Artists, Foodies And Musicians Mourn The Loss Of A San Diego Creative Great
The death of Matt Hoyt, owner of Starlite, filmmaker, musician, artist and collaborator left the local creative community shocked and saddened.
"If he was talking to you, he wasn't looking around," said musician Steve Poltz of Matt Hoyt. "He was focused, like eagle-eye focused when he would talk to you. You felt like you were the only one there in the room."
Hoyt, co-founder and co-owner of Middletown restaurant Starlite passed away on Saturday, Aug. 14. He was 45.
Sunday morning, Hoyt's wife Allison posted online that they had only just learned of his aggressive, serious illness a week before his death. Stories then flooded in from friends, colleagues, artists, musicians, filmmakers, business owners, foodies, craft cocktail people — and the list goes on.
The cross section of Matt Hoyt's impact on San Diego is immeasurable, as was his expertise, interest and genuine love and support.
The heart of Starlite
Tim Mays, co-owner at Starlite (and owner of The Casbah), met Hoyt when Hoyt started booking bands for a venue in El Cajon, The Soul Kitchen." They opened Starlite along with Steve Poltz in 2007.
"We go way, way back. I first met Matt back in the early nineties when he was in a band called Turkey Mallet. And we used to book them at the Casbah fairly often. They were kind of a ska band, which if you know Matt now you would think that's kind of odd that he was in a ska band back then, but that's what it was. Then he started booking shows at a club in El Cajon called the Soul Kitchen," Mays said.
According to Mays, the early plans for Starlite were for a bar with burgers, something simple. But Hoyt elevated the idea, leading the way for the farm-to-table craft mecca it soon became. Eventually Hoyt took on the day-to-day operations.
"He was the smartest guy I know. And the funniest guy I know," Mays said, adding that friends would joke that if they didn't know something, call 1-800-ASK-MATT. "And he had an answer to everything."
Though their schedules were busy and the pandemic upturned the restaurant, bar, music and art landscape, Mays and Hoyt made time to chat weekly, going over COVID relief or grants, or discussing how the Casbah and Starlite were contending with closures.
"It was a major shock to my system, my wife, a million people that we all knew together for so many years who are all part of various different communities in town, the food community, the craft cocktail segment, music, art, comedy, film. Matt was involved in all that stuff, and he was good at all of it. He was a genius," Mays said. "I'm one of many who will miss him greatly and loved him dearly."
"He was such a large presence," said Steve Poltz, who now lives in Nashville. "Matt could discuss music and then go right from there to interest rates to lumber prices to a film that he saw to what was playing at the Sundance Film Festival, to perhaps working on some little TV show or something that he was starting to develop, to directing video clips for bands."
Poltz met Hoyt decades ago, when Hoyt's band Turkey Mallet and Poltz's band The Rugburns ran in similar circles. "Then I didn't see much of him until we got into the bar business together," Poltz said. "And he was really funny to be around because he would know everything — about wine as well as psychology or anything we spoke about. He was so fun to be around because of his energy, and he could multitask like crazy. I'm still in shock."
A creative force
In addition to being a restaurant owner, Hoyt was an artist. His pieces — whether film, video or live performance art — melded experimental elements, humor and a hefty dose of the absurd.
And his art was almost always profoundly collaborative.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego included his mixed media video and installation work, "Antarctic...Huh?" in a 2010 exhibition of new San Diego art called "Here Not There." Hoyt created the project with artist Jason Sherry, centering on a film but also including an elaborate viewing set installed at the museum. The story, filmed with miniatures and collage sets in his apartment thousands of miles away from Antarctica, centers on a worker at a landfill on the icy continent.
Kathryn Kanjo is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's David C. Copley director and CEO, and was part of the team that brought "Antarctic...Huh?" to the museum.
"I remember being dazzled by the force of the installation he created with Jason Sherry. It reflected an energy and a complexity that turned out to be matched by the artist himself. And Matt applied that energy to his own art but also to the community at large," Kanjo said.
