JOHN DURAN | Building A Better City, Part 3: Community Theaters

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8325 Santa Monica Blvd. (Coast Playhouse)

Last month, WEHOville posted an article about city staff coordinating the new city playhouse and seeking input from the Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission to “strike the appropriate balance between community use and city use of the space”. WTF? I thought – now how did this get so seriously off track?

Way back in 2015, I became aware that the Coast Playhouse was going to shut down. It was a small and quaint 99 seat black box theater space on Santa Monica Boulevard next to Basix. I knew the space well since I performed there in an arts docudrama called “Lives on the Line” (Yes. I once was a thespian!). This was a play put on by actual AIDS activists from the 1980s. Sadly, a few of my fellow cast members died from AIDS after we finished the production. But I still had fond memories of how we brought life imitating art onto the stage way back in the early 1990s.

BUILDING A BETTER CITY SERIES by John Duran
Part 1: Policing
Part 2: Seismic and Retrofitting Issues

When I was on council for those two decades, I often thought about the slogan: “West Hollywood – the Creative City.”

What did that mean? It had to be more than the occasional novel ideas that came out of the bureaucracy of City Hall. I did find the structure of local city government to be both stifling and necessary. Bureaucracies tend to drift towards the lowest common denominator. I found that model to be the source of dilution for so many great new concepts and ideas.

But I understood why it was necessary to provide institutionalized structure to a community that prided itself for being “outside the box”. But where were the other hot spots of creativity around town?

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I saw so many excellent representations of creativity in the fashion industry in WeHo. And the interior design industry in WeHo. And the art galleries. And the sculptures along the Santa Monica Blvd. median. In terms of visual arts, there was plenty of representation in color, fabric, design, texture, clay, marble and canvas. But what about the performing arts?

Well clearly, my neighborhood up on the Sunset Strip was part of the story of music in Southern California at the Whiskey, the Roxy, the Rainbow, the Troubadour and the Viper Room.

I knew the history of the many superstars that had graced WeHo from Jim Morrison and the Doors to Jefferson Airplane to the Byrds to Elton John and Guns N’ Roses. And I also knew that 20 years prior, it was the Rat Pack with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald. WeHo had lots of grand music stories from the speakeasies on the Strip in the 1930s to modern day.

But there wasn’t much history around dance or theater.

We had the old Shakespearean Globe Theater on Kings Road. And we had the Coast Playhouse. And we had the notorious Pussy Cat Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard (and the old Playboy Building that used to exist on Sunset and La Cienega). But we had such limited amounts of theater space for any of the performing arts. I thought we could do so much better.

The first thing I did was insist that the funding for the arts in the city budget be doubled. And then we tripled it. Here is the problem with the performing arts.

It is NOT possible to cover the costs of production from space rental to costumes/make up, lighting, sound, rehearsal space, musicians, actors’ wages and other production costs just on the price of admission and ticket prices. Most Angelenos were accustomed to paying between $50 and $75 for a theater ticket.

But if you multiply $50 by 99 seats – that means a full house might give you just under $5,000 for one night. And many people balked at even $50 and thought $25 was enough to pay for a ticket at a 99-seat house – which meant only $2,500 maximum income on a night – assuming you could fill the house.

No, the arts could not exist just on ticket prices. It required government subsidy and corporate donations through philanthropy or ad sales to make the arts flourish.

So, I began the conversations with then City Manager Paul Arevalo and “hot shots” Oscar Delgado and Andrew Campbell. These guys were powerhouses at City Hall. I explained to them my vision and what I thought was possible. We soon bought the Coast Playhouse site for $2.5 million dollars.

What was the original vision?

Not just one theater where the Coast Playhouse stood. Of course, I wanted that site.

But I also dreamed we could take over the old Shakespearean Globe Theater around the corner. And buy out the Pussycat Theater site (which later became the Tomkat and Studs Theater). But my dream wasn’t just to take over management at these spots. It was to take the real estate and build something new and usable for the new millennium for the performing arts in the city.

