At midday on Sept. 21, 2012, Charles Carmody welcomed a small army of raconteurs and eccentrics as they piled out of a mural-covered 1972 Blue Bird school bus in front of the Charleston Music Hall. Producer Samita Wolfe invited folks on the sidewalk to peek inside the bus, storyteller Edgar Oliver smiled wanly at the locals from under a floppy brimmed garden hat, and English novelist Neil Gaiman, decked out mostly in black, stormed through the double doors of the auditorium without so much as pausing to take in the scenery.
The Unchained Tour show, which sold 600 tickets and earned rave reviews from the crowd in Charleston, nearly stopped in Savannah instead. Carmody, then the newly minted director of the Music Hall, says that when Wolfe contacted him about the storytelling tour, he had the job of convincing her to bring the bus to the Holy City instead of Georgia's Hostess City. The demographics, Carmody told her, were perfect, with the College of Charleston's 11,000 students and numerous Neil Gaiman fans. And then there was the historic appeal of the venue, originally built in 1850 as a passenger depot on the South Carolina Railroad. The building lost a tower in the 1886 earthquake, became a bagging factory for years, and was finally transformed into a music venue in the mid-1990s.
"We are a listening room," Carmody says. "With no doubt in my mind, it has the best acoustics in Charleston." Carmody is seated behind his desk in a sparsely decorated corner office on the mezzanine level where he works alone most days as the Music Hall's only full-time employee. He books concerts with promoters, updates the website, changes lightbulbs on the auditorium catwalk, and runs downstairs to the box office whenever someone walks in to buy a ticket.
"I've learned how to fix toilets really well, because they overflow a lot, because they're really old toilets," Carmody says. "I painted the entire downstairs lobby and the downstairs auditorium, me and this guy Randy who I was able to get on the cheap."
Carmody is rangy and wispy-haired, with a high-register voice that he employs in a number of musical projects, notably a comedy duo called Introducing Fish Taco. A 2011 CofC graduate, he got his start booking performances with Bean Night, a series of poetry and music open-mic sessions he started while living in a house on Spring Street. Carmody built a stage in his backyard and hosted hoedowns, storytelling sessions, and other performance-art happenings, eventually moving the shows to Kudu Coffee.
Hailing from the world of house shows and poetry slams, he talks about the 928-seat Music Hall as if it were a much smaller space. "It's an intimate setting in which audience and performer can have this intimate interaction that you can't have in a lot of places," Carmody says. "The Performing Arts Center is too big. Music Farm's too rowdy. The Pour House is awesome, but again, it's a bar."
Carmody has followed something of a charmed career path. After studying art history and English in college, he set off for Vancouver with a friend looking for work, but although they had their paperwork in order, they got turned away by customs officers at the Canadian border. "We had bikes and guitars and stuff, and they were like, 'Yeah, we're profiling people with guitars. A lot of you Americans are trying to move in because your economy sucks,'" Carmody says. They looked for work in Seattle to no avail and then packed up and returned to Charleston.
Going out on a limb, Carmody set up a meeting with Michael Bennett, head of Bennett Hospitality and owner of several hotels, restaurants (39 Rue de Jean, Coast, and Virginia's on King), and a number of buildings including the Music Hall. Carmody's father, a commercial real estate broker, had worked with Bennett before, and he figured Bennett might be a good person to ask about work opportunities.
As it turned out, the Music Hall needed some help. One man was running operations at all three restaurants and a catering company while trying to book shows at the Music Hall, which didn't leave him much time for promotions. Carmody seized the opportunity and typed up a 10-page business proposal, and Bennett went for it, offering him the job in July 2012.
"And there I was," Carmody recalls, "in the building, by myself."
The venue already had certain bread-and-butter shows booked. The Charleston Jazz Orchestra calls the Music Hall its home, and the long-running Brad and Jennifer Moranz productions of '50s rock and roll revues and Christmas specials still pack the house, mostly with senior citizens. In December, the auditorium was decked out in tinsel and glimmering lights for the holiday show, which sold out several evenings. Walking through the backstage dressing rooms and stairwells, Carmody discovered a tuba, a snowman costume, choir robes, and a bunny suit.
Alone in his new castle in the summer of 2012, Carmody started cold-calling promoters and cleaning out the monumentally cluttered supply closets. Slowly but surely, he snagged a few big names from the national scene. Baroque-pop multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird played the Music Hall in October 2012. Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show will perform Jan. 16 as part of the Charleston Comedy Festival. Jeff Mangum, the reclusive former lead singer of indie legends Neutral Milk Hotel, will play a rare solo show Jan. 29. At last count, there were 24 tickets left for that show. "Jeff Mangum is a huge deal," Carmody says, "because that is going to brand us, like, 'Holy crap, we're back on the board.'" Carmody also has some local rock acts lined up, including Explorers Club and Slow Runner (Feb. 2), Sol Driven Train (Feb. 22), and Shovels & Rope (March 2).
When the national touring acts come to town, Carmody shows them some hospitality, and he tries to act like he's done this before. But it's still a thrill when, for instance, Andrew Bird walks into your office.
"I think it always will be," Carmody says. "I mean, you've got to act cool. 'What's up, Andrew? Ridin' your bike around? Cool.' That's a huge perk, though."