In the early Seventies, the venue embodied the “golden age of rock music”—and saw the early years of some of the industry’s most iconic acts.
By Vince Guerrieri
Downtown Youngstown was struggling as the 1970s dawned. The region’s largest employer, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, was now owned by an out-of-state corporation, and had left its home at the Stambaugh building for a sprawling campus on Market Street in Boardman. There were still two downtown department stores, Strouss’ and McKelvey’s, but they were buffeted by shopping plazas and malls being built on the outskirts of the city and its suburbs. The four railroads that served the city – an unheard-of number for a city Youngstown’s size – were awash in red ink and began cutting back or shutting down passenger service. The majestic railroad stations downtown looked even bigger, as crowds there got smaller.
The theater scene was just as bleak. For a long time, movie companies had been able to essentially control production, distribution, and consumption of their product. But this was declared unconstitutional in what’s become known as the Paramount Decrees, right as theaters – particularly downtown theaters – found themselves competing with television. The Palace closed in 1964 and disappeared seemingly overnight. The Warner faced a date with the wrecking ball when, at the last minute, the Powers family bought the movie palace – built by the Warner brothers themselves, former Youngstown residents – and reused it for the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra.
By the Seventies, the Paramount was the only theater downtown showing movies: kung fu and blaxploitation. The nearby State Theater had run afoul of the law for showing “I Am Curious (Yellow),” an erotic film from Sweden, and sustained damage in a 1969 fire before ultimately given up showing movies entirely. Like the Warner, it turned into a music venue, of a different kind. “They were rolling the dice and trying everything,” said Fred Woak, known across Mahoning Valley airwaves as Fast Freddie. “But rock music was just a way of life. People just ate it up. It was the right move.”
On July 22, 1973, the State Theater re-opened as a music hall, The Tomorrow Club, with a performance by Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, the band he’d formed after the James Gang, and before joining up with the Eagles. For the next decade, some of the biggest names in rock, punk and new wave would perform in that reconditioned movie palace in downtown Youngstown. “You were basically catching people on their way up,” says Joe Grushecky, the Pittsburgh-area rocker who regularly went to the club as a performer and occasionally spectator. “It was a golden era of rock.”
Because of its size and location–halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and an easy stop between New York and Chicago–Youngstown had always attracted big show business names. Before they made movies, acts like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges played the theaters in town. The Idora Park Ballroom always had the latest big bands. Motown and blues acts could be found in clubs throughout town as well. Ella Fitzgerald even got married in Youngstown while she was playing a club on the city’s West Side.
Youngstown was also always a stop for touring rock and pop acts. WHOT, the local Top 40 station, would have annual events at Idora Park to kick off the season, known variously as Hot Days or the Spring Thing. Live music could also be heard at clubs like the Freak Out, the Green, and House that Jack Built – all owned by the same man, Jack Gerchok.
Gerchok was the one who leased the State Theater and turned it into the Tomorrow Club. He removed all the seats on the main floor to create an open general admission area. There were tables on the sides of the main floor and an expansive balcony. Both Gerchok and Steve Stahara, the venue’s manager, were well-connected in the rock music scene, and they were able to get local and regional acts like the Left End, Great Lakes and Coconut. “We were the regular Wednesday night act,” says Gary Markasky, a guitarist for Coconut who later played in the Michael Stanley Band. “99 cents a ticket, and we’d pack ‘em in.”
The club also got national touring acts. “I don’t know how they booked these bands, but they’d play there, and like two weeks later, they were the biggest thing going,” Woak said. “You’d see them on ‘The Midnight Special’ or ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,’ and before you know it, they’d be headlining at Cleveland Stadium.”
Grushecky recalls coming up from Pittsburgh one night to see Mink Deville. The opening act was an Australian group with Scottish roots on their first American tour. “It was AC/DC,” he said. “Bon Scott was with them and he was carrying Malcolm Young on his back and running out into the crowd. After they were done, the place cleared out. Willy DeVille came on. There were maybe thirty people in the club, and twenty-five of them were us from Pittsburgh.”
The list of big names who came through the Tomorrow Club in their early years is staggering. The Ramones played one of their first shows outside of New York City at The Tomorrow Club, where they met a musician from nearby Girard named Steven Bator, who, with the stage name Stiv Bators, led the Dead Boys, the house band at another legendary venue, CBGB in New York. Rick Derringer liked the venue so much he used it to record parts of “Derringer Live.” And “we had KISS before they put the makeup on,” Markasky said.
Madonna came through once, too, traveling with her boyfriend, who was in one of the Detroit bands that played there. She helped unload equipment, which was a nightmare, Woak said, given that the theater had been built half a century earlier for vaudeville. Markasky said trucks would pull in the narrow alley behind the theater and have to unload onto a scaffold with a pulley on each side. “It was just medieval,” he said. “We’d put everything on a platform and pull on pulleys to get things on stage.”
The size of the venue – and the fact that the acts hadn’t become big stars yet – made interaction between fans and musicians a little more intimate. Woak remembers seeing Journey at the Tomorrow Club, and says it remains one of the best shows he’s ever seen. “Neal Schon was playing his guitar about two inches off my nose. I can remember that ‘oooooh, any time that you want me’ from ‘Feeling That Way’ sounded just like on the record, and everyone was blown away.”
Stahara’s daughter, Shannon Thomas, recalled being a teenager and working with her father at the club. “He told people I was his private secretary,” she recalled. “I got to talk to Huey Lewis once. So did my grandmother. Dad put Grandma on the phone and Huey talked to her in Slovak.”
In 1979, the club became a franchise of the Agora. The legendary Cleveland club had branched out to several sites throughout Ohio. “They didn’t miss a beat,” Woak said. “The name was different, and that was about it.”
But things were changing around Youngstown – and not for the better. The steel mills started closing in 1977, and disposable income was harder and harder to come by. People either couldn’t afford to come downtown anymore or were starting to get scared off. (In an effort to increase pedestrian traffic downtown, parts of Federal Street were turned into that 1970s-era urban Hail Mary: A pedestrian mall, which had the unintended consequence of taking away a lot of street parking for potential concertgoers downtown.)
Finally in 1982, the Agora closed, done in by an economic downturn and complaints from local businesses – many of which wouldn’t last through the decade – of vandalism and property damage from concertgoers. (The Youngstown State University student paper, The Jambar, referred to it as “the day the music died.”) The theater opened and closed a couple more times, as did its neighbor, the Paramount. But by the end of the decade, its only visitors were urban explorers looking for the thrill of walking through an old movie palace.
Of course, now there are even bigger concert venues downtown – the Covelli Centre, built on the site of an old steel mill on the bank of the Mahoning River, and an outdoor amphitheater – but, Woak said, they can’t match the magic of that big old vaudevillian theater on the cutting edge of music history. “It was an unbelievable time,” Woak told me. “I don’t think you’ll ever see anything like it again. People my age talk about it all the time because it was just so fucking cool.” ■
Correction: an earlier version of this story said the Ramones played their first show outside of New York City at the Tomorrow Club. It was among the first shows, but it was not the first. We regret the error.
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and he’s left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.
Cover image of The Tomorrow Club marquee on opening night. From archival newsreel footage, via Mahoning History on YouTube.
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