. He was putting in 70-to-80-hour weeks running the three Space venues on Treadwell Street in Hamden, and he was exhausted.
About six months earlier, he had discovered nodules growing on his vocal cords. Luckily, they didn’t indicate larger health problems. But the condition meant that he could barely sing, and thus perform as a musician. It made it impossible for him to run a music venue when things got loud. “I couldn’t communicate,” Rodgers said.
Moreover, since Rodgers had started the Space in 2003, “the young music scene had changed so much,” he said. With the advent of social media and the rise of YouTube, the more overt blending of fashion and music, Rodgers felt out of step. “That’s not who I am,” he said. And he wanted to focus his efforts on the Outer Space. “I felt like if I combined the Space and the Outer Space into one thing, it would make a lot more sense.”
He met quietly with a few prospective “buyers-slash-successors” for the Space then. He didn’t think he’d get much money, but “I wanted to see it continue in some way.” But those deals didn’t work out.
He quit smoking. He started taking better care of himself. He hoped that his vocal cords would improve “naturally.” But his health continued to decline — he was continuing to exhaust himself — and in November he ended up in the hospital. He had abdominal surgery that month.
“While I was in the hospital, I talked to my wife, obviously, every day, and I made the difficult, difficult decision to look at selling the Outer Space. (He had leases to run the buildings from a private owner.) The time and effort that it took to adequately run the place — it didn’t leave me any time for a real family life, and also if I was running it, I couldn’t get healthy.”
The Outer Space and the Space were struggling financially, despite past fundraising efforts. Some national acts drew low attendance, and that hurt the club, which had taken on the risk in booking them. “When the show doesn’t make enough money to cover the band, it also doesn’t make enough money to pay the staff, regardless of the alcohol sales,” he said. “So we were eating all of that.”
Rodgers said several buyers had approached him in the past couple years, interested in buying the lease. But he hadn’t been ready to sell the business.
In November, that changed. Rodgers’s wife Jesse, with the aid of a business consultant, contacted Mark Nussbaum at Manic Productions — which by then had become part of Premier Concerts, which runs College Street Music Hall — about buying the Outer Space business. Rodgers said the number Premier offered seemed low to him, but in December he and Jesse agreed that in the interest of his health, they should accept it and move forward with the sale. They shook on it, but didn’t sign anything.
“That’s a mistake on us,” he said.
Rodgers said he is “heartbroken” about how the talks with Premier worked out. He feels that Premier isn’t honoring its side of a handshake deal to pay for some of the information he shared with the new operators, and feels he should be compensated. Keith Mahler, who runs Premier Concerts, disputes that he and Rodgers had reached a final agreement in the first place. “There was no written agreement,” he said.
According to Rodgers and Mahler, the lease had lapsed on the Outer Space; “the landlord was good to us,” Rodgers said. Premier signed a new lease with the Outer Space’s landlord in January, after the venue had been closed for a couple weeks. “We took over a premises that was turned over and turned back to a landlord,” Mahler said.
Rodgers feels better about how the transaction occurred with friends Karen Robinson and Chris Scionti, who approached him after he had talked with Premier. They “are going to open up in the Space building under a new name, but in a lot of the same vision that I had, as far as craft beer and local music and building a scene,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers has debt from the Outer Space that is going to “follow me around,” he said. But with rest and recovery from surgery, his health is improving. And “one thing that’s really happy is that I’m spending a lot of time with my kids and my wife, and nurturing a healthy family life,” Rodgers said. “They’ve only known me to be a dad who runs music venues for 75 hours a week. So now they’re getting to know me as a dad who’s learning to cook a little bit more than macaroni and cheese.” (Rodgers is also the music director at St. Paul’s, a Lutheran church in Westport, a position he’s held since 2001.)
Rodgers’s family life has been transformed. Still, he misses running the Space and the Outer Space. He misses “being in it,” he said.
But the change also means that “I’m an open door. I’m re-exploring my identity. My identity’s been very tied up with the Space and the Outer Space,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been doing the same thing for a very long time and this is very new for me. This is a new adventure in life and I just know that my family’s the most important thing right now. Whatever I do next, I want it to involve making the world a better place. That’s all that I know.”