By Patrick Deforge
Ted Kistner was raised in Dudley, Massachusetts, a small town in Worcester County. But that didn’t keep him from living his life large. In 2008, after working as a DJ, a sound technician at Orlando’s House of Blues, and touring with various bands, he returned to the Worcester area, and in October 2015 he became the owner of Worcester’s Cove Music Hall, which officially opened for business in February 2016. The historical venue has been home to live music for more than four decades, featuring high profile acts ranging from The Rolling Stones to Godsmack. But the Green Street venue also provides opportunities for Worcester’s own talented artists to take the stage and perform. The night I stopped by, the featured musical act was Niki Luparelli and The Gold Diggers, covering all of David Bowie’s hits.
The patrons who were just arriving didn’t know it, but Ted had been preparing for the show since much earlier that afternoon. And there he would remain, long after the band had packed up and the crowd went home—only to return the following night to do it all over again. With the help of his fiancé Crystal Pannoni, he operates a well-oiled machine at The Cove. Crystal was managing the bar that evening as Ted opened the doors and put out the sign advertising ‘Bowie Fest.’
Ted does it all: management, booking, stage sound, lighting, and upkeep, while still making time to be an amazing father to his daughter, 9-year-old Riley. On most days, with barely a few hours sleep, he’s up making them breakfast before seeing his little girl off to school. You couldn’t help but notice the pride in his voice as he talked about Riley’s love of schoolwork, books and, of course, all things Star Wars.
Q: Let’s start with your history – where did you grow up?
T: I grew up in the Dudley/Webster area. I went to school in Webster and left when I was 18, moved to Florida, started doing some DJ-ing, which ended up turning into going to school for sound at Full Sail University. I started working at House of Blues in Orlando, and from there went out touring with some heavy metal bands, which eventually led me back here, and I’ve been doing this since.
Q: I understand it’s been a music venue for quite a while. What’s its history?
T: Oh, yeah, it’s been a music venue for almost 40 years. It was Sir Morgan’s Cove for a long time; that’s what it was when the Rolling Stones played here in ’81. From there it was purchased by Eric Godin; he turned it into the Lucky Dog. He ran it for about 16 years before I purchased it. I swapped the name to The Cove Music Hall — I took the names of the two previous businesses and kind of put them together. It kept it similar, so that people who are used to the venue could identify with it.
Now, you are a performer yourself. How long have you been performing?
Since high school, but even when I was a kid I was playing in school band. I started out playing saxophone.
That’s funny, because I was a drummer in a rock band, but played saxophone in high school as well.
Nice! Yeah, I started playing sax when I was in the fourth grade, then I picked up bass guitar when I was about 13. Playing bass, I started playing in bands when I was about 16.
Can you tell us the story of how you became the owner of this place? How did that happen?
Well, we got a spot down in Dudley: Drafters. When I moved back home from Florida, I was helping out down there with my sister. I started booking bands. As I was booking bands and adding more shows, it really started to turn into something. About two or three years in, I saw a post on Facebook that Eric was looking to sell The Lucky Dog, and I was trying to figure out what my next step was going to be, because Drafters wasn’t quite big enough for shows that I wanted to be doing. And it all just kind of worked out. I knew Eric from when I was a kid. Actually, right before I moved to Florida, I rented an apartment upstairs from the club here. So when I came home I saw him hanging around here every once and a while, and when I found out he was selling, I hit him up immediately. I told him I was interested. We had a meeting, talked over a few things, met with a couple other people. And he ended up asking, “Do I wanna do this?” And I said, “Let’s do this.”
Wow, so everything went almost full-circle?
Yeah, in a way.
Have you always wanted to own a music venue?
Yeah, when I was about 18, 19, getting ready to go to school for sound, I said, “You know, that’s the end game – I’d like to own a venue someday.” And then I didn’t think about it for a long time, I was just concentrating so much on the touring aspect, doing sound for bands, being a tour manager, production manager, stuff like that. Then, once I moved home, it all kind of just worked out. I started doing the things at Drafters, which led me here. It all just fell into place, almost without me even thinking about it. It was always something I’ve wanted to do, and not that I ever thought that it would happen. I wasn’t pushing for it as hard as you would think for it all to have worked out this way.