The entire block from Sweetzer to Flores on North Santa Monica Boulevard would need to be torn down.

Why? We needed to dig down and build up to a three story height. If we increased height and depth — we could build underground parking. And we could build a theater cavern necessary for backdrops, lighting and give the box plenty of vertical space to adapt to whatever production would come along.

The upper floors of the building could be used for dressing rooms, for rehearsal spaces and for dance practice areas with mirrors and wooden floors (which are easier on the legs than concrete). It could become a space where we could broaden theater, musicals, dance, chorus and all the other arts and performances not yet imagined into existence.

But we would need new parking for all that activity.

Yes, this was part of the impetus to build a multi-level robotic garage behind City Hall. The challenge with parking in WeHo Mid City is there is NO vacant land. So, to build parking, you need to tear down existing structures. It made no sense to me to tear down neighborhood-serving businesses and restaurants on Santa Monica Boulevard to build lots for cars, nor to tear down adjacent apartment buildings to build asphalt parking. So, we experimented with creating the first robotic garage on the West Coast.

It was never intended to be used just for city employees. It was intended to provide overflow parking for a newly imagined theater district on Santa Monica Blvd near Sweetzer. Hamburger Mary’s already had its version of theater. And we could build something new on the entire block and truly make Weho – the Creative City – in the performing arts!

But then COVID hit and the ideas stopped cold. Basix and Marixx shut down never to re-open. The Shakespearean Globe/Macha/11:11 theater space did not make it through COVID (and is now set to re-open as a daytime spa. Ugh. Another one?).

COVID finally put the Pussycat/TomKat/Studs Theater out of business. And it is sitting there waiting to be purchased.

City Council! Hello? Grab it now! We don’t need another high rise development on that spot when we can take this historic structure, refurbish it and add another community asset to our inventory!

Here’s the deal: The arts are a source of great economic activity in any city. People who attend theater usually like to enjoy dinner before the performance and maybe drinks afterwards. Bringing thousands of people into WeHo monthly to enjoy live performances of music, dance, and theater lifts all boats from restaurants/bars to retail to hotels. The city has commissioned numerous studies in the past to prove that the arts vastly improve economic activity.

So, then how did we get to using the new City theater for “strike the appropriate balance between community use and city use of the space?”

Ahhhhh, The bureaucracy has crept into the idea! The city just added numerous meeting spaces at West Hollywood Park not to mention the existing spaces at Plummer Park. If we truly had a robust functioning theater space, there would be absolutely NO room for “city use of space.”

The bureaucracy has plenty of available space at West Hollywood Park and City Council chambers. Don’t do this. Don’t take away the space that should be entirely dedicated to the arts and dilute it with government uses.

I do hope and pray that the current Council returns to the original vision. It’s hard to push for one’s original idea when I have no traction at City Hall any longer. My dear friend (not sarcasm – he truly is) John Heilman is not a great fan of the arts. He has told me this repeatedly! It appears to me that John Erickson does care about this idea. And I know my pal Lauren Meister is good on the arts and preserving historic spaces. I do not really know Sepi Shyne or Chelsea Byers well enough to project how they would feel or vote on expansion of the arts.

But if I had a wish list it would be:

1. Build the original concept of a multiplex arts facility on Santa Monica Boulevard at Sweetzer

2. Purchase the Pussycat Theater, restore and refurbish it and create another performing arts space.

3. Keep an eye on spots nearby to add additional spaces for the arts in the future. There are only so many spaces that should be used for gyms, spas, pet groomers, retail and restaurants. Give the arts a boost and then watch the economic development blossom from there.

OK, I am done. I will get off my soapbox and stage and let the City return to its continuing strides into its future. I just hope that some of the original ideas don’t get cast aside along the way. Cut. Scene. End.

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About John Duran
John Duran, a criminal defense lawyer, served on the West Hollywood City Council for 20 years, 2001-2020.

