Before it can ever be brought up, Thaz Whalen cuts to the chase and addresses the elephant in the room or, in this case, the theater – his next few moves could help make or break the Scranton arts and entertainment scene for many years to come.
It may sound like hyperbole, but his responsibility as the newly hired general manager of The Leonard in Scranton is the kind of power that a young Peter Parker was warned about. The scene has suffered many devastating blows in the last decade or so – the empty buildings that used to house The Vintage Theater, Tink’s Entertainment Complex, and New Visions Studio & Gallery are just a few blocks away, and the former Test Pattern was just across the street on Adams Avenue. Whalen also remembers the long-gone Cafe del Sol fondly, and these are just the memories held within the immediate vicinity – Cafe Metropolis, Redwood Art Space, Sea-Sea’s, The Staircase, and so many more venues across Northeastern Pennsylvania are no more. Is The Leonard going to be the new all-ages haven for local musicians, artists, actors, poets, craftmakers, and other creatives to express themselves?
Whalen sure hopes so. He’s already losing sleep over it.
“I was dreaming last night about reports and maintenance on this theater. I’ve only worked here for a week and a half!” he admitted.
“I’m already having nightmares about stage curtains getting torn during a show and I haven’t even had a show in here yet. I’m already dreaming of catastrophe.”
Yet there’s still a broad smile across his face as he sits down with NEPA Scene for an exclusive first interview since accepting the position. He chooses the 120-year-old wooden seats in the balcony overlooking the 4,000 square feet that were once home to vaudeville, opera, theatre, a speakeasy, and even the Knights of Columbus – a view he admires as he pictures future events bringing that wide open space to life again. The seats offer little comfort, but he points out that many still have a metal wire attached underneath meant to hold your fedora; history is everywhere, and now he is a part of it.
“I’m really excited about it. It’s really hard to grasp. Three weeks ago, I was the Medicaid specialist up at TMG [Health]. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, you now have the oldest theater in Scranton. Make it be awesome.’ Yeah, no pressure,” Whalen cracked.
“Everybody in Scranton doesn’t already know, and this could possibly be the biggest public failure of my life. And I would destroy any hopes of any sort of independent music scene left in the city of Scranton. Yeah, no pressure whatsoever.”
How he ended up here is a long story. As it begins pouring rain outside, thunder echoing through the halls, it’s clear we have some time.
Finding a niche, personally and professionally
Born in Ohio and moving to the Hill Section of Scranton within three months, George Thomas Whalen IV has always been known simply as Thaz. In fact, even he didn’t know that this was his mother’s nickname for him until his first day of kindergarten when they were handing out nametags.
“I walk into kindergarten knowing every one of those kids in that room knew each other since birth, and here I am with orthopedic shoes because I’m knock kneed, thick plastic glasses, and I find out, at that moment, walking into the scariest environment I’ve ever gone into in my life at that point, that my name is now Georgie Porgie,” he sighed. “Yeah, it was rough.”
At 36, the Dunmore resident is undeniably one of the cool kids these days, though he doesn’t admit it. He changed schools several times before high school, never really finding his place until he started hanging out at Sea-Sea’s in Moosic as a teen.
“I loved the magic and the feel of a small venue where that dude from Riverside and that dude from Taylor and that dude from Old Forge and that dude from Dunmore and that dude from the Hill Section, all being that dudes that just didn’t really fit in in his school, all found their niche in one spot, the common ground of whatever music was there. It would have been punk, ska, tech, hardcore, death metal, gore. Maybe one or two people knew each other from school, but they all knew each other through there,” Whalen began.
Admittedly, it was a “real shitty venue,” but it was a place to hang nevertheless.
“It constantly stunk, and if you leaned against the wall, something was sticking to you. You’re like, ‘Oh, it smells like tuberculosis and sweat in here.’ You just got down with the bands, and the bands were right there. You’d get into the pit and get punched in the face by some dude you’d never seen before, and he’d be the first dude to pick you up off the ground, drinking beer with you out back,” he described.
“Everybody got along. Granted, there was little stupid stuff that would happen, but you were part of something bigger. You weren’t part of your high school football team; you were part of a bigger, much more inundated scene that nobody else in the world knew about. I could go anywhere in country and find that spot and get along with everybody, but meanwhile, the quarterback from Dunmore walked past and he’d know nobody or nothing and nobody would care about him, and I love that. It was great.”
