The Jig Is Up

The Rise And Fall Of Phil Lara's Rock 'n' Roll Dream

On Friday, February 27, employees of the Jigsaw Saloon and Stage in Parma were setting up for lunch when an electric company technician showed up. The bill was $8,000 overdue, he said. He was turning off the power; they should leave. They did.

Rumors of the Jigsaw's demise had been flying around the music scene for months, so word traveled fast. Several former employees decided it would be a good time to picket outside the club they'd once loved but had either quit or been run out of. They made calls, printed signs and met in the parking lot opposite the Jigsaw, waiting for owner Phil Lara to open the door.

Upon arriving, Lara noticed them and walked over. When he saw the bright green picket signs, he started yelling, loud enough to be heard 20 feet away. He threatened to close down the restaurant rather than endure the boycott; he'd close it for good, and their friends would be out of jobs, and it would be on their hands.

So five former employees stood across from the Jigsaw, huddled in a circle and did nothing. It was a bad day to protest, anyhow: Not only was it cold and drizzling, but a mere six would-be customers approached the building from 12:20 to 2 p.m.

Lara's hollering worked; he kept things afloat for another day. After the group of would-be protestors dispersed, Lara stood outside and answered a couple questions. Leather jacket wet, hair slicked back, his bellows empty, Lara looked whipped.

"I'm out of money," he admitted. "I put everything I had into this place." The implication seemed to be that others had let him down. In an interview a couple of weeks later, he stopped implying. "Where we really fell short is just the exorbitant salaries we were paying management that never performed," he says. "We did the things to bring people in. Our strategy was: We would get exposure - and spent more than we probably should have on advertising. And the crowds would come, and then we would start slowing that down. For the most part, that's happened."

By then, his suspect revelation was too late.

On Sunday, March 8, Lara and partner Terry Buckwalter called a meeting with the remaining 20 employees. According to one of the last true believers, Buckwalter told them the partners were working on getting a line of credit that would arrive in a week. (It didn't.) Buckwalter said their first priority would be making good on bounced paychecks. Until then, said Lara, they were closing the Jigsaw down. It would open in a week, with a new "professional" staff. (As of press time, it still hasn't.)

Pressed for an explanation, Lara repeats what the sign on the window says: The tavern is "closed for manager training and renovation." If that's the case, it's odd timing. St. Patrick's Day is the biggest bar day of the year, and March Madness usually brings a steady influx of hungry hoops fans.

But little about the rapid rise and even faster collapse of Lara's planned Cleveland rock empire made much sense. In 2007, Lara said he'd take the Jigsaw to the heights - and within a year, it was the heart of a four-club Cleveland entertainment syndicate. And just as soon as they'd reached unprecedented size, the Jigsaw group crashed to new lows, leaving in its wake many disgruntled employees, bounced checks and grumblings of legal action. Lara says the club will open again soon. But even if it does, it might be too late. The fiasco hasn't just scuttled a neighborhood landmark; it's left scars on Cleveland's reputation.

The Jigsaw Saloon - formerly the Parma Tavern - has been a Parma institution for some 30 years, a watering hole in a blue-collar neighborhood where shift workers, long-haired heavy-metal musicians, gray-headed senior citizens, grease-stained union mechanics and leather-clad punks could rub elbows. Weekdays and weekends, they harmoniously shared a communion of glorious bar food - stuffed cheese pierogies, fat sausages, moist French fries and fluffy omelettes the size of a foot pillow - seated beneath vintage Star Trek and Henny Youngman posters, as AC/DC and Guns N' Roses played on the jukebox. Regulars had their own mugs hanging above the bar, and no one else was allowed to touch them.

In 2005, the tavern opened a second room next door, in the former Tuxedo Lanes bowling alley, with pool tables and a stage for local punks like Gunfire Getdown as well as touring niche acts like cowpunks the Supersuckers. The Jigsaw became a destination hang for the southern suburbs, which hadn't had a real rock club for years.

"It's like the Cheers of the southwest suburbs," says Parma native Tony Erba, a 24-year veteran of the Cleveland music scene. "It crossed party lines. It was free of pretense. It was a place for townies, where you could book a lot of original heavy and hard music. It's a fuckin' shame what happened to it."

The bar business is an odd one: The more successful you are, the worse your life gets. The reward for running a successful rock club is the constant threat of lawsuits, hit-or-miss returns and terrible hours. In 2007, the Jigsaw's owners were ready to cash in. They approached a broker to sell the business. He found buyers, medical-business pros who were ready to diversify.

