The Island of Misfit Toys
An elegy for the Yeti (2012–2018)
I liked to call it “The Island of Misfit Toys” after that kooky animated stop motion Rudolph movie from the 1960s. But maybe the Yeti is more than an island. There were times these past six years when that cavernous black bar sandwiched between Cain’s Ballroom and the Soundpony felt like an entirely different universe.
If Tulsa’s weirdness had a soul, it would be contained in that abominable snowman guarding the Yeti’s front door. I loved this bar—which, sadly, opened its doors for the last time on July 31—but I can’t imagine how the culture looked to outsiders. It’s where drunk hippies, ex-emo kids, gauge-laden hipsters, and potheads created a music scene together. To me, it was beautiful.
For years, I felt like the only black guy hanging out downtown—but Tulsa has changed since then, and the Yeti was part of that process. Groups like World Culture Music even helped crack the barriers of Tulsa’s long-standing racial segregation by hosting part of Oklahoma’s largest hip-hop festival there.
The Yeti’s closing has me thinking about the past six years. I spent a big piece of them at that bar. This loss feels a bit like a death: the end of something a lot of us loved. In literary terms, I guess that makes this an elegy. This is my tribute to “The Island of Misfit Toys,” that strange and wonderful place called the Yeti.
It’s hard to say which came first, the Yeti or the latest wave of talented musicians and artists who are suddenly coalescing downtown again. Tulsa has always had talent: Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, and Steve Pryor, just to name a few. They all played downtown back when Cain’s was a place for the bad kids. Bare-knuckle bar fights were pretty common in those days.
Today, it’s the bars on the other side of Cain’s Ballroom that created a young and rowdy musical space where anything seemed possible. The Soundpony started the process way back in 2008, but it was the addition of the Yeti that finally transformed the block and helped create an entirely new culture in the part of town I affectionately called the “Wayne Brady Arts District.”
The Yeti was the only bar downtown with multiple stages dedicated to live music almost every night of the week. You could see anything there. Paint-faced, chainmail-clad metal bands with Flying V guitars played on the same stage as ukulele-strumming singer songwriters, rappers, drum and bass DJs, and punk rock kids. Nothing was off limits. No band was too weird. No style too discordant or jarring. If you could draw a crowd, you could play—and most of the music was local.
If the Colony is known for cultivating Tulsa’s singer songwriters, then the Yeti was one of the places building everything else. The shows were usually free, and the bar was packed on most weekends. Young musicians had a place to play on an actual stage in front of wide audiences. All of this helped make the new wave of 21-year-olds better players. Now, Tulsa has the deepest and most eclectic bench of talent I’ve ever seen.
What remains now that the Yeti’s closing? I could talk about the gentrification—which seems to have started in earnest downtown—or how I worry that if Tulsa becomes the next Austin, the things I love about Tulsa will begin to disappear. But I’d rather talk about the things I’ll remember.
I’ll remember the night Run the Jewels played a free show inside the Yeti just a couple of years before they sold out the BOK Center. (Killer Mike stepped off the tour bus with a joint in his mouth, waving and smiling at everyone.) I’ll remember the night Waka Flocka hung out in the bar for hours after a show, musing about how “weirdly lit” Tulsa was.
There were crazy performances from Norma Jean, Murder Junkies, The Midnight Stroll, and that legendary Johnny Polygon Center of the Universe after party. I’m pretty sure some of the glitter from that night will always be on my body.
It’s not the famous folks who really affected me, though. Mostly, I’m left thinking about the people who made the Yeti feel like a family. The bartenders, the workers, the scene kids, and even Dwight. (Regulars will understand.) It genuinely felt like all of us weirdos were doing life together in a way that mattered.
The night of the last presidential election, I was at the Yeti hosting my weekly open mic. The comedians were crying. People were racing back and forth between the Pony and the Yeti trying to get a handle on what was happening. Sometime around 1 a.m., a little dance party broke out. Destiny’s Child was bumping through the speakers and people started dancing like little kids. It was like a scene from a Charlie Brown special. Thinking of it still makes me smile.
It feels wrong to mourn a place. It probably seems cheesy and overly-sentimental, but there are babies who wouldn’t exist if not for that silly little bar. Huge, life-altering things happened there—a lot of them. People fell in love. Bands formed and imploded. Apparently, some drunk lady once sat on the floor of the ladies room and recited the entire Olive Garden menu to anyone who walked in.
I will miss the Yeti, but mostly I’ll miss the unlikely configuration of humans that somehow made it possible. Hopefully I’ll see them all again after a brief season of grief and goodbyes.