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Jon Ponder
1 year ago

In the mid-20th century, there was a theatre district along Santa Monica Boulevard from Crescent Heights east to La Cienega ands south to Beverly Boulevard. Over time, about a dozen playhouses were active and popular there for more than 20 years.. The biggest draw was the Players Ring, a theatre in the round that stood where Holloway Cleaners is now. Young Jack Nicholson made his debut there in a production of “Tea and Sympathy.” That theatre was destroyed by fire in 1961. The theatrical company then opened in the building recently known as the Coast Playhouse which they called the… Read more »

BloodshotEyedGuy
BloodshotEyedGuy
1 year ago

In a city of gay people, we don’t have a decent theatre? There’s something not right about that.

C.R.
C.R.
1 year ago

I definitely would love to see the Pussykat/Studs theater be preserved as a new theater space rather than be demolished. I had hoped the building might qualify for historical preservation status at some point, but that seems unlikely.

BloodshotEyedGuy
BloodshotEyedGuy
1 year ago
Reply to  C.R.

Yeah, but you may stick to the seats, unfortunately.

Smells Skunky
Smells Skunky
1 year ago

“There are only so many spaces that should be used for gyms, spas, pet groomers, retail and restaurants.” Really? That corner has been decimated with losing Conservatory, Basix, Marix, and then Joey’s is next. What we don’t need is another dispensary or weed shop – the voters did not have a say in being forced to become the “Emerald Village”. Gyms, spas, pet groomers, and restaurants help support our neighborhood and small businesses and there should be a good mix of all types of trade. So many of our retail spaces sit empty. The arts should also be supported as… Read more »

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
1 year ago

Did I miss something? It seems plan for a new performing arts space at the Coast is going forward. FYI: last nite staff announced that the robo-garage behind City Hall will be closed for at least a month for “maintenance”. It is a fair question to ask if we can afford all of these brilliant ideas.

Ben McCormick
Ben McCormick
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Martin

Steve, I’ve heard the same thing and, additionally, I’m hearing that the City is planning to use the Coast only partially for public use. Apparently, the City has already maxed out its current meeting space (?!) and needs more for their own use. If you would send me your email to the addy in my original post, I’d be happy to our email list.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben McCormick

Actually we are in need of meeting space. Not just City meetings, but neighborhood groups, social groups and sobriety groups need meeting space. Of course it is important that the large retail space under the City’s King’s Road parking structure remain vacant for whatever reason.

Ben McCormick
Ben McCormick
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Martin

And aren’t there a number of meeting spaces available for use by any group available in our library, the recently opened other WeHo Park building (the one with the grand staircase to nowhere), Plummer Park, the Werle Building, the Log Cabin, and others I would imagine exist that I don’t know about? Are they maxed out already?

Tom
Tom
1 year ago

I loved the Coast, saw many shows there and even worked on a few. Those 99-seat “Equity Waiver” theaters used to all over- The Court on La Cienega is now a furniture store for one. Parking became more and more an issue- neighbors didn’t want theatergoers parking on their streets and theatergoers didn’t want to pay to park, or walk, even from Kings Road to Sweetzer (if only there were scooters then!) I know the city owns the Coast property and the building that houses Joey’s and the drycleaners. Who owns the rest? It would be great to have another… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom
Smells Skunky
Smells Skunky
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom

My understanding is that the building that houses Basix is privately owned and the out-of-state owner is not interested in selling at this time. When they are, the City has the first right of refusal to purchase it.

Marix and the adjacent vacant duplex is also privately owned by the former couple who operated Basix and Marix. Our neighborhood still grieves for these losses and longs for a plate of sizzling fajitas and a pitcher of skinny margaritas whilst sitting next to Ben Savage and Jay Leno. Those were the days.

Ben McCormick
Ben McCormick
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom

Tom, please send me your email at the addy cited in my original comment and I will add you to this endeavor’s email list.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ben McCormick
hifi5000
hifi5000
1 year ago

John Duran has some good ideas on how to get support for the arts going again in the city.Unfortunately,the public in general appears to be turning in on itself and will just stay home to watch TV or their devices.