Phil Lara is a formidable figure, a lumberjack of a guy with mid-length brown hair and a bushy beard. A native of Avon Lake, he made a splash when he entered the Cleveland nightlife scene, as the operating partner of Pennsylvania anesthesiologist Terry Buckwalter, who was the business' hands-off bankroll. Despite having no experience in the restaurant, bar or music business, Lara - who claims he attended, but didn't finish, law school and medical school - stepped in as the chief operating officer of the Jigsaw. All bluster and charm, he took a quick look around the Cleveland club scene and figured he could show everyone else how it should be done. Within months, he had formulated a new model for the entertainment business.

"My goal is to help the music scene," said Lara at the time. In May 2008, as the Jigsaw was still finding its legs, they bought Lakewood's Hi-Fi Concert Club (capacity 200). In June, Lara partnered with the majority owners of Peabody's to form Jigsaw Productions. The group would manage the 750-capacity downtown complex that includes the concert club Peabody's, the adjacent Pirates Cove and the upstairs Rockstar Cleveland room - and book all the affiliated clubs.

In October 2008, Lara, Buckwalter, and Agora owner Hank Lo Conti formed a separate corporation to run the Agora, the city's biggest independent concert venue, which has a 400-capacity ballroom and 1,700-capacity theater. Lara said they planned to make it bigger, adding a new nightclub on an upper floor. He talked about buying adjacent Metrosync Studios and creating an entertainment complex that would draw out-of-town artists in to play, dine, hang, record and bask in Cleveland's cool soda-machine glow. And he wasn't going to stop there.

"You'll see [the Jigsaw group owning] other clubs in other cities, approaching the music business in a different way," said Lara. "Our goal is a regional network of clubs in select cities, so we can offer strong resources and opportunities."

There were skeptics. One Cleveland A-list musician described Lara as "one of those guys who thinks he can tame the beast." Still, he seemed up to the challenge, hyper and always on the go. Lara claims he only sleeps four hours a night and he sounds believable; his most byzantine, implausible explanations always sound believable. And his words went largely unchallenged. The detractors would only speak off the record. Until recently.

Wealthy investors buy clubs all the time, and few of them last. With the Agora, however, Jigsaw has partnered with Henry "Hank" LoConti, a 43-year concerts-and-clubs veteran.

Lo Conti, 79, founded the Agora in 1966. Over the '70s and '80s, he grew the Agora name into a 13-club chain that stretched from Florida to Connecticut. In the '70s, he founded the Legend Valley/Buckeye Lake Amphitheater with one powerhouse festival bill after another. In the '90s, he opened a club in Russia and brought the Warped tour to Cleveland and Amsterdam. After Clear Channel's concerts division morphed into the Live Nation/House of Blues concert empire, he was forced to the margins. Lara's youthful testosterone and long line of credit seemed like LoConti's ticket back into the game.

"It was something I felt I needed to do," LoConti said of the merger at the time. "[Lara and his team] were bringing something to the table I lacked. I'm working on other things. I could not devote my time to the place like I used to, to get on the phones and do things to get the promoters excited. They were willing to commit the money and take the time. Phil has some good people with him. That impressed me."

But over time, Lara's plan seemed to be to grow so big, so fast, that his inexperience wouldn't matter. Before adding the Agora, the Jigsaw team's gross experience spanned college radio, some local clubs and the regional DIY scene, with a little national know-how and a lot of degrees from Parma High. Now Lara had veterans and rising young players to run his plays.

"That puzzled me," says Jim Lippucci, who was the Jigsaw's all-purpose supervising employee, promoter and metal consultant for months. "He got some pretty decent people in there, but he didn't like to listen." Dave Davies agrees. A 20-year music-biz lifer who's been a musician, record company employee, tour manager and booker, Davies says Lara hired him not so much to work his magic, as to simply work magic. "He wants yes men," says Davies. "If he points at the sky and says it's green, he wants you to say, 'Yes, it's a lovely shade of green.'"

Fifteen past and present Jigsaw affiliates spoke up for this story. They all agreed that Lara doesn't understand the nightclub business; some questioned his business acumen, period. Jigsaw meetings, they said, were rambling, off-topic rap sessions. Lara's marching orders would give employees conflicting directives. He didn't mind overpaying for a show, but went nuclear when he lost money. If a show did sell out, he'd book the band for two nights.

"[Lara] got caught up in the rock 'n' roll lifestyle," says Lippucci. "And in any business, you've got to have knowledge about how to conduct yourself. You can't just throw money around."

