It's all about the music for noted promoter
Randy Ellis stands in front of the record section at his new storefront, the Man Cave, in Bordentown. (Staff photo by Alexandra Yearly.)
Randy Ellis has always had a passion for music.
That passion was evident as Ellis, more commonly known as Randy Now, pursued all his future endeavors: drumming in his band in the ’80s, promoting some of the yet-to-be biggest musical artists in the world, and now selling records, CDs and more in his newest business venture.
On March 10, the Bordentown native opened up Randy Now’s Man Cave and Consignment Shop on Park Street in Bordentown. Walk into the shop and you’ll immediately hear music playing and receive a warm greeting from the owner. The store features a collection of music, books, T-shirts, and trinkets like the kitty cat clock, Quisp cereal, bobbleheads (including a Thomas Paine bobblehead), board games, postcards and more.
But the Man Cave is only the most recent of Ellis’ endeavors.
Ellis is most known for his work at City Gardens, a venue on Calhoun Street in Trenton that once attracted some of the biggest musical artists and groups ever known. And for nearly 18 years, from 1978-1997, Ellis was the one who made it happen.
“Randy booked some of the biggest acts that he believed in, and nobody knew who they were at the time, that later became huge,” said Ellis’ brother, Todd Ellis.
The artists included top names like REM, Billy Idol, The Ramones, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, Joan Jett, LCD Soundsystem, Henny Youngman, Jane’s Addiction and more.
But Ellis was just a fan of music, he said.
“Pretty much our whole life, we surrounded ourselves with the music scene,” Todd said.
Ellis’ love of music started long before he worked promoting it. In the ’70s, he played the drums in a popular local cover band called Construction, and gained recognition as one of the most talented drummers in the area. He also played in a band called The Rettmans with his brother, Todd, which was an offshoot band from Todd’s band Smart Remarks, which was popular in the ’80s. The Rettmans opened for groups like The Replacements and The Ramones, most often at City Gardens.
“When I tell people the bands I opened up for, they hardly believe me,” Todd said.
The way Ellis got bands to come play at City Gardens, he said, was because he was persistent, but not bothersome, and was actually nice to the people he worked with.
The bands he booked weren’t just acts. Many of them became his friends, and “you don’t ask your friends for their autographs.” In fact, he barely took any photos with the groups or even kept any of their contracts.
Instead, Ellis opened up his home to artists who were just starting out.
“A lot of bands didn’t have any money to even get a hotel room,” Ellis said. “I had them stay over wherever I was living at the time. Even my mom put up bands.”
His mother once opened her home up to the group Suicidal Tendencies, for a weekend where “everyone got along really nice,” Ellis said.
He recalled a Green Day performance, its only decor consisting of a bedsheet hung on the back wall, spray-painted with the words “Green Day.” The group had traveled from California, booking shows along the way.
“They got to Trenton, and it was sold out, 1,200 seats, and like another thousand outside waiting to get in,” Ellis said. “And from the stage, I hear Billie Armstrong saying, ‘Wow, this is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of in our whole life.’”
Ellis put every show together and ensured it ran smoothly until the end. It wasn’t uncommon for him to act as the promoter, ticket checker, security and more. “Randy Now was the king of multitasking,” said Abbey Weiss, who spent the fourth quarter of her senior year of high school working with Randy at City Gardens as part of a Senior Option program. “Randy was on the hook to make sure the shows went off well, and he didn’t take that responsibility lightly. He kept his hands in everything so nothing was left to chance.”
“[He would] just bust [his butt] and promote these shows, and the bands he believed in that were just starting out … he would do everything he could to fill these places and promote, and just got great respectability,” Todd said. “You name any big band in the ’80s and I guarantee he booked them.”
Ellis worked hard to make sure the band members were happy, and sought to meet all their requests, reasonable or not. The Beastie Boys requested Flinstones vitamins, but only Betty and Wilma shapes.
“They did that just to make sure you were paying attention,” Ellis said.
For a stretch of time, every band requested white tube socks, he said, but most often, bands asked for alcohol, and lots of it; British bands especially requested mostly high-end, expensive alcohol.
During his time at City Gardens, Ellis was well known by all the regulars. But though he was building his reputation in the music scene, Ellis was still dedicated to his day job.
“People loved the idea of ‘The Punk Rock Mailman,’” Weiss said.
By day, Ellis worked for the postal service in Cranbury. Among the City Gardens regulars, Ellis’ job was common knowledge.
“People just loved the idea of this guy with a seemingly simple innocuous day job, who was a punk rocker by night,” Weiss said.
But it wasn’t just punk rock, Ellis said. Every show featured a different type of music. The punk rock scene was big, but City Gardens was also a performance venue for reggae, ska, soul, country western and more. One noteworthy show was in April 1986. The opening band was Black Flag, an American punkrock band. The main group was a thrash metal band called Venom, a British band who demanded numerous security guards to walk them to the stage and requested expensive champagne to drink.
“It’s become very, very famous,” Ellis said. “It’s one of those shows that there was like 400 or 500 people there, but I’ve probably met [thousands of] people who told me they were there.”
One of Ellis’ favorite bands to work with was The Ramones.
“They were the best. There was so much equipment,” he said, “and it was always a sold out show, always a thousand, 1,200 people, and still everything went like clockwork.”
Ellis’ time at City Gardens came to an end around 1997. The club closed a few years later.
Ellis is also the subject of a documentary film currently under way, directed by Steve Tozzi, called “Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens.” The film is expected to be completed next fall.
Now, he still hosts a radio show on WTSR, which he began more than 30 years ago. In 1984, he hosted the first-ever all-ska radio show in the world. It wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that other radio stations caught on to the ska trend.
For four years, up until the end of 2011, Ellis worked as a promoter for the Record Collector in Bordentown. After he resigned, he considered selling some of his 7,000 records on eBay, but found it was more of a hassle than it was worth.
That’s when he decided a storefront was the perfect next step to take when Ellis’ wife told him he needed to move all his stuff away from the baby grand piano and furniture.
His only requirement for the items he sells?
“I have to like it … it’s just a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Ellis said.
The Man Cave is located at 15 Park St. in Bordentown City. Phone: (609) 424-3766. On the Web: mancavenj.com.