It wasn’t long before he was inspired to throw his own events, starting with a job at Cafe Del Sol around 2000.
“That went from a nice coffee shop to a punk spot real quick with me behind that counter,” he chuckled.
With awesome shows popping up all over the place, from the basement of the Scranton Cultural Center to Monday nights as Heil’s Place, it was exponential growth that simply couldn’t last.
“[The scene has] always been budding. It’s always been there on the cusp, like here we go, we’re getting there, we’re getting a good music scene, people are going out to places. People looked for local music. People wanted to go see it and they wanted to be a part of it,” he recalled.
“It was getting nice, and all of a sudden, implosion again. We had a good hardcore and punk scene – Sea-Sea’s closed and Metro closed. Implosion. All right, time to rebuild, and it did, and it grew into a much bigger, much more eclectic music scene, and everything was going great. [Bands like] Mighty Fine Wine, peak, and then all of a sudden, closed. Dead. These guys were pulling in 300 to 400 people at a show. No local band in Scranton did that for a long period of time.”
Out of all the varied shows he booked, his favorite was a rave at a roller rink in Shamokin that attracted 1,500 people and ended up getting shut down by a raid from the cops. It was a night that would have terrified any other promoter, but to him, it captured the uncertain excitement and raw energy of a thriving scene.
Meanwhile, he worked his way up from busboy to sous chef at restaurants without ever taking a culinary class and served as a bartender at any watering hole in the area worth mentioning, most recently places like The Keys to Backyard Ale House; the latter even hosts the popular “Thaz Thursdays.”
“I love bartending. It’s just fun. I love talking to people. Sitting in a cubicle looking at Excel making a joke about Monday is not my idea of a day. I can’t stand that, being a part of a cubicle farm. You feel like your soul is being sucked out of you every day for a paycheck that you don’t like for doing a job that you don’t want to do for a company that doesn’t give a fuck about you, but you’re happy with the stability and knowing that your cage is always going to be your cage. That’s just not me,” he explained.
“I’m an extrovert. I’m a very loud extrovert.”
So it makes sense that he also wore The Grump outfit for two years as the mascot of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons minor league baseball team.
“It was the years they won the championships. I was their good luck charm. I wasn’t creepy year Grump. I definitely wasn’t creepy year Grump,” he insisted with a laugh.
“I’m like the slacker from every movie, but I always work hard and try to move forward. I like to keep moving. I like things to be different.”
He even worked as a corporate healthcare specialist, rounding out a few decades of odd jobs that, somehow, he still seemed to fit in his own way. Running a place like The Leonard has always been a dream job, despite the recent anxiety-ridden nightmares, but even with all these eclectic experience under his belt, why did owner Charles Jefferson ultimately choose him? Sure, Whalen is a loving father now, but why not go with a “safer” bet? An older candidate who possibly ran a big theater before?
Perhaps it’s because someone finally gets it. Practically anyone who has made a dent in the local scene in the last few decades has been young, ambitious, and rebellious, unafraid to think outside the box or remake it altogether. Not only has Whalen reinvented himself over and over again, he’s witnessed and directly participated in the scene he’s now charged with saving – and he’s much more hopeful than most.
“We’ve been rebuilding again. We have a whole new generation, actually two generations of kids between my age and 18, who are just dying to find places to go and to play,” he noted.
“Just across the street, Embassy Vinyl has kids standing outside because there’s no room, or bands playing in Loyalty Barber Shop with art on the walls. That’s freakin’ cool. You don’t see that anywhere else in this area.”
The timing of the theater reopening couldn’t be better, as that particular block of Adams Avenue has undergone a renaissance over the last few years, resulting in its own little community that Whalen jokingly refers to as “a mini hipster heaven.”
“You’ve got the record store, you’ve got the vegan restaurant, you’ve got the fresh juice bar, you’ve got the hookah lounge that rumor has it is going in there, you’ve got the barber shop, ScrantonMade with the Revival Letterpress where they do all their own custom stuff, and you’ve got The Bog, which has been the epicenter for any sort of independent music culture in the area for the last, what, 15 years now?”