The small theater scene was very active 10 years ago,but has slowed down considerably.The COVID pandemic didn’t help matters and many theaters closed because of it.The public will need to be reengaged in order for Duran’s ideas to succeed.

Ben McCormick
Ben McCormick
1 year ago
Reply to  hifi5000

So, what ideas do you have to offer on re-engaging the public?

Ben McCormick
Ben McCormick
1 year ago

Thank you, John, for bringing to light this brilliant concept for our Creative City that, unfortunately, seems to have been cast aside in the City’s apparent urgent need for more meeting/presentation space for their own use. I’ve heard that change often starts with one person. I am stepping forward to be that person in this instance. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing or getting myself into, but I’ve felt a spark of inspiration. If you have an interest in getting involved in, ultimately, the formation of a performing arts district here in WeHo, please contact me at [email protected]. Let’s… Read more »

Space
Space
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben McCormick

A minor or perhaps major point here in the city seeking meeting/presentation space might be all the vacant space at the PDC? This seems so obvious but unsure of the “relationship” between City and PDC.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Space

Stop making sense.

Michael G Labarbera
Michael G Labarbera
1 year ago

We are one of the few “civilized” nations that do not give ample support to the arts. The arts were always a hallmark of how civilized a nation was. Nations who only supported warfare were considered barbaric.

Priorities
Priorities
1 year ago

Very good point. Our priorities seem to be guns, entertainment, guns, entertainment, more guns and more entertainment which has overrun our formerly respected journalistic traditions. Time to return to the tenants of the Greeks and their appreciation of the Arts.

Outraged
Outraged
1 year ago

Amen!! This is the voice of reason, and of sound, bold, creative, expert leadership that our city needs. Such a contrast to the travesty that is our current City Council. Bring back Duran. Bring back common sense. Bring back a robust future for our unique, Creative City. Bring back all of this, and bring it back NOW! The People must DEMAND it! We’re not asking you to rebuild our City for the benefit of The People. We are telling you, now. You work for US. The City powers have forgotten that, and need to be reminded of that. Immediately.

Willingly Compromised
Willingly Compromised
1 year ago
Reply to  Outraged

Duran is not the way out of the disaster that is the current CC. Bring back John, and you bring back all the political donor sex creeps and organized criminal syndicates that he is slave to.

angry gay pope
1 year ago

The Coast Playhouse was the incubator for a play that became “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Movie. These small theatres are incubators of creativity!

Jerome Cleary
Jerome Cleary
1 year ago
Reply to  angry gay pope

Not true: My Big Fat Greek Wedding started as a one-woman play written by and starring Vardalos, performed for six weeks at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles in the summer of 1997. Vardalos later jokingly said that she only wrote the play “to get a better agent”.

Mick Remington
Mick Remington
1 year ago

todays taxpayers don’t want this.

Outraged
Outraged
1 year ago
Reply to  Mick Remington

Then they can move out of the city that was founded to be in support of creative professionals, and go to Torrance or the inland Empire, or Orange County, or wherever, but they need to get out of West Hollywood. Supporting the arts is what we do here. Supporting the LGBT community more than any other municipality is what we do here. Supporting immigrants and people of color is what we do here. Being a unique municipality among all American municipalities is what we do here. The people who are against the ideals that West Hollywood was founded on can… Read more »

Mike
Mike
1 year ago
Reply to  Outraged

Live theater can be be a wonderful endeavor but apparently here in West Hollywood is not the place. In my over forty years living here I can not recall the Coast Play house being a thriving venue. And a couple of blocks away the Globe Theater did have good years but apparently that was in the past. While being far more expensive in many ways , I would love to see the Coast Play House turned into a movie venue much like the Vista Theater in East Hollywood. Until Civic it showed first run movies with a state of the… Read more »

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