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One On 1: Michael Dorf Headlines Personal Venue

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Michael Dorf, a one time would be lawyer, sculptor and cookie salesman, has been bringing music to New Yorkers for more than 20 years. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

One shouldn't be surprised that Michael Dorf has had the entrepreneurial spirit to open music clubs and produce concerts in New York and around the world. This is, after all, a guy who as a kid did pretty well selling broken cookies at flea markets.

Music fans might not know his name, but they likely know Michael Dorf's work, be it the festivals he's created, the annual tribute benefit shows he's produced at Carnegie Hall, or the two clubs he's started -- City Winery in SoHo and the venue that launched his career in 1986, The Knitting Factory.

"At the time my knees were great. So I could stand and be crowded and hot and sweaty. I liked beer and food wasn't important, and I wanted that Jack Kerouac real beatnik type of vibe," recalls Dorf.


Dorf says he now wants a club where he can sit, eat well, but still listen to an eclectic mix of music, from newcomers like Star Dweller to veterans like Suzanne Vega. And Dorf wasn't satisfied just offering wine on the menu. He wanted to make it too.

"That's where I was most nervous. Cause I knew we could sell tickets and I knew we could sell drinks, but making wine was something that was more theory," says Dorf.

City Winery says it is the only winery in Manhattan. There is a winemaking staff, but Dorf is hands on.

"We don't do a lot of the Lucy Ricardo crushing here, even though we play it on the plasma because that's such an important part of winemaking in America," says Dorf. "But the weight of the grapes crushes upon itself and you get the juice literally from the natural weight being in these tanks."

His old club, The Knitting Factory, which used to be on Houston Street, drew audiences from around the world to see acts ranging from jazz combos to the Indigo Girls to Sonic Youth.

Dorf claims that when it comes to interacting with musicians, he doesn't have a thick skin. And there have been occasions when he's done battle with them over his policies. He recalled a time when he sought advice from another music impresario, Newport and JVC Jazz Festival founder George Wein.

"Artists would get frustrated with me about not being paid enough or whatever, I'd go, 'George, I just can't believe it. They don't like me anymore.' And he's like, 'That's what happens once you know you've reached a certain point when you're The Man and they're pointing at you negatively," recalls Dorf.

Since 2004, Dorf has raised money for music education for underprivileged youth by producing tribute shows at Carnegie Hall, honoring some of his favorite bands and songwriters, like REM and Bruce Springsteen.

But perhaps the most unusual moment came just before the first show in 2004, when the honoree called Dorf to explain at length how her cat's illness would keep her from attending. The honoree? One of Dorf's musical heroes -- Joni Mitchell.

"And I had a show to put on with 22 artists and it was my first show at Carnegie. And she kept talking about the cat and these issues and I got to a point, I was like, 'Joni, I gotta go.' And she's like, 'Oh, oh, oh, I'm sorry! I don't mean to.' And I'm like, 'Anytime. Call me any, any time. But I gotta go,'" says Dorf.


Michael Dorf received a lot of attention when he first opened The Knitting Factory in the mid 80s. But it was a tough sell for his parents back in Wisconsin.

"It wasn't until the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle did a story on me that they thought their son, Ya know, the New York Times stuff didn't matter as much in the first few months. It was the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle. And then it was like, 'Alright, maybe our son is doing something important,'" says Dorf.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Dorf was a builder making sculptures, and, in the homes of his friends, rec rooms.

"My friends all called in high school and then in college, when I always would build something, 'Close Enough Construction,'" recalls Dorf.

He eventually came to New York because his college girlfriend Sarah, now his wife, was already here. He wanted to study entertainment law at a New York Law School, but didn't get in.

Instead, as manager of a band called Swamp Thing, he got an education in the music business, like the day the manager of They Might Be Giants taught him how to put up band posters.

"'Hey kid, what's in your bucket?' I'm like, 'It's wheat paste, it's wallpaper paste.' And he's like, 'No no no.' And I'm like, 'Well, what do you got?' And he's like, 'It's that, but you gotta put in some glue,'" says Dorf.

When he saw a space for rent on Houston Street, he cobbled together his bar mitzvah money, plus the savings from his rec room and cookie sales and opened The Knitting Factory, his club, and eventually his home.

"Early in the morning, when I'd wake up, if there was pounding on the door, and I'd open the door, still in my underwear, and it was a beer delivery or Con Edison coming to do something," recalls Dorf.

When his parents came to visit, they were not so amused.

"They started crying. They truly thought their son has lost his mind, he's doing drugs in Washing Square Park and this is horrible," says Dorf.

He started learning the club business, picking up pointers from people like CBGBs owner Hilly Krystal.

"Become friends with a band that also are plumbers. And that was very sagely advice. Because they'd do gigs and maybe they wouldn't do so well at the box office, but your plumbing was always done really cheap," says Dorf.

Dorf was credited for being one of the first music entrepreneurs to stream live video from a concert venue. But not everyone thought it was such a great thing.

"Having a camera with a big butt in a patron's face was okay with me because we would have a thousand people seeing it," recalls Dorf. "Now I wouldn't tolerate that. I think the artistic community felt like, one, we were making some money because we were getting money and some sponsorship dollars coming in and they didn't feel, especially the avant garde musicians, their fair piece of the pie."


Dorf has always been a risk taker, long ago shunning the lawyer route prescribed by his parents for the music business. He left The Knitting Factory in 2002. His latest venture, City Winery, opened on New Year's Eve 2008. He's also played a leading role in promoting contemporary Jewish music, with the annual Oyhoo Festival and his downtown Seder, featuring people like Lou Reed, Dr. Ruth and a 2005 appearance on videotape from Al Franken.

"Alexander Graham Bell had this quote that I'd always put on my emails back when it was cool to stick that little note on the bottom and now I stopped doing it -- 'Get off the beaten path and jump into the woods,'" says Dorf.

Dorf and his wife Sarah have three children. His surroundings at home and at work have certainly changed from the early days of The Knitting Factory, but much remains the same.

"I'm back putting on a show, putting posters up on the corner," says Dorf. "Maybe they're more digital these days but it's the same thing with a couple of new twists that fit for me now. This seems to be who I am, and there's nothing I can really do about it."

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