The crown jewel
Though they work on the opposite side of the street every day, his friends at Loyalty had no idea that a theater built in 1897 even existed there, tucked away on the second floor, until Whalen gave them the grand tour. From the outside, it looks like two empty storefronts with only exposed brick and peeling paint adorning them. The bathrooms inside require serious updates, and an elevator needs to be installed to make the venue handicap-friendly, but Jefferson is addressing all these issues and more after purchasing the building last year from a New York businessman who let the theater languish in limbo not long after renaming it The Moonshine.
Its new name, chosen by a vote taken during the American Advertising Federation’s annual mixer in the theater last June, is a reference to the old hardware store, Leonard’s, that previously occupied the front of the building, which will now house a small market of handmade goods during every First Friday Scranton art walk.
“People don’t see what’s under their nose because it was closed to rot over the last 10 years,” Whalen said, recalling the last concert he saw there.
“It was pretty insane. Mighty Fine Wine had dancing girls going across the stage, like straight out of the Rockettes. They had the horn section in play. Timmy had his cowboy hat on and he was just killing it. This place was packed. It was gorgeous to see – Fud, Billy, Tim, and Jay up in their glory, going nuts. It really was a good time.”
NEPA punk and indie music fans got their first taste of The Leonard’s potential late last year when The Menzingers rented the space for their annual hometown Holiday Show on Dec. 20.
“That Menzingers show was ridiculous. In your head, all you could hear was, ‘All hail the king,’ because right now, when it comes to the Menzingers, they’re king,” he remarked.
“This was the first thing they did at the theater here – they hit capacity. And it was a local show! If that doesn’t tell you everything, I don’t know what will.
“This area really is driven by locals. They will come.”
Their success came as no surprise to Whalen, who booked them as teenagers when they still went by Bob and the Sagets. One of the bands playing that show idolized foul punk rock legend GG Allin, so he was hesitant to have kids so young there at first – until he learned their name.
“I don’t want 12-14 year old kids in that show! The parents are going to come down there! If they see this show, they’ll call the cops before the kids get on stage. Now we’ve got a problem,” he told his friend who kept insisting on booking them.
“I’m like, ‘OK, what’s the deal with these kids?’ They’re like, ‘Their name is Bob and the Sagets.’ Sold! I’m like, ‘That’s awesome! That’s a great name! Bring them in!’ They came in there, and out of that whole showcase, they were the best.
“I felt cool as hell just being there. I still feel cool as fuck for being there in that moment when they played and I recognized that these kids were going to do something cool. And when you see something like that, that can affect anybody for a long period of time. It’s that kind of experience that I like about it – seeing the up-and-comers, seeing people that work their asses off, seeing the passion for what they do and then just doing it.”
This story serves as another example of why he’ll be good for this job – he’s unafraid to take chances, particularly on new local talent, and it won’t just be “his” theater.
“I can’t wait to get the local music scene in here, and I want to see as much come out of it as possible. I want to get all the older heads of the music in this area involved. I want to get the new people coming out. I want to see everybody working with each other and having this as their spot,” he emphasized.
“This is their scene. This is their town. Not to seem conceited in any way, but this is going to be their crown jewel. That’s their stage.”
It’s all well and good that many locals want to restore the scene to its former glory, but this may be the beginning of a brand new, more inclusive scene. From dance parties for the University of Scranton students just up the street to touring bands of all genres to theatrical events like the plays recently announced as part of the upcoming Scranton Fringe Festival, his future plans for the venue include just about anything.
“I want everybody to come here – except Dave Matthews,” he joked.
“I need to be moving. I can’t just sit there. This job is perfect for me because I’m constantly moving, constantly trying to arrange things, and I’m constantly on the move. And I really, really want this to work, more than anything.”
He may not be sleeping much these days, but it’s not just stress keeping him awake – it’s excitement as well.
“It’s a good kind of pressure. It’s surreal. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always liked throwing shows. I’ve always liked being behind the scenes. I’ve always liked arranging for events and stuff like that. This is a much bigger venue and, honestly, I’m way understaffed, but I think we can do something amazing with this,” he said.
“By the end of two years from the day I took it over, we’ll have revamped a lot of Adams Avenue. I think there will be people coming up from Lancaster; they’ll be coming in from New York, traveling to Scranton just to see shows again.
“That’s going to be huge. I can’t wait for that.”
Photos by Jason Riedmiller Photography
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.