A Legend, An Institution and the 2014 CV Music Awards “Best Live Performance Venue” Award Winner
by Lisa Morgan
When their plane out of New York landed in California on September 10, 2001, Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz, the future owners of the legendary Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace in Joshua Tree, had no idea how life as they knew it would change. The events the following day, September 11, would steer them away from the city they loved. They would find themselves enveloped in a whole new life that ultimately would make them an important part of putting Pappy and Harriet’s on the nation’s musical road map. “We woke up the next morning to a phone call from my mom crying on the other end of the phone asking if we were O.K and then telling us to turn on the TV,” Robyn shared, her voice reflecting her vivid memory of the day. “I still can’t be sure that we weren’t on the very plane that crashed. When we came back, I knew I wanted to make a change. I’d be sitting on the subway and the lights would go out, a totally normal thing on the subway, and everyone would panic wondering what was happening. Our whole skyline changed. It was hard leaving our home, but coming here, where there was nothing but open sky, turned out to be very healing.”
“This building,” Robyn said as she looked around her, “… a lot of it isn’t because of me and Linda. It’s this place! I’m telling you. It has a pulse. I remember the first time I came out here from New York and walked in here,” Robyn reminisced. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my god!’ I see that same look on the face of new people walking in here for the first time.”
Victoria Williams, local legend and singer/songwriter/recording artist, is as much a part of the institution of Pappy and Harriet’s as anyone, will attest to the spirit of the place. “Pappy and Harriet’s!” she shared. “That Pappy…he is probably the one who intrigued me into moving to the desert! He built on the club that used to be called ‘The Cantina’ owned by Harriet’s mother Francis. He used to play there, and everybody loved Pappy. There is a eulogy about Pappy on ‘Loose’ (Williams’ 1994 album) titled “Happy to Have Known Pappy”, about the great wake there for him with Eric Burdon joining in! The club still has Pappy’s spirit in its very being!”
As she geared up for another busy Monday night (a night most restaurants/venues are closed or expect to be slow), Robyn graciously gave me a few minutes to interview her amidst staff questions, repair men and preparations for ‘Open Mic Night’. As we talked, I began to realize that their 2003 business venture was much more daunting and impossible than I could ever have imagined. The last 11 years has been built on the blood, sweat and more sweat of these tenacious women determined to overcome any obstacles standing in their way.
Robyn: “I was a waitress and was in a band. Linda was in the film industry. We really didn’t understand anything going into this. I had just booked Lucinda Williams on a whim from New York, to see how and if it could be done. We had sold 600 tickets and were in escrow when a $250,000 lien showed up on the title. People told me, ‘Run! Don’t walk. Run!’ I said, ‘But I can’t! I have Lucinda Williams booked!’ Talk about putting the cart before the horse! We had another partner who had the money for the down payment, but he was gone within 6 months, so Linda and I were on our own. There was no time to be depressed, we had jobs to do. We just went to work. Finally, two years later, the lien was taken off the title. We’ve replaced literally everything in the place from refrigeration,” she said as she signed an invoice. “….to electrical and plumbing. We had to get an entire sound system; there wasn’t anything here when we started.”
CVW: Has it gotten any easier after 11 years?
Robyn: It’s gotten easier and harder at the same time. There is so much more to manage. During Coachella Fest this past year, we had five shows compared to years prior with just two. We’ve gone from 10 employees to 40. Fortunately we have great employees. We really couldn’t do this without them. The hardest part in the beginning we had other jobs to do. Linda was the hostess and I was the ‘sound guy’. I should have fired myself several times. It was just too much. I’d leave out of frustration, but who was going to fire me? Now I have a sound guy who does an amazing job, we have a hostess and we can concentrate on being owners, and that in itself, is a 24/7 job. Even on my days off, I spend 7 hours on the computer, booking, confirming bands. The booking part has gotten easier. The agents know us and for the most part, the entertainment comes to us.
It’s funny…I remember begging my mom not to throw me a birthday party because I was so scared that no one would come. And here I am, basically throwing a party 5 nights a week. How did that happen to me?” she laughed. “Every single show is a new challenge. Every performer and performance is completely different with its own requirements and needs.
I also have to be sensitive to the community in regard to how many shows we do outdoors. After each show, we’re all out there cleaning up any trash that made its way to the roadside. I try really hard not to have a cover charge when we have a band. It’s hard when we have a couple come in for dinner who have traveled a distance to try our steaks and you have to say, ‘That will be $20’, when they don’t really care about the entertainment. There are so many considerations. It’s all a very delicate balance.
CVW: Pappy and Harriet’s has been featured in Rolling Stone magazine, has been named in Billboard Magazine’s Top Ten “Hidden Gems of the Country”. Musicians from Robert Plant to Vampire Weekend, Leon Russell to Sean Lennon have all graced your stage. Pappy’s is now sought out among the country’s rising stars and top musicians. Do you think you can relax a little now and feel like you’ve “succeeded”?
