Postcards: Pete Shapiro – Music’s Modern Day Impresario

As I sit outside of his brightly lit, music-memorabilia filled, corner office at the headquarters of Relix Magazine, a publication he’s partially saved from the brink of extinction, and just one of his ventures we will eventually chat about, Pete Shapiro is talking loudly on a conference call with someone from one of his many project managers to bonafide rock royalty. Shapiro is exuding a palpable energy that I can feel through the closed door. I find myself nervously checking my recorder and rehearsing questions over in my mind, despite having written for Relix and attended numerous parties and functions here, knowing that for a number of years THIS was the interview I’ve truly been dying to do.

From my days as a scraggly, long-haired teenager who used to frequent The Wetlands Preserve, the now-defunct hippie haven in TriBeCa, to becoming a frequent at his newest venues of Brooklyn Bowl and The Capitol Theatre, I also realize that Shapiro has essentially grown up, in the musical sense at least. The funny thing is though, I’ve watched him grow up, too.

Shapiro is not only the proud owner of Brooklyn Bowl and The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York; but as he will talk about, is also the publisher of Relix Magazine and runs numerous other ventures. One other such venture is The Hoodie Shop, a store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that sells just that: hooded sweatshirts. But, as you will see, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In short, the man seems to have more arms than an octopus.

As Shapiro welcomes me into his office, he gives me a pound and half bro-hug as he invites me to take a seat on one of his couches across a table from his own. He scrambles to make sure he squeezes out that last email, to politely pretend that we won’t be interrupted for the better part of the next hour, which – surprisingly – we weren’t. A very tough task I assure you, for a man who is constantly on the move and in the highest demand.

When we begin to talk, Shapiro is as enthusiastic as a boy on his first trip to the ballpark, shifting and moving positions on the couch. He’s also surprisingly honest and willing to talk about a number of topics. Shapiro originally made a name for himself by purchasing The Wetlands at the age of 23 from former owner and founder Larry Bloch. “I did something that was somewhat naive because of my inexperience and my youth, but also really smart that I may not even do today,” Shapiro recalls. “Larry Bloch was like, ‘There are no books.’ And so, more of the sophisticated people – or even me now at 40 – would say: ‘There’s no books! You won’t even show them to me? That sounds sketchy.’  But my response was, ‘What’s the rent?’ When you start a new business you don’t have the past books and [my position was], I’ll start fresh…but it’s already famous.” The boyish naivety is lingering in the air as Shapiro recalls this part of his tale, almost laughing at the casual silliness of it. “I should be able to figure it out.”

“So I went with it,” he continues on about Bloch. “He helped structure it so I paid him over time on a monthly payment plan. Luckily, it about broke even. Because I didn’t really have really money to keep funding it, but I think he really knew it was about break even.  He would say later to me, and he was right, I was a good candidate because I didn’t have kids. I couldn’t be as good an owner of The Wetlands now because [at the time] I could stay up late, hang out with the bands, I was 20-something, I didn’t have kids…and used to take the subway home and always fell asleep on it [laughs]. I had very little responsibilities beyond [The Wetlands]. If I had a lot, it would have been difficult and I probably would have tried to do shit there that wasn’t good for the operations of Wetlands. And I don’t think Larry ever ran it just to pull money out, but more to run it right. So that probably helped me there, and also the fact that the lease wasn’t that long.”

Shapiro also mentions that he knew Wetlands had a shelf life, “No one thought you’d re-up the lease down there because every one thought you’d have the building be sold for condos – which is what happened, along with every other building [in the neighborhood]. That’s why I was never that bummed that the lease was over and I had to leave because if it hadn’t been that way, I wouldn’t have had it [in the first place]. I knew that from the beginning. It wasn’t a surprise at the end. I always said: ‘If Wetlands hadn’t had to leave…Wetlands would have had to leave!’ Because of the how the neighborhood changed. And no more club. You know the North River Bar was gone, and The Knit was gone – it wouldn’t have worked.”

Overall though, Shapiro sums up The Wetlands in a succinct statement: “I just believed that Wetlands was an important place and a cool place.” Anyone who shared Bloch’s, and ultimately Shapiro’s, vision of that magical place will surely agree with that statement.

But Pete Shapiro was just getting started. In the years after The Wetlands closed, Shapiro had his hands in a slew of other ventures including making films with U2, “Preserving” The Wetlands legacy with a film about the venue, dreaming up The Jammys, becoming the publisher for the aforementioned Relix and seemingly everything in between.

The entrepreneur always knew he wanted to own another music venue, but trying to recreate The Wetlands just didn’t feel right. That eventually led to his multi-year venture in constructing the Brooklyn Bowl in Willamsburg, in which he says he and his partner Charley Ryan got lucky and snagged the last 7,000 square feet for the venue at the last possible minute. “It would have been a different place. We wouldn’t be doing Bowlive and things like that. It simply would have been a different place,” Shapiro explains about the last-minute addition to the space that now hosts Brooklyn Bowl. Pete also confides in me when I ask him about the biggest band he ever tried to book for the venue. “Green Day,” Shapiro says proudly, but with a tinge of disappointment. “It was confirmed, then Billie Joe got sick and went to rehab,” he continues.