"His expansive interests — art, food, music, film — crossed boundaries and formed new connections. Fundamentally generous, Matt readily convened groups and offered support, bolstering San Diego's creative ecosystem. He connected us. And his exuberance, wit and curiosity will be sorely missed by all."
A collaborative dream team
Hoyt was always the one who did the talking, Sherry said over the phone, searching for the words to describe his longtime friend and artistic partner's legacy. "I would just let him talk for the most part."
The two had been friends for 25 years, working together on projects ranging from hair-brained and absurd to practical restaurant construction.
"Most of our projects were things that we would talk about for a while before we ever started them, like when we did "Antarctic...Huh?" we talked about that for years, just like coming up with stories and scenarios," Sherry said.
Eventually, they made it happen.
"And that's how most of the last 25 years have gone, almost daring each other to do something extremely stupid and seeing if we could pull it off. But his impact, it's Immeasurable," Sherry said.
Another project was "Talk Talk," an improv variety show Hoyt dreamed up with Sherry, performed live with an absurd twist: The entire set and crew were painted the saturated lime hue of a green screen — including Hoyt's skin (Sherry did the makeup). Seemingly irrelevant projected images periodically wash out the entire scene.
Each Talk Talk episode featured performances, skits and guests. One such guest was Suzanne Hoyem, a local writer.
"This is kind of a rough one for I think most people in San Diego. He was a really good guy. He was the kind of person that you would run into two or three times a year and his face would light up when he saw you. And he would come over and catch up and remember details of your life that you had spoken with him last time, and you always left that conversation better," Hoyem said. "He was very dynamic, very warm and highly intelligent. He will be very missed," Hoyem said.
As a filmmaker, he created music videos for pivotal San Diego bands like Pinback, Goblin Cock and The Blackheart Procession.
Musician Tony Gidlund, of Shades McCool and recently of Goblin Cock, also appeared as a guest on Talk Talk. Gidlund admired Hoyt for his energy, passion and warmth.
"He was always very supportive. Matt was always really kind and generous to me. He had an extremely inviting energy and he was the perfect host. He was shockingly productive with all of his creative projects and Starlite. Matt would put his mind to something unusual like Talk Talk, the green screen-based talk show and always get it to turn out really great," Gidlund said.
Tim Pyles is host of the 91X Loudspeaker program, a weekly spotlight for local music.
"He's done so much other stuff for art and culture in San Diego. And comedy. Of course, running an amazing restaurant like Starlite. But every time I'd see him, which was usually at the Casbah, it was always a good time. Always had a smile on his face, always made me feel good. And I've been at a loss for the last few days with the loss of Matt Hoyt because he really did so much for San Diego," Pyles said.
An entire city's champion
In the memories his friends and colleagues shared this week, one constant stuck out: Matt Hoyt made everyone feel like they mattered, and that their ideas and projects mattered.
"After opening an art gallery in October of last year, Matt was one of my biggest cheerleaders and made sure I checked a bunch of boxes that I might have overlooked had he not swooped in with his business savvy. I loved it when he stopped by the gallery and I got to witness him talk to people passing by on the sidewalk. He’d always engage them and candidly explain how amazing the gallery was and more often than not they’d stop and come check it out. That enthusiasm from him always boosted my ego when I felt scared about being a new business in a pandemic," said Melody Jean Moulton, one of Starlite's original bartenders and owner of the new South Park art space Trash Lamb Gallery.
"He was the biggest proponent of everyone I ever knew in San Diego. He'd always help everyone accomplish whatever they set out to do," Sherry said. "He was, like, the producer of a lot of creative energy in this town and would help everybody, probably most of all me."
To remember Hoyt, his family will hold a public memorial event, including a retrospective of his work, planned tentatively for October. There's also a GoFundMe in the works. But for now, the family is encouraging everyone to gather and share a drink or a meal at Starlite in his honor.
"He raised the bar for a lot of people. I hope a lot of people live their lives for Matt Hoyt, because that's a big void we're missing now," said Pyles. "I'm just bummed. What else can you say about a guy that is a legend? Don't forget Matt Hoyt."