Our final neighbor interview for On My Block Films is with Melissa Caruso Scott, AKA, the dumpster-diving, Lean-Cuisine-eating, TV-watching woman from the the short film we made. In real life, Melissa’s days are filled with much more enjoyable activities such as authoring children’s books and setting up both play-dates and local musician showcases. And I’m guessing her diet’s a good deal better too.
Read on to find out what it was like to run a music venue in the Lower East Side in the 90’s and aughts, why Val Kilmer walked out of a port-a-potty in the middle of said venue once, and how supervising music in a short film can prove to be more challenging than you may think.
Kindness of Ravens: So, what made you get involved with On My Block Films in the first place? Was Ryan just constantly knocking on your door, guilting you all into doing it?
Melissa Caruso Scott: When I saw the flyer for OMB in my mailbox I noticed it was from my upstairs neighbor Ryan. He and his wife, Erin, seemed pretty cool and the project sounded intriguing so I decided to email him before incessant knocking ensued.
KoR: Did you know anyone from the group before we started doing the film?
MCS: Aside from Ryan and his wife Erin, Michael, another neighbor from the building was in the film. I didn’t know anyone else. I really didn’t know anyone on the block.
KoR: Yeah, we didn’t really either. So crazy. Going into it, did you have a particular role in mind or anything specifically you wanted to get out of it? My guess is a parent of two boys doesn’t have a ton of free time, so….
MCS: Yeah, free time is tight these days, although I do have a lot of play time! I’ve always been fascinated with how music in TV and films so greatly affects mood. My five-year-old can distinguish when the show he is watching isn’t actually scary and it’s the music that’s making him freak out. It’s such a powerful tool. Wielding such power carries great responsibility! Figuring out what mood we wanted to emote and when and where to add music to our footage was harder than I thought it would be, especially with the limited time frame.
The whole process was so rewarding that I’ve been inspired to work on a 4-page script for another OMB. If you’re reading neighbors, (Union between Henry + Clinton) please collaborate with me!
KoR: Ooh? What’s the rough premise? Or can you tell us?
MCS: Two brothers get inspiration from an afternoon on their block that sparks something epic.
KoR: I feel like I can even picture the two brothers…. What surprised you about the process or the film in the end?
MCS: I didn’t realize the film would be so professional looking. It really came together beautifully. Everyone took their roles seriously and worked really hard. You might think you know and understand the filmmaking process but actually making one and seeing first hand how all aspects come together was really awesome.
KoR: And I’m guessing your role as musical supervisor was born from your love of music and background as owner of the old Lower East Side music venue, Tonic. When did you open Tonic and what compelled you to open a club in New York?
MCS: No, really it came from being so good at “Name That Tune.” Hah. Before we opened Tonic, back in 1995, my husband and I opened alt.coffee, one of New York’s first internet cafes. We had a Monday night music series there and after awhile wanted a bigger venue. We saw this space with old wine casks and great acoustics in the unchartered territory of the Lower East Side and thought it would be great to have music there.
KoR: That’s awesome. In that period of time, you must have seen the neighborhood change really drastically. What’s your thought on how things have changed there and in other similar NYC neighborhoods?
MCS: I grew up on the Lower East Side, a few blocks away from where we opened Tonic. As a kid, there was scarcely a cafe in the neighborhood and my high school friends couldn’t find my street on a map. I never imagined I would open a music club there.
We took over the old Kedem Kosher winery space, which had moved to New Jersey. For the first few years around Passover, a handful of orthodox Jews poked their heads in looking to buy wine.
I’m a bit nostalgic for the old Lower East Side when there were, among other family businesses, big old kosher wineries that could afford the rent (they were long gone before Tonic moved in!). I don’t like seeing big box stores replace mom + pop shops and somehow that lack of grit translates to a lack of character. BUT, there were long stretches of Lower East Side blocks that I was afraid to walk down as a kid. There were empty parking lots with barking dogs. The Essex Street Market wasn’t the beautiful food Mecca it is today and now there’s a cute little cafe around the corner from my mom’s apartment.
