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A New Life Awaits Ventura Theater : Restaurateur Has Big Plans to Book Jazz, Country, Salsa Acts at Ornate Ex-Movie House

Times Staff Writer

The Ventura Theater, a 60-year-old grand dowager of a picture palace that has lately fallen on hard times, will be transformed into a dinner-nightclub by an Orange County concert hall owner.

Garry Folgner has signed a 10-year lease to operate the 1,000-seat Mediterranean-style theater on South Chestnut Street. Since 1973, he has owned the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, a popular restaurant that has been a 400-seat music showcase since 1985.

Folgner says he is sinking $250,000 into improving the theater’s kitchen and augmenting sound and lighting systems. He is already booking musical acts that range from country and salsa to rhythm and blues and new music.

A concert last Friday, for instance, featured the Smithereens, a New Wave band from New Jersey. Upcoming shows will include country/blues singer Gregg Allman and jazz musician Pat Metheny.

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12 Shows a Month

Folgner says he hopes to lure concert-goers from Santa Barbara to the San Fernando Valley with 10 to 12 shows each month at the 16,000-square-foot site.

“You’ve got four colleges within 30 miles,” he says. “People are looking for things to do.”

Is there a large enough demand here for live entertainment to keep Folgner in the black? At least one Ventura city official hopes so.

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“I think it’s positive for downtown,” says City Manager John Baker. He adds that the theater may help revitalize Main Street, which now becomes deserted when the thrift and antique shops close, along with most of the restaurants, after dark. The Ventura Theater’s plans also fall in with the city’s attempts to woo new business to the area under the slogan “Alive after Five.”

Folgner, who is leasing the Ventura Theater from Chestnut Properties and has an option to buy, takes over a site that has a colorful history.

Built in 1928 for $400,000 by Charles B. Corcoran, the Ventura Theater featured all the ornamental excesses of pre-Depression movie houses, including a handcrafted chandelier hung from a 50-foot-high ceiling, gold-and-silver-leaf embellished beams, tile fountains, wrought iron handrails and imported tapestries that hung from the auditorium’s walls.

On opening night, Aug. 16, 1928, the marquee proudly displayed the title of the inaugural show: a long-forgotten comedy called “Excess Baggage.” Photos from that night show well-tailored men in fedoras and flappers draped in beads and fur. Inside, trumpeter Ted Morse led his recording band and Paul Cowan performed a solo on a huge Wurlitzer pipe organ. Admission was 50 cents for adults, 15 cents for children and 60 cents for a seat in one of the high-backed plush divans.

Every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, the theater featured vaudeville acts, including the Yacht Club Boys, a group that once numbered Bing Crosby among its members.

Brought in Radio

But vaudeville died out during the Depression, and Corcoran learned to adapt to changing times. In the 1930s, he installed a large radio on-stage so he wouldn’t lose customers, his daughter, Gertrude Clark, of Ventura recalls.

When popular shows like “Amos and Andy” went on the air, Corcoran would stop the reel for 15 minutes while his audience listened.

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Clark, now 74, began working at the theater when she was 14 and took it over when her father died. In the mid-1960s, she made news by barring unaccompanied children after 5 p.m., saying she was sick of being a 35-cent-an-hour baby-sitter.

Clark faced other problems, though, as did theater owners across the United States. Beginning in the 1950s, it was competition from TV. Then, in 1974, the first modern multiplex sprouted up in Oxnard, offering diverse fare on several screens. In 1979, Clark opted out of the business that had been her life for more than half a century, selling the theater to Chestnut Properties, a group of investors that included Ventura dentist Angelo Elardo.

The group plunked down $150,000 to install new seats and carpet and redecorate the mezzanine and lobby with Mediterranean furniture, gilt-framed mirrors and giant urns.

At the time, local papers carried stories heralding the renaissance of downtown Ventura and the new owners gushed about bringing in film classics and art films, bringing back vaudeville, and showcasing live theater with local groups.

“We believe that if the public is offered a beautiful, ornate, gorgeous old theater in mint condition, featuring the best entertainment available, that not only will the tourists flock to see it but so will the hometowners,” one enthusiastic investor said.

But the group had miscalculated the market, and business limped along for several years without ever really picking up speed.

Two years ago, the investors took out all the seats, put in dance floors and a sound system and rechristened their building the Ventura Terrace Theater--it has tiered seats--as a place for live entertainment.

But problems continued. Chesnut Properties leased the theater to Ventura Whimsey, a company owned by Angelo Elardo and his brother, Carmen. According to a lawsuit filed in Ventura Superior Court, the brothers fought over a variety of issues, including how to run the theater, how much to pay employees and how to maintain business records. By mid-1987, Whimsey was six months behind on its rent, and Chestnut began eviction proceedings, court documents show.

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The property was up for sale several times in 1987, but prospective buyers couldn’t reach terms with Ventura Whimsey. One group of potential buyers in April filed a lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court against Angelo Elardo, his wife, Helen, and another investor, alleging the threesome made false representations about the property and concealed important information. That suit is pending.

While the theater remains locked in litigation, there have been only sporadic shows and teen dances, although occasionally the theater was rented out for private parties, including a recent benefit for the Ventura County chapter of the Hells Angels.

Folgner, who runs Orange County’s premier concert hall, isn’t deterred by the theater’s recent turmoil. He said he plans to book acts into both the Coach House and the Ventura Theater whenever possible. He also is enthusiastic about Ventura audiences, and says salsa and country music will do well. Show prices will range from $13.50 to $22.50, he said.

“I want to be just outside of L.A. so we can get L.A. acts. We can bring Universal Amphitheater acts here,” he said.

Folgner has been involved in Orange County civic activities, including donating his club for shows to benefit drug rehabilitation programs. He says he also would like to play an active community role in Ventura.

Meanwhile, Trudy Clark says she rarely walks down South Chestnut Street because it evokes too many memories.

“It was such a beautiful theater. there was real gold leaf on the ceilings and chandeliers,” she says.

“It was quality all the way through.”


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