Some shows worked out well. Some didn't. Lara wanted 300 people at every weekend punk show. He'd go into a fuming rage when a death-metal band like Vital Remains didn't draw 400 people. By Lara's reckoning, a big ad in the local papers should guarantee a big accompanying promotional story - which, combined, should guarantee a big attendance. It didn't work that way. "There are no guarantees in this business," says Lippucci. "I don't know if he ever did understand that, coming from this background where if you do X and Y, Z comes naturally."

In May, Buckwalter handed Hi-Fi partners Billy Morris and Jimmy Maler a check for 50 percent down on their club. The rest, their agreement said, was to be paid in monthly installments. Morris and Maler say the monthly payments never arrived. After June 1 came and went, Lara had a reasonable excuse. By July 1, other promises were evaporating: Lara said he would buy a new kitchen and open the bar for lunch. He had a service hole cut in the wall, but the project stalled there.

By then, say Morris and Maler, the electric bill was past due, sales tax was delinquent and paychecks were bouncing. At first, Lara would make good on the checks and reimburse them for fees. By fall, they say, Lara was two months behind on payroll checks. One Saturday, they walked into the bar and found the cable and Internet service turned off.

Morris and Maler changed the Hi-Fi's locks in November and officially gave up hope in February, with eight months' delinquent sales taxes and a $3,000 electricity bill. Saddled with the debts from Lara's tenure, they can't run ads in local papers. Burnt promoters are still hesitant to deal with the club.

"Even to this day, we're in a big hole that he dug us," says Morris. "I think this failed because of Phil's inexperience on how to run a rock club. If rock bars were successful, there'd be one on every corner."

Adds Maler, "We're more hurt from the association. Most people who go to the Jigsaw and Peabody's don't know who Phil is or what went on. All they know is they show up here, and the power is off - [so they think] Billy and Jimmy are assholes."

"Did we like Phil?" says Morris. "Yeah, we liked Phil. We liked him a lot. We were all gung-ho. But every promise was empty. Nothing was fulfilled." Peabody's had similar experiences. Just after the Agora deal closed, the credit crisis hit, and businesses' lines of credit withered. By the time the Agora was in place, the Peabody's partners were thinking about getting out. In December, they did.

"There's a lot of financial commitments that were not met," says Peabody's partner Chris Zitterbart. "That was a big part of the problem. We saw some negative things very quickly. And I'm glad we got out as quickly as we did."

The synergy improved some aspects of the machine, but generally made operations worse. Peabody's would place a last-minute, 45-person catering order for a multi-band concert. As the Jigsaw general manager, Jennifer Laeng would have to scramble to assemble the order and drive it across town, instead of supervising the dinner shift. Then she'd get an earful from Lara about not managing properly.

The rank-and-file employees had a better time. At first, Lara was generous to a fault. After their shifts, Jigsaw employees drank and ate free. He extended the same generosity to bands. Now, on show nights, drunk punks crowded out the civilian regulars. Inventory was a constant issue. One table at a time, the regulars paid their tabs and didn't return.

"It was just chaos," says a kitchen employee who stayed until Lara pulled the plug. "Nobody ever knew what was going on. [Phil] didn't know anything. Jen did what she could, but she was limited, because Phil had all the money. Phil would ask what we need, you'd tell him and he wouldn't get it most of the time. Everybody was spending money; nobody knew where it was going, and nobody got paid."

By January, it was easy to get a table at the Jigsaw on a Friday night. The restaurant was mostly filled with twentysomething rock people cooling their heels waiting for a show to begin. Sandwiches were coming out of the kitchen cold. Lara's buddy approach was coming back to haunt him. "A lot of these employees, it was all fun and dandy when they were getting drunk on their shift," says Lippucci. "It became a playground instead of a place of work."

Fringe benefits weren't the only issue. Health benefits were a serious problem.

As he built the Jigsaw network, Lara proudly declared that he offered all his employees benefits. In February '08, Lara purchased a group plan through Medical Mutual. By April, he was receiving late-premium notices. He assured the employees their coverage was good. At least one visited an ER; another received treatment for cervical cancer; a third ordered a prosthetic leg. Then the insurer canceled the coverage, negated the plan and forwarded the bills to the employees.

"We're going to take care of those [medical bills] as we can," says Lara. "We were under no obligation to have to give people health care, and we did. We have a new health-care plan in place." He says the trouble stemmed from venue managers failing to remove ineligible employees from the plan. He says he was still trying to work it out when the company dropped them all.

