Q & A with Westcott owner Sam Levey

Last Monday, I interviewed Sam Levey, owner of the Westcott Theater, for a piece I’m writing for the Syracuse New Times. He sat at his piano in the empty lobby of the theater and I perched myself on a stool at the ticket counter. The bearded 35-year-old and I discussed everything from football to death metal to parking violations. Here are some of my favorite sections from our conversation:

[Warning: lots of awesome profanity]


Levey: Are we on the record? First thing I’d like to say is ‘Go Fucking Pats!’ [It’s the NFL’s opening week]

Me: What makes the [Westcott] neighborhood so unique?

Levey: It’s kind of it’s own little city. It’s off the radar but everyone knows it’s here, everyone supports it in some small way. I think the theater really ties it together because it gets people here to appreciate it. I’ve been coming here since I was in high school. Junior year in high school I came up to Westcott Street for a party and it was crazy. It was an acid-induced freak show and I loved it. It was a freak show.

Me: Why Westcott and not somewhere else in the city, though?

Levey: Honestly, and you’re talking to a young kid, what I’ve gathered from the older crowd is back in the 60s there was a lot of protest going on and the hippies were thriving. So you get a lot of these guys who are 20-year students in fucking philosophy or yada, yada, yada. A lot of them stayed here. They came off campus because this is where the cheap housing was and where a lot of shit happened. Eventually those people became the Baby Boomers. They grew up and bought the homes then, as they got older, a lot of them turned these properties into rentals. They’re gold mines. And they rent to grad students, which keeps the whole thing going. Grad students may not be as prolific as they were in the 60s but they’re still that same kind of people. They still want to sit down at Alto [Cinco] over a glass of port and fucking lecture you on whatever.

Me: What has been the neighborhood’s overall reaction to the theater?

Levey: You get a little opposition, but I think 90% of this neighborhood and this town supports us. The media supports us, the fans support us, the bands support us, everyone likes it. And I’m really proud of it. My partners tease me because whenever we’re out in public, it’s not long before I mention the Westcott theatre. But it’s because I’m more proud of this place than anything I’ve ever done. I love what I do, I’m proud of it. I’m as big a supporter as I am a proprietor of this place. And I think it belongs to everybody. It belongs to you just as much as it belongs to me. So, yeah, it would be nice if you would chip in for the fucking NiMo bill every now and then.

Me: What band would you love to see play here?

Levey: I tell you what, there are some we’ve been waiting for for a long time. Keller Williams is one. I’ve said since Day 1 that he would be perfect for this place, and I’m proud as shit to have him. There’s a few out there. My dream has always been moe. And it’s not unreasonable in my opinion. But they don’t play too many clubs close to home because this is where they’re big. This is where they can do moe.down and Saranac. They are too big for us, but it’s a dream.

The key is to grab someone before they blow up. We had Vampire Weekend open here for Ra Ra Riot. They cost $200 to open a show. Two weeks later they were playing the main stage at Bonnaroo and charging $85,000. That’s what we like to get. I’m kind of nostalgic. I want to see the Ominous Seapods back in Syracuse. I’m an old school jam band guy.

Me: You’re bringing in more and more dub step shows. Do they create more of a problem than, say, a Dark Star [Orchestra] show?

Levey: Honestly, no. Those aren’t really a problem. Dub step brings in the drug element. And we do have a zero tolerance drug policy here. And we’re not dicks about it, but we don’t tolerate it. The problem is, all these kids are into the molly and the halucinogenics, and the things they’re taking before they come in, and now they’re our problem. So you get someone like Skrillex in here and you’ve got tons of kids floppy fish-ing. They’re not fighting or being dicks, and to be honest, they don’t even really try to underage drink. They’re here because they just spent $35 on a band they’ve been waiting two months to see. And that’s the benefit. There’s no fights or underage drinking. With Dark Star it’s a little bit less but you’d be surprised. You throw a show like Hot Tuna and there’s no one here under 40 years old. But we still had people hitting the floor. It was an old-man-crunch-fest and there’s people who haven’t been out drinking in ten years and they can’t handle their booze. Then we’ve got to deal with it.

Dubstep kids just want to come in and jump up and down with their glow sticks. That’s all they want. And it looks cool as shit in here, which is all I really care about. As long as there’s a full room and people are having fun, I’m happy. If Fritz’s Polka Band wants to come in here and pack the house, I’m fucking game. The one thing I don’t want is the local cover band stuff. Let them have their Inner Harbor or Armory Square. We’re here to bring cool new shit to town.

Me: What shows do create problems then?

Levey: Hip hop is a problem. We’ll only do shows with national acts who have an agent because those people are professionals. Ghostface Killa doesn’t want to come down here and start beef with some local kids. But the local hip hop is a problem. That’s where you get fights and underage drinking, so we just stopped doing it for the most part, unless it’s the right show. There’s no way I’d turn down Q Tip or the Beastie Boys.

Metal gets risky too sometimes. Problem is, you get a mix between the meatheads who want to spin-kick and punch each other in the face, and then you get 13 year old girls who want to be in the front row, where they’re going to get punched in the face. So that becomes an expense, because now I need to have 25 bouncers working to manage the crowd and make sure no little girls are catching a punch in the face by some douchebag with a skull tattoo on his forehead.

Me: How have the other businesses responded to the theater?

Levey: All of us are friends and neighbors and when anything happens up here, we talk. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. But I consider all of the business owners up here to be a big family. Even when we disagree – that’s part of the downfall of being in a little hippie neighborhood is no one really is focused all the time. Everyone’s got these ideas of grandeur. Half the neighborhood wants to spend a million dollars a year on fucking flower baskets along the street and the other half is like fuck that, let’s make business happen. But yeah, we’re family.

Me: When has it been bad?

Levey: I don’t know. You can’t catch everything. It boggles my mind that people come down here telling me that my customers are parking long. Well what can I do about it? Should I hire parking people? That’s what police are for.

One night we had some kids six blocks away cranking tunes out of their car and drinking beers. Who knows if they were even here or not, but people just assumed they were. People call me complaining. Maybe they came from Metro. Maybe they’re a rowdy bunch from H&R Block. What do you want from me? I don’t know what to tell you.