Stephen Starr had the idea, but not the cash.
It was late 1985 — a decade before he opened the Continental, the cocktail bar in Old City that became the underpinning of his vast restaurant group. Starr then was promoting rock concerts, and noticed that the Trocadero — the grand Victorian-era theater in Chinatown that had served as a burlesque house into the late 1970s — had become available.
Through a friend, Starr got an introduction to Ricky Blatstein, at the time the city’s top club promoter and owner of the Empire Rock Club. Blatstein said he admired Starr’s creativity and grit as a promoter going up against local behemoth Electric Factory.
They toured the theater on Arch Street near 10th. Though the gilt-edged and mirrored walls, proscenium arch, and fresco-covered ceiling dazzled Blatstein, it was something else that cinched the deal for Starr.
“I loved the name Trocadero. It was the name that compelled me,” Starr, who years later named his restaurant Buddakan after a Japanese rock hall, said on Friday. “I researched the history, and I thought, ‘What a cool place for a show.’”
The two entrepreneurs in their 20s went to work. Blatstein refurbished the Troc, adding three bars in the lobby and main room, red-carpeted flooring, a $150,000-sound system, and a large portable stage that was removable to make more dance space.
Starr, trading at the time as the Concert Co., started booking acts for the 800-seat venue, such as Guns N’ Roses, Neil Young, and Metallica.
Then came the pre-opening night in March 1986. On Friday, Blatstein set the scene: “We had Joe Sudler’s Swing Machine. Everyone in town was there. The band got up on stage and started to play. You have to remember that this was a stage that wasn’t used in many years. The dust started lifting up and coming off the rafters. You saw it trickling down through the lights shining through it. Every part of that was magical."
E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren and singer Steve Forbert headlined the grand opening, with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Marshall Crenshaw, and Rene and Angela performing in the opening week.
WMMR, the top rock station in town, co-opted the Troc for Friday dance parties that crammed as many as 1,250 into the hall. “I remember being horrified at people diving from the balcony into a mosh pit,” Starr said.
Blatstein, whose older brother Bart is a well-known Philadelphia developer, is now chief executive officer of OTG Management, which runs 350 dining and entertainment venues at 10 airports. He credits his ownership of the Troc with inspiring OTG dining concepts such as Jet Rock.
He sold the Troc after five years. Starr, who booked the Troc for only about two years, pivoted to dining.