Wiltern Theatre Emerges as an Unlikely Rock Star

Kip Cohen, manager of the Wiltern Theatre, smiles when he recalls all the phone calls at the Wilshire Boulevard facility last month following U2’s two concerts at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

There had been rumors that the Irish rock band was going to do a special, surprise show in town--and many fans assumed the concert would be at the Wiltern.

Even though U2 didn’t schedule an extra show in town, the calls provided Cohen with a sign that rock fans in Los Angeles now think of the 2,300-seat Wiltern when they think of special, prestigious shows.

“This is the kind of place that would happen,” he said proudly, sitting in his downstairs office.


When the restored Wiltern opened in 1985 as a concert facility, there seemed little reason to suspect the room in the stunning green Pellissier Building at the corner of Western Avenue would emerge as a rock showcase.

For one thing, there already seemed to be enough venues to handle all the rock attractions that came through town. And the spectacular Art Deco interior of the theater (a movie palace from the early 1930s through the 1970s) just didn’t seem very rock ‘n’ roll.

But there was one aspect of the Wiltern’s reopening that grabbed the attention of rock industry insiders: The Wiltern was being operated “under the direction of Bill Graham Presents.”

The San Francisco-based Graham, the nation’s most celebrated rock concert producer, had long been rumored to be planning a move into the lucrative--and highly competitive--Southern California concert market. The Wiltern, some insiders assumed, would provide a foothold for Graham, who has overseen such massive rock events as the 1982 US Festival near San Bernardino and the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.


For two years, however, speculation concerning Graham’s plans for Southern California seemed academic. Rock was only a sporadic entry on the Wiltern schedule. The theater’s rock highlights were dramatic--a two-night Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers stint in 1985 and a “surprise” Prince concert last year--but few.

Suddenly last summer, things changed. The restored splendor of the Wiltern began to resound regularly with the sounds of rock--and not only from relatively sedate, “thirtysomething"-generation acts like Suzanne Vega, but also harder, youth-oriented bands like Europe and Y&T;, filling out a lineup that also includes jazz, classical-music and dance events.

“The building itself has a lot of charm,” said Andy Slater, who manages Warren Zevon, who appeared at the Wiltern last month. “In Warren’s case, we’d designed the production to be done in (mid-size) theaters. In Los Angeles, there was only one option.

“From a consumer point of view, I enjoy seeing shows in that size room.”

Among other acts that have played the Wiltern in recent months: Tom Waits (three nights), Jerry Garcia (four nights), Joe Cocker and Dwight Yoakam. That level of activity is set to continue in the new year, led by the 18-day “Rock on Film” festival beginning Thursday.

Is Graham finally making his move?

“That shouldn’t have to be answered, but I will,” said Graham, 56, from his San Francisco office. “We are not in Los Angeles to announce the attempt at annexation. Our primary concern in L.A. is the running of the Wiltern.”

Why, then, the dramatic escalation of the Wiltern’s rock activity?


Cohen, who managed Graham’s Fillmore East in New York from 1968-'71 and was brought in three years ago to oversee the Wiltern, believes “it merely took time for the pop music industry to realize that audiences were interested in supporting an effort like this.’

Graham agreed that the current success of the theater is partly a matter of good timing in a business that by nature is cyclical: “We’re on a roll, but a number of acts that fit that particular size room happened to be on tour at this time.”

As to any desire to promote concerts in Los Angeles outside the Wiltern, Graham is firm. “Very clearly there is no interest on my part of retaining a relationship (in Southern California) with an artist who outgrows the Wiltern,” he said--excepting such acts as the Grateful Dead, Santana, Journey and Eddie Money, which he manages or with which he has had long-standing relationships.

Others involved in concert promotion in the region accept Graham’s word, but cautiously.

"(The Graham organization) has indicated no desire to promote in L.A., and today I believe them,” said Steve Rennie, executive vice president of Avalon Attractions, Southern California’s largest concert promotion firm.

As it stands, a large number of the pop concerts at the Wiltern have been brought in by Avalon, indicating a state of truce between the two promotion superpowers.

“It starts with the foregone conclusion that in Southern California, Avalon is the top (booker) of attractions,” said Cohen. “There was no intention to bring Bill Graham Presents here on that level. It was always understood that this was an Avalon area.”

But while Graham is not going head to head with Avalon, the Wiltern, utilizing the resources of both organizations, has changed the shape of the local concert market, especially since no comparable area facility is currently hosting rock concerts. (The comparably sized and appointed Pantages has only housed one rock act in the past year, and according to a representative of the operators, there are no plans for future concerts.)


As the lone mid-size facility, the Wiltern has been able to book some shows that might otherwise have to go to a smaller theater, such as the 1,300-seat Beverly Theatre, or a larger one like the 6,000 seat Universal Amphitheatre. The most dramatic change has been at the Beverly, which has turned in recent months to R&B; and stage productions.

However, Bob Stein, president of the firm that operates the Beverly, doesn’t attribute his theater’s changes to the rise of the Wiltern.

“We’d been headed in the direction of doing more adult entertainment and non-concert events anyway,” he said. Still, he acknowledged that some acts which once played his facility, including Waits and Garcia, moved to the Wiltern for recent stands.

The prospect of a multi-night run at the Wiltern has also lured some artists away from the Universal.

“I would have liked to have had Tom Waits,” said Jim Guerinot, director of booking, marketing and publicity at the Universal Amphitheatre. “But he didn’t want to play a room this big.”

Instead of one night at the Universal, Waits played three at the Wiltern. Cohen believes that multi-night runs in a mid-size theater are the wave of the future for concerts, with a growing concern among both artists and fans for comfort and intimacy

Graham, obviously, hopes Cohen is right. But he’s seen too many ups and downs in his 23 years as a concert promoter to make any proclamations.

“It’s wonderful and we hope it will continue,” he said, “but we’re in show biz.”