An institution in the local music scene is leaving—someone without whom the music community in Salt Lake City for the past, oh, 2 1/2 decades, wouldn't have been the same. Yet this person never played a note of music.
Russ Schmit, manager of Positively Fourth Street practice space (PracticeSpaceSLC.com), is retiring after 25 years. It might seem like a job almost anybody with a little managerial sense and some rudimentary locksmith ability could perform. But Schmit's tireless patience and willingness to persevere in the face of difficult situations, as well as his positive impact on the place, made the venerable old Pioneer Park-area facility a better environment for musicians to hone their art in a space conducive to their craft.
The improvements Schmit helped make have arguably kept the business afloat when it was struggling with problems unique to its downtown west-side environs. Moreover, his diligence over the years helped preserve the location as a fountain of creativity, a geyser from which an explosion of crucial local music has flowed.
The imposing red brick structure on the southeast corner of 400 West and 400 South was originally built in 1904, by the Armour & Co. meat-packing firm. By 1952, the building was purchased by Swiss immigrant Eugene Wagner, who found success with a business manufacturing prosthetic limbs. Sometime in the 1980s, a college professor bought the building from Wagner, subdividing the warehouse-size edifice into smaller units and renting the spaces to artists after the success of the newly opened Artspace City Center several blocks away, slapping the moniker Positively Fourth Street on its north-facing side. That venture didn't quite take, and Wagner bought the building back.
With their din, musicians eventually pushed the other artists out, and Wagner tried several managers before asking Schmit—who had operated a cabinet shop in the building, and helped with building maintenance—to take the position in 1990. The first challenge was to upgrade security. He installed a combination lock on the front door, then security cameras. Controlling access curtailed the drugs and alcohol pouring in and out of the building. "We had a real problem with druggies flushing their needles down the toilets," he recalls. In the mid-'90s, he continued to subdivide the building, and upgraded the wiring.
These improvements helped make the building more hospitable to working musicians during a time when, across the street, Pioneer Park's problems with drugs, alcohol and crime were at their worst. Although there was one death due to drug overdose, break-ins and burglaries at the building were nonexistent, except among band members who had access. He recalls, "the band Jesus Rides a Riksha were interviewed in SLUG magazine, announcing a keg party there, and were immediately evicted." Later, he says, someone stole some of their instruments and tried to sell them back to the band. Schmit once observed an instrument theft on security camera and pursued the criminal in his own car; that's how conscientious he is.
Guitarist Al "Aldine" Grossi, local music legend, has been the longest-running tenant in the practice facility. "I have had a space there since 1984, all except about five years," he explains. "There used to be a sheet-metal works in the building, and my friends started banging on sheet metal. It was the birth of industrial music here, and how [my band] Gnawing Suspicion got started. We also had a skateboard ramp in our studio, and used the hallway to roll up to it." He recalls that David LaFlamme, from the '60s psych-folk group It's a Beautiful Day, had a practice space during one of the band's later incarnations. "You'd hear punk rock in the halls, then this hippie band playing, then jazz band Spaces; it was a really eclectic mix. A lot of music was recorded there too."
Local musician Mike Kirkland, owner of indie recording label Soundco Records, has been named to step in and fill Schmit's shoes. In the meantime, building owner Eugene Wagner has died and his wife now owns the building. "I'm honored that Marinette Wagner is allowing me to look after her iconic music building. Positively Fourth Street has played a critical role in Salt Lake's music scene for as long as I can remember." Schmit is leaving to focus on his nonprofit Independent Bar Association, but he notes of Positively Fourth Street, "It's the most enjoyable social experiment I've been engaged in."
In addition to the music studios, coffee shop/performance venue The Painted Word was housed in the building, and Raunch Records' first location was upstairs. The constant flux of musicians on the block fed into nearby Speedway Cafe, which hosted some of the most legendary punk rock shows of the '80s and early '90s. "There was a lot of history here," says Grossi. "I call it Ground Zero for the local punk scene."