KoR: Any quick, crazy Tonic stories you can share?
MCS: So many outrageous and awesome things happened at Tonic, I don’t know where to begin. The downtown music fans went crazy when John Zorn, while playing sax, climbed onto the shoulders of Milfred Graves as he was drumming. It was also bananas having a port-a-potty in the middle of our lobby (long story) and seeing Val Kilmer walk out of it. Hmm…Cecil Taylor refusing to play the 6-foot piano we got for him because he wanted a 7-footer while an audience of 300 waited outside was crazy.
KoR: Wait, Val Kilmer walked out of a port-a-potty in the middle of Tonic…? I have to ask…what was that about?
MCS: Ugh, our building was not without its many problems. One was a broken sewer line that disabled all our bathrooms for a week. Our insane and only solution was to bring in port-a-potties. Val Kilmer was there to see Yoko Ono perform on her birthday with Sean Lennon and Vincent Gallo.
KoR: That is nuts. For so many reasons. Do you all ever talk about opening another venue or is all of that pretty much in the past for you two? What else are you up to now?
MCS: I wouldn’t rule it out. It was such a rewarding experience. I still try to put on a few concerts a year. I also work with musicians who make cool music for kids and I have a blog called Super Sonic Kids which is a music resource for parents (it’s not all “Wheels on the Bus” these days).
Also, keep an eye out for a little board book series I’m working on set to launch in October called Les Petits Fairytales.
If the circumstances were right though, I wouldn’t be able to resist (opening another venue) and the next one would certainly be better, stronger and faster.
KoR: Awesome. Alright, lightning round—Totem animal?
KoR: Superb. Best thing about having kids in New York?
MCS: There are so many unique opportunities and experiences to have here. I got to take my 5-year-old to the amazing dress rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic performance at the New York Armory (directed by Michael Counts). The next week he and his brother checked at 400-year-old armor and space rocks. They also got to be in a fab film without leaving our block.
KoR: I’ve heard of this fab film…. Worst thing about having kids in New York?
MCS: Getting around can be tough.
KoR: Noted. Band you can’t stop listening to lately?
MCS: If the kids are around—New Raspberry Bandits which was started by Vanessa Saft and her husband Jamie Saft, who was a regular performer at Tonic (for grown-ups). If you know some kids, I highly recommend their folksy, rockin’ CD, Big Trucks and Little Birds.
KoR: Favorite spot in Carroll Gardens?
MCS: The library, especially when both kids are sitting quietly looking at books.
KoR: Yeah, I don’t know if anyone will catch that the Carroll Gardens Library made the end credits with that historic shot. Any idea when that’s opening back up?
MCS: The official word is that the library has closed for repairs to the roof and will re-open at the end of the summer. Staff at the library have said that, in addition to the roof, expect the lovely library staff to be replaced by a scanner machine. These self check-outs have already replaced personnel at the Brooklyn Heights library and it is a major bummer. I’d also be surprised if they were open by September.
KoR: What? That’s insane. Robots can’t recommend books or shush me! Favorite tattoo, either real or theoretical?
MCS: An alt.coffee regular was married to a beautiful, Japanese comedian. He had this very detailed, colorful, tattoo portrait of her with crossed eyes, tongue out, crazy hair.
KoR: Finally, most rewarding thing about being involved with On My Block Films?
MCS: Finding out that I have some awesome cool neighbors for sure!
KoR: Totally agree! High five!
Find out more about Tonic’s history and sign up for their newsletter on their site, order Melissa’s soon-to-be-realeased children’s book (this fall) here, check out her kids’ music blog, Super Sonic Kids, and catch her depiction of a slightly sad TV enthusiast in Free Camera here or over at the On My Block Films site. While you’re over at OMB, sign up to make a movie with your own neighbors, why don’t you? We highly recommend it. Finally, thanks to all of our neighbors for agreeing to be interviewed! See you on the block!