Celebrating a Mo-mentous date on the Downtown Eastside

Mo Tarmohamed looks back on six years of running the Rickshaw Theatre

For a guy who prefers to err on the side of caution, Mo Tarmohamed opted for an ultimate leap of faith that’s ultimately seen him winning in a game that many others have lost.

As the owner/operator of downtown’s Rickshaw Theatre, Tarmohamed is poised to celebrate simultaneous anniversaries this week: six years at the helm of the theatre and the venue’s eighth year as a live music option.

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“The first thing that occurs to me, is holy shit … really? Six years. Wow,” he told the Courier. “I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. It really feels like a blur.”

Located at Main and Hastings, the Rickshaw has hosted roughly 1,000 shows over the last six years, with acts ranging from punk and metal, to indie and alternative. Dance groups and stand-up comedy gigs have also found a home in a room that serves as an ideal jumping-off point between smaller pubs and the Commodores and Vogues of the world.

Outside of the odd rave in the late '80s and '90s, the space went largely unused between 1984 and 2010. The Rickshaw was originally constructed as a purpose-built movie theatre by its Hong Kong-based owners.

That Tarmohamed’s even in the live music world involves a bit of happenstance, given that he’s a career numbers guy. A chartered accountant by profession, Tarmohamed found himself increasingly unhappy in the corporate world and looking for a way out. Prolonged talks with his wife and inner circle of friends got the life-altering moves in motion.

“I’m a pretty cautious person and I don’t just jump into things blindly,” he said. “But you get to a certain point where you say ‘this is it’ and then it’s time to put up or shut up.”

Coupling his days coming up in the late ’70s punk scene with his passion for live music, Tarmohamed first looked for empty warehouse spaces to facilitate his exit from corporate Canada. He met former Rickshaw lease holder David Duprey months before making the move, and compiled contacts with booking agents.

He was at a Vancouver Whitecaps game the night before the contracts were to be signed on July 15 2011, and his attention was inevitably removed from the pitch and players.

“I couldn’t concentrate on the game. I had buyer’s remorse before I even bought it,” he said. “But once I did there was a sense of relief. I felt liberated somewhat.”

That liberation was amplified 10-fold a day later, when Tarmohamed hosted his first gig — a 600-plus, sold-out performance by American comedian Doug Stanhope.

But reality set in soon after: shows that didn’t draw, venue infrastructure that broke, staff turnover, the venue’s location in the Downtown Eastside and a perpetual learning curve that continues to present day.

Tarmohamed made the initial purchase with his own dough, without relying on outside lenders. He says he only started paying himself a stipend within the last year. Tarmohamed credits his wife for helping to see him through the “dark times of the first six or seven months.”

“The thing I’ve learned most about working here is that it’s not too far from gambling,” he said. “It’s very hard to make money on shows but it’s really easy to lose money. It’s human nature to feel utterly depressed when you lose $3,000 or $4,000 on a show.”

As the venue’s sole booking agent, Tarmohamed has dealt with performers who have courted controversy because of their political stances, backgrounds and other elements of their acts.

“I may disagree on some things, but I will always give people the right to say whatever they want,” he said. “I draw the line where there’s hate speech, or an attempt to denigrate or provoke violence. But if you want to say something that I totally disagree with, I’ll give you the right to say it.”

Outside of gauging success in terms of hard numbers — the venue has been profitable for three years — Tarmohamed looks to intangibles that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents.

“I’ve gotten hugs more than a few times from total strangers and I’ve seen people high-fiving security at the end of the night — that tells me they’ve just had an experience,” Tarmohamed said. “They’ve left any troubles they had and given themselves up to the experience of live music and transcended themselves to another place.” 

A show celebrating Tarmohamed’s six-year anniversary is slated for July 29 and will include Pickwick, Rich Hope and Cobra Ramone. Event details are online at www.facebook.com/events/1742062012770801.

@JohnKurucz

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