Above you see episode 165 of Radio Free Charleston (from 2012), where I take Kitty Killton to the site of The Charleston Playhouse to introduce a video of my old friends, Clownhole, performing there in 1989.
I’m running this here because last week, sadly, the building that played host to The Playhouse was demolished. It’s a fun video, and it’s a nice way to remind everyone that Clownhole, who last performed together at The Playhouse in 1989 have new music coming out soon. But it also gives me a chance to run an “obituary” for the building that was home to The Charleston Playhouse.
While it sucks for those of us who have fond memories of the place, the demolition shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone. The building was originally “Don Emilio’s,” a Mexican Restaurant, built in the 1980s, which was long out of business by the time a group of artistically-minded friends decided to have a go at The Charleston Playhouse in that location.
The Playhouse opened in 1989 and closed in 1990, but it left a huge mark on the lives of the people who went there. I met my wife there. I also met dozens of people, including some of my closest friends there. Radio Free Charleston became what it is there. I have far more attachement and fond memories of the Playhouse than I do of High School. It’s where I became an adult, at least socially.
Post-playhouse, the building was mostly vacant. It was briefly an attempt at an upscale Italian Restaurant from the folks who own Graziano’s, and for a few years it was a Mimi’s gambling den, before they relocated that to the vacant Wendy’s next door. However, I’d say that for the 33 years since the Playhouse closed, the building was probably empty close to 25 years.
At some point in the last few weeks, someone broke in and stripped the wiring, plumbing and took anything valuable from the building. It is said that over a million dollars of damage was done, leaving the owners no option but to finish the job and tear down the building.
The toxic sludge that is angry Republicans in Charleston on Facebook are trying to say that this was the work of homeless drug addicts, who get to roam free in Kanawha City thanks to Democratic Mayor Amy Goodwin. They seem to have forgotten that the exact same thing happened to Top O’ Rock during the term of Republican Mayor, Danny Jones. They also don’t seem to realize how implausible it is that homeless drug addicts would be able to descend on a building, strip it in hours, and leave undetected.
I’m not saying that homeless drug addicts are not capable of committing crime. I just think it’s a bit ridiculous to suggest that they’d be so efficient and organized about it. I’ve seen photos of the damage. This was done by people trained in demolition, using professional tools, and who had to have the means to quickly load up and transport what they stole far, far away to avoid being traced.
Why would they pick a vacant building in this area of town?
Well, because that area of Charleston is dealing with a lot of unhoused people, and whoever did this knew who would be blamed, and that no serious investigation would be conducted.
That negativity aside, it’s best to remember The Charleston Playhouse as the magical place that it was.
I used the Charleston Playhouse as a sort of second base of operations for the Radio Free Charleston radio program, recording many acts on the stage for broadcast on the show. Clownhole was one of the most requested bands on Radio Free Charleston, with songs such as “Heads On Fire” and “Old Man Jumping Over A Fence.” And they were also really good friends of mine.
One sign of how close we were is that in this video, you will see Sham Voodoo wearing a hideous canary yellow sport jacket. He actually borrowed this from me. For some unfathomable reason, I thought it would be cool to attend this show dressed in the most idiotically garish combination of primary colors possible: a bright blue shirt, bright red tie, canary yellow sport jacket, fingerless gloves, and round sunglasses. It may be hard to believe for my PopCult readers who were not yet born at this time, but in the 1980’s and early nineties, you could actually dress like this in public without being socially ostracized and even still have the faint possibility of hooking up with members of the opposite sex.
The Charleston Playhouse was where all of Charleston’s artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers and the occasional voodoo priest met and mingled and collaborated. I used to sit at a table and do jam drawings on the tablecloths with the late Charley Jupiter Hamilton. I wound up onstage more than a few times, which is amazing when you consider how much I hate performing live in front of an audience. I was comfortable enough there to join in and sing, emcee, do improv or just goof around.
All the creatives at The Playhouse had interesting things going on. The rock and roll faction was responsible for the legendary Tuesday night jam sessions and weekend concerts. The theater crowd put on some of the best shows Charleston has seen–from “True West” to “Side by Side by Sondheim”. The art crowd encouraged creativity by providing paper table cloths and crayons at each table. For its short life, the Playhouse was a nexus for all things cool in Charleston.
Where else could you find Sondheim, Sam Shepard, Brian Diller, Clownhole, David Friesen, Duke Robillard, Go Van Gogh, Eraserhead, Danny Boyd’s movies, and drunken Reggae renditions of the “Beverly Hillbillys” theme, all on the same stage?
One night early in 1990, if I recall correctly, I knocked off work early at WVNS, and rounded up my buddy John “Sham Voodoo” Estep, because he was going to host a Thursday night acoustic jam at the Playhouse. The Tuesday jam had been a huge success, but we wanted to try something a bit quieter.
The problem was that nobody told us that the Playhouse had already been booked that night.
Morgantown film maker Jacob Young and Michael Lipton had arranged for a performance by the then-unknown “dancin’ outlaw” Jesco White to take place.
It was quite a shock. After getting over the disappointment from the cancelled jam session, Sham and I found ourselves mesmerized by the unique dance styling of the Boone county legend. I had my camera (loaded with pretentious artsy-fartsy black and white film) and snapped the photo you see at left.
At the time, I chalked it up as just another night of Charleston Playhouse bizzaromania. I also remember that the stage at the Playhouse was never the same after Jesco had at it with those cast-iron tap shoes.
Everybody who went to The Charleston Playhouse has a memory (or dozens) like that. I remember hanging out with all the top bands in town, meeting new people, and most importantly, the night of the Stark Raven CD release party where I met my wife, Melanie Larch.
It had long been a lottery dream of mine to buy the building, restore it to its former glory, and reopen it as an all-ages club with a state-of-the art sound system and robotic cameras to capture bands playing on the stage.
Now that dream is dashed. If I do ever win the lottery, it’ll save me a fortune. Aside from the magic and wonderfulness, The Charleston Playhouse was in a lousy location on the ass-end of Kanawha City, just past the Interstate entrance. In fact, it was located right off the off-ramp, and you had to pass it turn right, then double-back to get to it.
That played a large part in why it was only around for a year. It was too far from anyplace else for bar-hoppers to hop, parking was cramped, the lot was not well-lit, and it was in a part of town that most people never bothered to become familiar with.
I loved the layout of the building, but I would’ve loved it even more if it had been more conveniently located.
Now it’s located in my memories…and those are way more rich because of it. Everyone who ever went there will carry a little piece of it with them.