Robyn: No (emphatically). My vision of success? Not failing. I’m Italian. Linda is Jewish. We come from cultures that do not take anything for granted and we’re not afraid to work hard. We just keep looking ahead and keep working. For example, we finally have an online store. It took me two days to do it, but it took me 11 years to find those two days. We’re just trying to get things tied up and slowly but surely, we’re getting there.
CVW: Do you think you’ll ever get to the place where it runs itself and you can stop working so hard? Would you want it to?
Robyn: I don’t know. I feel like we created this monster. I think we were accepted pretty quickly in the community, because people saw how hard we worked. This is our place, and we want it to be great. I have a great manager, and I seriously couldn’t have a better staff. They all work really hard and they get it. People are driving a long way to get here. Even if they’re coming from Yucca Valley, in their mind, their making that trip up the four mile mountain road to come here. They’re expecting more. They’re not going to the diner around the corner. The staff understands that you have to be present and hospitable. We all want to make our customers leave with a smile on their face. When it comes to the music, we just want the artists to be treated well by the crowd, and the crowd to enjoy the artists. The biggest hurdle is trying to keep all different kinds of folks satisfied. We are very fortunate that the local community has supported us like they have.
CVW: How have you and Linda succeeded in working together under the strain so successfully for the last 11 years?
Robyn: We are completely different, and it works. It’s good cop, bad cop a lot of times. Linda is more the lights go up and the volume goes down. I’m the lights go down the music turns up. Sometimes the staff doesn’t know what to do with us. (she laughs) Linda’s a lot smarter than me. She does all the books and taxes and I do the music. And we do not get in each other’s way. She doesn’t question me about bands, and I don’t question her about bills. We just trust each other and it’s good. (her tone warming in gratitude) It’s amazing.
There are many Joshua Tree icons who were quick to express their feelings about their own experiences inside the walls of Pappy and Harriet’s:
Dave Catching, world renown musician/recording artist and co-owner of the famous Rancho de la Luna Recording Studios: “I’ve had two of my favorite birthdays and/or times period , at Pappy and Harriet’s, playing with Eagles of Death Metal under a full moon, and this year with Chris Goss. Both of these were perfectly beautiful nights. I’ve been going to Pappy and Harriet’s since 1988. It always makes me feel at home. I was there the night Robyn and Linda signed the lease. I forgot how we met that night; there probably weren’t many people there due to the selling of it. I do remember them being as nice and incredible as they are now, and feeling so grateful that it was them taking Pappy’s through the next phase. They gave us locals the promise of many more magical nights there.”
“I’ve since played Pappy’s many times with many bands (earthlings?, EODM , Masters of Reality , Smith and Pyle, Star and Dagger, etc.). Over many years, every time, everyone in any of those bands were treated like royalty by the owners , bartenders , security and patrons. All were special shows for us locals and for the people coming from all around the world to fall in love with Pappy’s.”
“Thank you Robyn and Lynda for being such lovely, wondrous beings.”
Teddy Quinn, musician, recording artist and co-founder of the non-profit, Radio Free Joshua Tree: “I remember being a little bit scared the first time I went to Pappy’s, seemingly the only person there that night with long hair. There were cowboys line dancing and I was fresh from the city. Later I saw some amazing shows, like Country Joe McDonald and then I fell in love with the place. When Robyn and Linda bought the club, Robyn was given my number by a mutual friend and we became instant friends.”
“My best memory is when she offered to host a benefit for me and Monet, who was pregnant with our child. We planned the Sage Festival and then he was born early, so he could make his world debut at a show in his honor. I was so proud to carry him out on the stage outdoors to be received by the greatest musicians in town, with all of my family there to see him. Many great memories since, including being asked to escort Sean Lennon to and from the place where he was staying. Seeing Daniel Lanois place a photo of Fred Drake on the stage behind him before he played stands out before inviting Eric Burdon up to sing; Robert Plant jamming with the Thrift Store All Stars; hosting Kesha, Feist, Jessie Coulter and Shooter Jennings at Open Mics; meeting Leslie Mariah Andrews on Mick Jagger’s birthday; singing songs from ‘Hair’ from the stage for the author and star, James Rado…so many memories that I cherish.”
“More recently, a band from Montreal arrived to record an album with my old friend Tony Mason. He sent them to the Open Mic and this little brother and sister duo, the Castagnes, renewed my faith in the power of pure rock and roll. Since those early days, the club has been in many films, with stories in the New York Times, London Times, the New Yorker. Now, my little boy and I love going there to see Robyn and Linda and so many of the greatest artists, known and unknown, who play there every week. Pappy and Harriet’s is my home away from home, and it’s so sweet to know that people from all over the world want to go there, either to play or just to listen to music.”
CVW: I had one last question for Robyn, who I caught once again behind the sound board dialing in the sound for all the musicians and singers who arrived for Teddy Quinn’s Open Mic Night. “If you could go back to that day when everyone told you to ‘Run!’ would you?”
Robyn: “No way.”
A more detailed history of Pappy and Harriet’s and the adjoining Pioneertown can be found on their website: pappyandharriets.com as well as a schedule of their events and impressive lineup of musicians gracing their stages.
They are located at 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, CA
Call for reservations at 760-365-5956.