When Richard “Gus” Gusler first came to NC State in 1967, he soon found that current events — especially the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War — interested him more than his engineering studies.
“You could always tell when something big was going on in the world, because my GPA would take a nosedive,” he laughs. “I think when Hanoi was being bombed, my GPA dropped to a new low.”
Gusler switched majors to political science and became a popular campus leader, serving as student body president his senior year. The president had funds for a secretary, so he hired English major Doris Wells, editor of campus literary magazine Windhover. The two hit it off, to say the least. They married the following spring and have been together ever since.
After college, Gusler says he had hoped to go to law school and become a civil rights attorney. “But my GPA had a serious case of multiple personality disorder,” he explains. “So I went into teaching for a few years and tried out some other things.”
Gusler returned to NC State in 1978 to pursue his master’s in public administration, and he later went to law school at NC Central University. While working toward his law degree, he found time to devote to his other passion: music.
“During my junior year at NC State, my roommate and I ran all the concerts for the university,” Gusler recalls. “He went on to become a music agent, and while I was in law school he asked me to help him put on a Joe Jackson concert. The two of us and a couple of our buddies put up $500 and set Jackson up to perform at Duke Auditorium. The concert sold out in 15 minutes.”
With that success, Gusler started a small concert promotion company that he managed between classes. At one point he was promoting 150 shows a year in five states. They ranged from small shows at the Brewery on Hillsborough Street to seven sold-out shows in the Smith Center the first year it opened and a Pink Floyd concert for 60,000 people at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“I helped lesser-known bands get their foot in the door at smaller venues, but even then, it wasn’t in my mind to do that permanently as my career,” he says. “I turned down an offer to do some legal work for a certain up-and-coming band three times in a row. On the fourth offer, I finally accepted.” That band was Hootie and the Blowfish.
Gusler helped Hootie and the Blowfish sign their first major-label record deal, with Atlantic Records, in 1993. “They launched their first Billboard-topping album in 1994, and now, 37 records later, I’m still their lawyer,” Gusler explains. “I also work with Darius Rucker — the band’s lead singer — as he’s made his way into the country music scene.”
When Gusler began working with the band, he was doing criminal law at Raleigh firm Cheshire, Parker, Hughes and Manning. But when the band’s success exploded, he left the firm and started his own practice focusing on entertainment and sports law. Gusler’s practice still focuses on music and entertainment law and does a significant amount of copyright and trademark work.
Gusler has also made time to give back to his alma mater. He served on CHASS’s advisory board from 1998 to 2004, and he once taught a music management class within the college.
“This university means so much to me,” he says. “I’m thankful for my time at NC State and for everything it’s made me. I learned a lot there that made me a better lawyer. I learned to look at things from different perspectives to solve problems.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and this is a real working man’s school. My parents worked in textile plants. I grew up watching the Wolfpack play, and I am a diehard fan to this day. I still keep in touch with a lot of friends from college, too.
“My wife and I don’t have children, so the bulk of our estate is going to NC State and helping with scholarships for students who can’t afford it. I think it’s important for a university to give back to the community.”
Saving the Players’ Retreat
The Players’ Retreat, a popular bar and grill near campus, has been a Raleigh institution since its doors opened in 1951. Gus Gusler is one of the many NC State alums with fond memories of the PR.
“I think the first beer I ever had when I came to NC State was in 1967 at the Players’ Retreat,” Gusler says. “I spent massive amounts of time there as an undergrad and a graduate student. I even worked there as a cook. The original owner, Bernie Hanula, loved to drag me out of the kitchen to tell all the patrons he had the student body president cooking their pizzas!”
The PR stayed close to the hearts of many longtime customers, but over the years business began to suffer. In 2005, the PR’s second owner — faced with a new building owner and rent he couldn’t afford — asked Gusler for help.
“The owner called me and asked if I was interested in buying the place,” Gusler recalls. “He had interest from a couple of other people who wanted to keep the name but change the whole concept. Neither of us wanted anyone to screw up the place. But I knew nothing about the restaurant business. I could eat and drink at them, but I didn’t know how to run one.”
In the end, Gusler’s affinity for his longtime hangout won out. Or, as Gusler says with a laugh, “I bought with my heart, not my head.”
Luckily for him — and for the PR’s fans — the purchase turned out to be a sound investment. Gusler’s background in promotions and marketing helped him turn the business around by undertaking some much-needed renovations and revamping the menu and drink offerings.
“When I bought the place, there were six employees, and business was dwindling,” say Gusler. “Today we have 60 people on staff, and they are just great. We’re back now. I love being a part of it.”