Can we talk about your support of local artists? The Cove seems to be one of the major venues in the area offering a steady stream of opportunities for local bands and artists to play.
There are other venues around in town. Over at Ralph’s, those guys are great, they’re also supportive of local guys. The Raven, they’re always putting on local shows as well. And Beatniks: those guys put on a lot of local shows, too. There’re about four or five venues that are doing stuff with the locals in town. I know there are others, too. But, it all just kind of happened at once, which was cool, because it gave people all these new places to check out, right in this area. Which I think definitely helped getting more action in the streets around here, and getting people out more.
Talking about getting more action in the streets, what do you think would help the city most, to kind of set it in the right direction?
I think that right now it’s just time. It’s time. With all the stuff that they’re building, with all of these apartments, and all of these new retail shops that are going to be going right up the road here — I think that once the construction is done, and those spaces start filling up, that’s what’s really going to tell the tale as to how it’s going to affect the area.
I have noticed that, just up the street, Urban BBQ and Birchtree Bread, both new places, are doing really well. I do feel like Worcester is hanging onto its newer businesses pretty well.
Right, and we have the population, so there’s that many more people to try to attract you, as opposed to, for example, where I live, in the Dudley/Webster area. And, you know, creatures of habit, people don’t venture out of smaller towns all the time, so they go to spots that they know, they’ve got their routine, and they stick with it. Up here, people in Worcester, people are a lot more apt to go and try new things, check out new areas, and venture out a little more.
If you could do anything that you wanted with The Cove, what would you want to do?
Be able to fit another 150 people in it.
How many can you hold now?
Right now, I can hold 235. I would like to be around 400. Reason being, it’s a lot easier to book bigger bands when you have more space.
How does The Cove’s impact on its patrons and musicians make you feel?
It’s pretty wild sometimes, you know? There are people who’ve been coming here, to this building, for live music for literally decades. So it’s cool whenever somebody hasn’t been in since it was either Sir Morgan’s Cove or The Lucky Dog, to just see the look on their faces. Because we’ve revamped the room as much as we could, pretty much top to bottom. We tore out both bars, built a new one, updated all the sound equipment, all of the lighting, and, when people walk in, and they see, you know, that the floors are all new, that the bar is pushed back, already they’re saying “wow.” Then, when the bands start, and they start hearing that, the new sound, seeing the new lights on stage, they’re saying to themselves, “Wow, this isn’t what I remember. This is a show!” It’s then that it becomes clear to them that they’re not at the local bar hearing a band, they’re hearing a show at a music venue. And that’s why I say this is a music hall first; the bar to me is second. The bar is here so that people can drink, of course – I wish that we didn’t have to have a bar, honestly, and that people would just come out for the music, but I want to take care of the business and take care of the musicians properly. But it’s just the way it is – people want to have their drinks and hear the music.
So tell me, 12 months from now, what do you want to have happen in here?
I have a couple of plans, a couple of ideas, that at this point I kind of want to keep under my hat. But what I can tell you is that I want to just keep bringing people the best local and national entertainment that I can. I want to bring in the best acts to keep people coming and wanting to see shows here. That’s the goal, really: to have people enjoy themselves and feel like they’re in a place where they’re comfortable, where they feel welcomed by everyone on my staff, from the door to the bar. I just want to keep putting out the best quality entertainment that we can, all the time.
After his interview, as the hall’s speakers thrummed and more attendees came pouring through the door — some sitting at the newly-built bar, others standing, waiting for the act to perform — Ted moved throughout the hall speaking with several concertgoers with unmistakable excitement in his voice. And it occurred to that here is a man living the dream of doing what he loves, for the members of a community that he cares so much about.