We proceed to chat about a topic he’s casually looped me in on over the past years: what makes “The Bowl” unique and the organic process of it all coming together through spit, glue and a little bit of luck. “I knew it would be fun and cool and would work, but I try to not think too much about things. You never think about it – daydream maybe – but what we think about is how do we create the setting and the environment, and the structure, like a platform for things to take over and the momentum to happen. We are trying to do that in Vegas and other places.” Luckily for us, The Bowl turned out to only be our favorite room in the City – always allowing you to choose your own adventure of sorts between the bowling, the amazing food and the music – as opposed to the bar and stage setup of nearly every other music venue in the Big Apple.

Shapiro points out many of the major differences about The Wetlands and Brooklyn Bowl, including the food, sight lines and the visual component, to name a few. “Yet, the regulars at Brooklyn Bowl who were at Wetlands, a lot of them say, ‘It’s the same…just different!’ [Laughs] The spirit is there and feeds itself,” Pete explains.

He continues to explain why he was patient in this process of finding his next music venue venture. “I looked at some places and didn’t feel I couldn’t replicate [The Wetlands] in a way that would be really true to it, so I’m glad with what I did at Brooklyn Bowl. There are some touches of it, you can feel it. But it wouldn’t make sense for it to be Wetlands Bowl. It’s something I’ve learned from meeting so many people who had intense, personal and close experiences at Wetlands. I didn’t want to FUCK with that, mess with that, change their memory by being like ‘This is now Wetlands!’ I wanted to protect those memories! You have them, I have them and I felt the better way to do it was not try to do it again.”

Pete Shapiro talks numerous times about wanting to make The Bowl “an experience.” And he aims to take that experience to Sin City, where he will soon open a new Bowl outpost in a 78,000 square foot building (about three times the size of the Brooklyn location) on the center of the strip in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas version of The Bowl will have 32 lanes broken up into 16 on each of the venue’s two floors. Shapiro advises that he’s aiming to keep the feel of the Brooklyn Bowl in Vegas by using the same couches and wood floor.

“No one does live music late in Vegas,” Shapiro says. “It’s all early and then late night it’s club stuff and bottle service…you will see us doing late night, but  presenting live bands. And I think the bands will be in alignment with what you see at Brooklyn Bowl in New York. You’ll see a lot of The Funky Meters and you’ll see some Nevilles,” he uses as examples. “There’s really nowhere to go see live music late night [in Las Vegas], and hopefully we can give it a little bit of the feel of late-night at Jazz Fest.”

So what does a guy like Shapiro do after Brooklyn Bowl, where he has created his own venue? He simply takes on one of the most historic theaters in the country and returns it to its full grandeur and glory: The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. Only a few months after he reopened its door as a leasee, Shapiro purchased the building for $11.5 million. When I ask him how he decided on that number, he redirects the question back at me and others in general, “How do you put a price on a piece of history?” Currently, the Capitol is hosting Furthur for a nine-show run that brings back former members of The Grateful Dead, who played The Cap 18 times in the early ’70s, along with acts like Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Just like his career, Shapiro is always on the move, and his ideas are plentiful as we bounce back and forth amongst many topics. When I ask him who his heroes and influences are, expecting him to cite the obvious picks like promoter-extraordinaire Bill Graham (someone I kind of equate him to, at least for my jamband generation), he takes a good 30 seconds to surprise me yet again with a truly creative answer. “I think it’s all the people who put on the shows, built the venues, did the festivals, do the music films and created technology. It’s not one person. It’s people who helped build all those things, the foundations, to a point that I can do what we do, like the projections at Brooklyn Bowl. Or even with what we can do from the technology we found from NASA to hold the cameras steady when a 140-year old building shakes. The guy that made that, that helps the camera not shake with some special putty that’s [similar to what’s] used for NASA shit? That is influential. That’s enabled us to put a camera there or leverage or maximize the impact of those screens. We knew the dimensions of the screens would lead to a very cool visual experience, but it wouldn’t have looked so good if the camera shot wasn’t steady. So instead of me thanking the people that maybe you don’t know those names, but have built the tools that enable me to do these things…those are the people that I would say helped influence me most,” says Shapiro.

After so many successful ventures, I ask what’s next and I’m curious to know how he does it. “I’m going to work on a kids play space with a rock and roll theme. I went to the other ones that have been done, but I’m trying to think of new ways to do that.” Shapiro admits it’s a leap of faith. He takes a vision or a seed and lets it progress organically. “The more that it’s like a snowball going down a hill…that energy feeds itself…and I always try to keep it in the spirit of where this all starts, which is Wetlands,” the impresario explains.

“One day I’m going to sleep for like a year,” he ends with. Lord knows, you’ve earned it, Pete. And we also know, that won’t be anytime soon.

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