Andrew Templar, co-owner of The Bell House, regularly draws huge crowds to industrial Gowanus with an impressive rotation of indie bands. Just as popular are the bar’s monthly meetings of The Secret Science Club, which Templar founded along with natural science writers Margaret Mittelbach, Michael Crewdson (co-authors of the taxidermy tome Carnivorous Nights) and radio producer Dorian Devins. SSC events, which feature Nobel laureates and other scientific luminaries, range from science-based film screenings to lectures on the genetics of longevity. But the group’s signature happening, which this year attracted 500 fans, is the annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest, in which artists, amateur taxidermists and groupies come out to sip on cocktails called “Wet Specimens” and to compete for the Order of Carnivorous Knights Grand Prize, for the best artfully stuffed dead animal.
What’s the Secret Science Club’s mission? Margaret Mittelbach: We’re trying to advance the public understanding of science, but we’re trying to do it in a way that’s fun and exciting to people. We try to fill it in with music. Cocktails. And we also try to make the scientists feel like they’re rock stars. Because normally at The Bell House, they have music, comedy, and we’re just trying to say, hey, science is part of the culture.
How do you make a scientist feel like a rock star? Andrew Templar: For people who are in the know, they are rock stars. The scientists are surprised by how many people are here and how eager people are to meet them.
MM: For example, we had Donald Johanson, who discovered Lucy, the primate bones from Africa, and a lot of people studied this in college. And also there is the big battle about evolution in schools, so people come in, and they’re like, “Evolution, yeah!” He was a total rock star. People were cheering, and he was really good about riding that. They are stars in their own ways and because the way the venue is set up, they get to be rock stars for the night.
How did the Secret Science Club get started? AT: Our first bar Floyd, NY on Atlantic Avenue has a bocce court. We had an eccentric bocce league team, named Dr. Strangeballs that gave us a piece of taxidermy for a gift. We heard that there was a taxidermy contest at a bar called Pete’s Candy Store that was being hosted by Margaret and Michael as a book launch event, and we entered on a whim and placed highly and met Margaret and Dorian and Michael.
MM: Dorian actually goes out unlike me and Michael, and she was at Floyd and heard you were opening Union Hall, and you said, “Hey, do you want to maybe have that taxidermy thing there?”
AT: We knew Union Hall was going to have a kind of like a gentlemen’s club motif, and we wanted to have this secret Masonic basement venue. We were going to have bands, but we thought it would be cool to supplement it with scientists, and Dorian said, “I think we can make that happen.”
Why did you move the Secret Science Club to The Bell House? AT: We were turning people away from the Union Hall events. The room downstairs only holds about 110 comfortably, or uncomfortably. For one event we had people lined up to 6th Avenue. It was a big deal to turn that many people away. People were disappointed. It felt like we kind of outgrew this place.
MM: [At Union Hall] the idea was it was kind of like a secret society, and we’re meeting in the basement. Down at the Bell House, I have the idea in my mind that science is on the margins. We’re forced to meet on the fringe in this old industrial lot. Sometimes in my mind, I call you the Bell House Labs.
Who comes to the events? AT: We have some regulars who are just classic Brooklyn city people who are just interested in everything. If they’re not at science night, they’re probably off at modern dance. It’s just a smart neighborhood.
MM: It’s mostly 20s and 30s. A lot of people in the audience are involved in film and art, but then you also get some people who are actual scientists. I think one of the reasons that this is popular is that there’s a kind of zeitgeist of curiosity. Because most of the events are free, you can be curious and come and check it out without losing anything and then most people find that they’re inspired by it.
Who comes up with the signature cocktails that you serve at the events? MM: I usually come up with the names, and then they come up with the actual concoction. My favorite drink name ever was the Double (Make that a Triple) Helix.
AT: I don’t know if you want to go public with this, but we think that the global warming enthusiasts drink the most.
MM: They drink the most beer. I don’t know if they drink the most liquor, but they definitely drink the most beer. They’re thirsty. It’s hot.
Where else do you go to see some good taxidermy? AT: Freemans is a very cool spot. Red Hook Bait & Tackle has a black bear and lots of birds and fish. I think taxidermy has had a real resurgence. You see it in places where you didn’t used to.
MM: Ryan Matthew [who won an award at Carniverous Nights] owns a clothing store that also sells taxidermy called Against Nature and Mike Zohn [another contestant] owns Obscura Antiques in the East Village, which is a really cool store.