That wasn't Lara's only problem. Checks bounced to vendors (including Scene, which he still owes money), and some instituted a cash-only policy. Some weeks, beer trucks refused to drop off the order without upfront payment, and the Jigsaw went weekends without Budweiser or Miller products, which the Parma regulars often took as an unbelievable personal slight. One former employee says that when a liquor order failed to go through, Lara drove across town and raided the Agora bar to restock the Jigsaw. Stretched between three clubs, Lara would keep deliverymen waiting. "They'd get pissed off," says Nick Wolff, who became the de facto kitchen manager via attrition. Deliveryman, cook, manager - you had to wait for your check. "Like, 'Dude, we're not on your schedule.' You've got to have some goddamned decency for people."

In December, a sound company pulled the Jigsaw Stage's PA system. The new company says this month's bill is overdue. In recent months, even the state has taken notice.

The Department of Liquor Control cited the Jigsaw for writing a bad check to an alcohol wholesaler in July 2008. According to Department of Liquor Control reports from late 2008, the bar bounced a check for its liquor license, but has since made good on the fee. By the end of the year, the Jigsaw had a stack of delinquency notices from the Ohio Department of Taxation for unpaid sales and commercial activity taxes. As of March, the Ohio Department of Commerce's Division of Labor and Worker Safety is investigating the Jigsaw and the Agora regarding bounced paychecks and violations of hourly-wage rules. The Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation reports that Jigsaw's workers' compensation insurance is lapsed.

And then there's the venerable Agora.

Since Lara's team took over, the Agora has bounced checks for big shows, including a December concert by Dragonforce and a sold-out, two-night stand by Akron's Black Keys, with tickets at $28.50 a pop. "I don't think we will ever play there again," says Keys drummer Patrick Carney.

"That's not something I'm at liberty to discuss," says Lara. "That's something Hank would need to shed light on."

But Lo Conti says his contract with Lara prohibits him from being actively involved in corporation business. "I have no knowledge of what they're doing with that," says Lo Conti.

"Bouncing a check to a booking agency is one of the worst things you can do [as a night club]," notes Peabody's Chris Zitterbart. "You lose credibility across the industry." Booking firm the Agency Group says they've started moving shows from the Agora to other local venues.

Lara declines to guess how many checks his clubs have bounced. Laeng, the former Jigsaw GM, estimates the number around 500. He says he's never knowingly written a bad one. One of his last loyal soldiers says that's possible.

"There's always that chance he didn't know," says Lippucci. "I've seen him do some pretty shitty stuff. There were times that he gave people checks from an account he knew was closed. And when I'd tell him, he'd say, 'Oh, I forgot.' I like Phil. He's not a horrible, horrible person. His whole m.o. - he did make a lot of promises without thinking how he would fulfill them. He didn't treat it as much of a business as he ought to. I really love the place, and I'm sorry it's come to this."

With his cash cow the Jigsaw on lockdown, Lara turned his attention to the other side of town. Friday the 13th, Lara staged a bloodletting at Agora. The staff was already thin; assistant booker Justin Berger had left after six weeks of bad paychecks. Then Lara fired Andrea Sweazy, one of the longest tenured, most reliable bookers in the city. He replaced them with his last loyal Jigsaw staffers. Lara again declined to explain, suggesting it was LoConti's decision.

If the Jigsaw partners can, as they say they will, secure a new line of credit, it's unclear how they can rebuild the clubs' reputation. "I think the booking has gone downhill," says Erba. "It's horrible. Now it's becoming a place where you have the stigma of being a Jigsaw band, bands that can't get booked anywhere else."

Former Jigsaw cook Nick Wolff stood by Lara as long as he could. He would have worked at the restaurant indefinitely, content to be part of a cool scene. "It's embarrassing that it's come down to this," he says of the parking lot non-picket. "We wore this place on our sleeve. We loved this place. It wasn't the fault of any of the employees. It is bullshit. There needs to be repercussions. The guy's been fucking people around for too long."

Jennifer Laeng had worked at the Jigsaw for years when Lara bought it. She was his kitchen manager, then spent most of '08 as the new regime's general manager. When she got tired of getting bad paychecks and passing out payroll checks that bounced, she stepped down and worked as a bartender - at least the cash was steady. Finally, after watching the bar spiral out of control, she quit and signed up for the Army. If she was going to take friendly fire, she figured, at least she could do it for an outfit whose checks would clear.

Like others, she held on as long as she could. Most painful to her, it seems, was the emotional goodbye from Joe, a disillusioned 80-year-old longtime regular. Tears in his eyes, he took his mug and went home.

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