I worked for him as a bartender around 2013-2014, before I went back to school. Working there was strange, for it was no longer a symbol of my youth but a place where I was given a paycheck. The scene was gone by the time of my employment, too, so most of the bartending gigs I had were for national acts.
I wasn’t sure how I should handle contacting Mr. Berkowitz about this matter. I didn’t think that being discreet about my intentions would be the right way to go.
The main reason I was going there was to give him a voice, to get his side of these accusations involving his name. But I was also afraid that if I told him about these accusations, he wouldn’t answer me at all. I decided to be honest, mentioning what my friends have said about him.
To my surprise, he answered my email back rather quickly. There was this sense of conviction in his email that all the accusations I brought forth were not truthful, and that the Penn Monster Factory got shut down purely because of zoning and financial issues. Regardless, I was glad he was willing to talk.
I was going to meet with him in his main office by the Sherman Theater. It was a windy April day. The Main Street in Stroudsburg paints a picture of the Poconos. It is a combination of thriving restaurants, busy bars, and abandoned buildings that resemble the state Toast is in.
I was sitting outside of the theater, collecting my notes, making sure my phone was fully charged for the interview. I was somewhat nervous about this interview, for I’ve never come to someone with these kinds of accusations before. I’ve written a lot of feature stories that have focused on the positive aspects of my interviewees, not some accusations where they would need to defend themselves. I knew that Mr. Berkowitz needed to have a voice in this matter.
I walked up the stairwell and waited. Mr. Berkowitz was in the middle of a meeting, but he saw me by the door, popped his head out, and said, “I’ll be right with you, buddy.”
As I sat down, hugging my knees with my arms, holding my pen and notebook, my mind started to wander and think about things in a strange way. What got me here, waiting in this stairwell, doing this story in which I’m trying to unmask this time that only a few remember?
I think of all the hobbies I’ve had and where they’ve led me; I think about my successes and failures. I don’t always think of lofty ideas such as fate or serendipity in the middle of the day, but I was then, and I hoped all this hard work from school and diving into this writing life would lead me to something bigger than myself.
Mr. Berkowitz opened the door to his office and called me in. I shook his hand and thanked him for participating in this. He is a middle-aged man with dark hair and dark eyes. He has a tan complexion and has had a mustache for as long as I’ve known him. As I stared out of his office window, watching cars on Main Street pass by, I didn’t feel nervous anymore for some reason.
“So, I usually like to do more of a basic question with the first one,” I said to Mr. Berkowitz. “So, what made you decide that you wanted to get into the music business industry in the first place?”
“Young people,” Berkowitz said. “We started this project specifically to give young people a place to go and listen to music and have a good time. If you look at when we started in 2005, which is why the whole idea this is about the music scene issue is a little comical to me — there was no real music scene.”
He didn’t elaborate. I balanced my questions out so that there were some positive ones, but I decided to get to the heart of the matter and bring up the accusations. I mentioned how people said that he hurt the scene, how he allegedly got the Penn Monster Factory shut down, and how he also allegedly started the pay-to-play concept.
“People always give me way too much credit in both how much time I have to pursue other people’s projects and be, like what my time or interest is in any of those things,” Berkowitz said. “The Monster Factory started by Chris Visconti and his father, Chris Senior, and his brother [Nick Visconti] was involved in it, and they started, I think, partly because they wanted to do shows that maybe didn’t make bands sell tickets. They wanted to do punk shows, or not punk, more metal shows they were doing there, and they had, as far as me personally, had my personal full support in it. I really had no issue ever with it.
“I made it clear to the Visconti’s that I was more than happy to support them in any way I could. A matter of fact, towards the end, when they started having issues, we actually held a show of theirs here [the Sherman Theater.] I was never involved in anything to do with their zoning issues. Again, you could just Google it. You’ll see that they had a big fight with the township about their zoning, people drinking in the parking lot,” Berkowitz said.
He pointed out that his main focus was always on the Sherman Theater, and never on any other venue around the area. He said there was always enough to do at his place of work, and that other places were never of his concern. He even said he encourages people to start their own concert venues.
“I wish I had the time to be staring at the wall, being like, ‘Who can I fuck with next?’ Cause I guarantee it doesn’t happen. Never has, never will,” Berkowitz said.
He said how there could be a myriad of reasons why a place could shut down, and that a business like the Penn Monster Factory, which focused more so on punk and metal shows, probably learned that relying on bands in the scene doesn’t lead to a lucrative business. He also said how there are many misconceptions about pay-to-play.
“I think that any punk band, member that says pay-to-play doesn’t actually know what pay-to-play is. And there’s a very big distinction between having a band sell tickets in order to not only make their own compensation but to make the show a success is completely different than pay-to-play,” Berkowitz said.
“When you’re in a legitimate business, in a building that has insurance and mortgages and taxes and all this shit that goes in with it, you have to have a reasonable expectation of funds that come in. And when you look at marketing a show, you have a limited amount of money that you can spend on marketing,” he said.
He knew exactly the time when the scene was big and when he was a big supporter of it: from 2005 to 2011. He said the reason why he built the Sherman Showcase, which is a small space that they own next to the theater, was to still support the local scene, despite the numbers being down.
Back in the mid-2000s, Berkowitz said that they were able to get 300 to 800 kids at a show, two times a month. He also credits YouTube and Facebook for being the reason times are different than they used to be.
He also said he doesn’t care if people have the desire to throw house shows or start a small space for local bands. This is interesting because this is something that Dylan Smith mentioned before, that house shows and big venues are two separate entities that can coexist with each other peacefully. They are two factions in music that have very little to do with each other.
I wanted to focus on some of the positive things that Rich Berkowitz and the Sherman Theater has done as a whole for the community, so I asked him what his proudest accomplishment was so far within the music business industry.
“I think one of the things that has always been the best for me, which is kind of comical based on this interview, is I get great pride when I run into young people have been part of my local rock scene, or the local rock scene, it’s not really mine, but I think we played a major role in it,” Berkowitz said.
“And they say to me, and I see this across the country. I was in Nashville, and a kid from here used to come to the local shows and played in a band, was going to music school down there in Nashville, saw that I was down there, reached out to me . . . I met up with him and he introduced me to all his friends and people that were in the music circle he was, saying that, ‘this guy ran a venue and it changed my life. It really wanted me to pursue music,’” Berkowitz said.
As I closed out the interview, he continued about all the young people he has helped over the years and told me if I needed anything, to be not afraid to contact him. I shook his hand before I left and walked out the door. I was satisfied that I talked to him. This interview showed me what I love about journalism the most: connecting with the unfamiliar.
I contacted both of the Visconti brothers from the Penn Monster Factory to see if they wanted to give their opinions on these accusations, but neither of them answered. I don’t blame them; I would imagine they don’t care to talk about any family history concerning the old business. The Penn Monster Factory is gone for good.
I started walking towards upper Main Street. My car was parked behind Floods so I can avoid having to pay the meters. Even though I was glad to talk to Mr. Berkowitz, it was now time to leave the world of accusations.
It was time to stop thinking about how the Penn Monster Factory closed down because truthfully, that is just a part to why the scene died. The issue has many more facets than just one venue closing down.
Check back next week for part five.
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