In two tenures as a nightclub owner, Sam Lanni has been at the center of a lot of things — counterculture, controversy, maybe even contretemps.
On a recent Tuesday night, Lanni, 51, stood in the middle of a throng of youthful scenesters on the patio of his Safari Sam's, a 4-month-old restaurant-nightclub precariously situated at the midpoint between two Los Angeles worlds, Hollywood and Silver Lake, and somewhere between harsh financial reality and its namesake's dreams.
The crowd — hip, musically inclined and dressed down just so — might be the envy of any club owner. While grateful for this early success, Lanni, whose first foray into clubland 20 years ago in Orange County has become the stuff of legend, envisions a venue that serves up more than rock bands and DJs and drinks.
He is a man, after all, who likes to refer to his club as a "cultural events center," whose original Safari Sam's was a place where you might see Social Distortion or the Minutemen one night, Beckett's "Endgame" another and performance artists giving each other a yogurt facial on a third. Music, humor, performance art, theater and spoken word: All were on the menu at Safari Sam's, until the city of Huntington Beach shut him down in 1986.
Now Lanni has resurrected his club in the Little Armenia district of east Hollywood, on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard previously known more for its streetwalkers than any legal nightlife. Sam's new digs, unassumingly located across the parking lot from a 99 Cents Only store, once were home to a seedy strip club, Tulips.
"Sam's is not intended to be your hamster cage club," Lanni said. "A club is where disparate parts of the community come together, where ideas are exchanged, where art can live. Without the arts we'd still be scratching insects off ourselves. And I think clubs are just as important in some ways as Disney Hall or the Getty Center."
The execution of Lanni's high-minded philosophy has come with an equally high price tag. During the arduous two years between signing the lease and Safari Sam's April 13 opening, Lanni said, he sank more than $1 million into the venue, with investors contributing $200,000 more. He lost his Silver Lake house to foreclosure, asked the public for donations, relied on the goodwill of longtime associates and went public with complaints about a city bureaucracy that made getting permit approvals, in his opinion, needlessly hard.
"One problem was that the strip joint had no permits whatsoever," Lanni said, "so basically when we took over it was like having a building the city didn't recognize. Still, it shouldn't cost that much to open any business." For now, Lanni said, his wife, Cathie, has taken a job at a high-tech firm in San Diego to put bread on the table for the couple and their two sons.
From the outset, Lanni said, he had the support of L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti's office and of local police, who were happy to be rid of Tulips. Lanni bled rent money as his plans made their way through the labyrinthian Department of Building and Safety and other agencies. He still marvels, for instance, that he had to satisfy the Department of Fish and Game.
"I think it is the right place and the right time for this club," said Chad Forello, a minority owner whose relationship with Lanni dates to the mid-'80s, when his rock band, National People's Gang, gigged at the old Sam's. Lanni ended up managing the band. Forello conceded, though, that "any time you present yourself as a little avant-garde, it's going to take time."
So what has Lanni gotten for his money and his misery?
"If the House of Blues were to have sex with Spaceland and they were to birth a club, it would be like Safari Sam's," he said.
The club's dark, 450-capacity room, with original work by local artists on the walls, seems to merge the sensibilities of the Hollywood-Sunset Strip glitz and the Eastside's scruffy charm. The stage and sound system have earned plaudits from performers and patrons alike, and the layout, with a dining area on the venue's west wall, a mezzanine level wrapped around the back and east side and bars upstairs and down, encourages fraternization while not sacrificing sightlines.
And not to be underestimated as upsides are free parking — 150 spaces' worth — and the fact that because it serves food, Safari Sam's is an all-ages venue.
Yet as others in the business, as well as Lanni himself, point out, Safari Sam's faces a daunting challenge attracting national touring acts in the city's ultracompetitive club environment.
The musical offerings thus far range from veteran acts such as Tex & the Horseheads (who played opening night) and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys to up-and-coming rockers such as Hello Stranger, who sold the place out two weeks ago. Every Tuesday, the crowds have been big for promoter-DJ Franki Chan's "Check Yo' Ponytail" nights, and the Friday shows mounted by Kiss or Kill, a collective of garage and punk-rock bands, have a solid following.
"It was one of the best experiences we've had in L.A.," Hello Stranger singer Juliette Commagere said of her band's show. "There's not a lot of all-ages venues, especially ones where you can park and get treated so well."
The masses that have shown up on recent Tuesdays to see the cutting-edge bands Chan lines up seem especially taken with the vibe. "I think it's probably the most genuine venue in town, when you consider the idea behind it, the passion behind it and the whole history," Chan said. "As a club it kind of embodies what L.A. as a whole is lacking, and that's soul."
The warmth these bands are feeling could be residual heat from the original Sam's, a 102-capacity room that started as a restaurant and evolved into a performance venue that hosted the likes of Sonic Youth, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Black Flag, Jonathan Richman, Peter Case, the Meat Puppets, Camper von Beethoven and Henry Rollins — not to mention the performers who one night staged a fight while wrapped in sleeping bags.
"It was an amazing time — Sam just loved the art of it all," said Jen Burnet, a cocktail waitress at the original Sam's who, at 42, has returned to waitressing at the new venue "just because I love it."
"That club is still in the hearts of a lot of people," said Lanni, born Saverio Lanni in Santa Elia, Italy, to working-class parents who immigrated to the Midwest and then Orange County. He was reared in Anaheim with a huge appetite for concertgoing and a penchant for partying. His love of music would endear him to many an artist, but there were also tumultuous early days that included two years on the lam in Europe and eventually six months in jail.
At 29, distanced from his "bad influences," Lanni and friend Gil Fuhrer took over a restaurant called Charlie's Chili and redecorated it with a tiki flavor. Twenty-three months later, Safari Sam's was shuttered when the city of Huntington Beach decided it wasn't in step with its civic redevelopment.
"The era was different ... and 20 years ago Safari Sam's was a cheap operation," Lanni said. "I had five employees and cheap rent. Now we're in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. I can't be as eclectic as I'd like to be, but right now we're just trying to pay our bills."
Those in his inner circle are standing by, waiting for Sam's to blossom into a place that is not quite Hollywood, not quite Silver Lake, but somehow distinctly L.A.
"It all comes down to Sam," said Patrick Llewellyn, who books local music acts for the club. "He didn't want to open just any club; he wanted a place that was a true reflection of him. He could have gone a much easier route."
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