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City That Turned Deaf Ear to Clubs Now Woos One

Try to envision Rose Elizabeth Bird standing on the steps of the California Supreme Court, lobbying for the death penalty.

Picture George Bush on a campaign whistle stop drumming up support for the Sandinistas.

Imagine Tommy Lasorda turning down a pepperoni pizza.

Impossible? Of course. But it would take a philosophical about-face of similar proportions to top the one being spun by the city of Huntington Beach as it lays out a welcome mat for a new live music club.

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Mayor John Erskine sent letters to more than two dozen club owners throughout California last month inviting them to check out plans for a new, $22-million retail and commercial building downtown.

The idea is to lure an established club operator into the spiffy Huntington Pier Colony project, which is also supposed to house a six-plex movie theater, restaurants, shops and business offices. All of this is due to open in spring, 1990, and presumably will flood the floundering business district with customers antsy to dispose of their disposable income.

The very thought that these people would even tolerate a club downtown was shock enough. This is, after all, the same city that virtually held victory parades when three important rock clubs folded in 1986.

Even more stunning than Erskine’s letters of invitation, though, was his suggestion that the Redevelopment Agency might kick in a subsidy if prospective tenants have trouble making the rent, which will be two to six times higher downtown than it used to be.

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A nightclub subsidy in Huntington Beach? What’s next--Gen. Manuel Noriega waving the “Just Say No” banner against drugs?

I haven’t seen a backflip this good since Mary Lou Retton’s.

The clubs that went under in ’86, each vital in a distinctly different way, were the Golden Bear, Safari Sam’s and Spatz. To be fair, Sam’s was the only one that closed as a direct result of opposition from city officials, who refused to grant the spunky club a new entertainment permit. The Golden Bear and Spatz closed more because of financial troubles. But we didn’t hear talk of any subsidies back then.

The city expressed no hint of interest in the survival of these clubs. Sam’s and Spatz were key venues for Orange County’s ever-struggling original music scene, a fact that made no impression on City Council members. The only thing that caught their ears was a handful of complaints about late hours or boisterous club-goers.

In the case of the Golden Bear, they went so far as to approve a demolition permit allowing the destruction of the building, even though the local historical society (not to mention thousands of music lovers) wanted it preserved.

Now, however, the city fathers have turned so nostalgic that they want to display some of the bricks and other rubble they saved from the Golden Bear in the new place. They might even like to resurrect the old name. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till a wrecking ball drops squat on top of it.

Why the city’s sudden interest in wooing a music club now? For one thing, it might be good business. “It would be a tremendous opportunity for the city to have an attraction down there that would spill over (business) for other merchants,” Councilman and former Mayor Jack Kelly said.

City planners and the developer have talked to, among others, the owner of Orange County’s most successful concert club--Gary Folgner of the Coach House, which offers a vast range of rock, pop, jazz, blues and country music.

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Still, I think the only person who seriously expects to see anything remotely resembling the Coach House’s top-drawer bookings, not to mention the cutting-edge performers who frequented Safari Sam’s or Spatz, is Joe Isuzu.

A jazz club is a safer bet, because jazz draws an older, more sedate and more affluent crowd. On that front, the city has a seriously interested party in Don Randi, owner of the Baked Potato jazz club in Studio City, who says he is very anxious to open a Baked Potato in Orange County.

Still, as Mike Adams, Huntington Beach’s director of community development, has admitted, this new place could turn out to be nothing more than “a real gentle club with a piano bar” instead of a forum for the untapped wealth of local original music of any stripe.

Don’t get me wrong--I’m delighted that Huntington Beach honchos are saying they’d like to brighten up the city with something besides aesthetically pleasing oil derricks.

I’m simply incredulous--as well as pretty skeptical about what the result will be. Again, consider the history here.

While owner Sam Lanni was battling to keep Safari Sam’s open, he was warned by the Police Department that without a new entertainment permit, he could be arrested if he so much as held a poetry reading. Now there’s ringing support for contemporary culture.

Kelly said that all concerned with Huntington Pier Colony--from the Planning Commission to the developer to the council itself--are going to great lengths to make sure a new club won’t encounter the same problems that have dogged others.

He may be more on target than he suspects, given that the biggest problem dogging clubs in the past has been opposition from city officials, who have given live music more thumbs-down than Siskel and Ebert at a “Friday the 13th” festival.

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Now, for whatever reason, Huntington Beach city officials appear well in tow--cheery invitations signed by the mayor are a good omen, no?--and at least one council member is saying how much she’d love to see a new club in town that would cater to the young people of the entire county.

Hey, I hope it happens. And I hope Gen. Noriega’s anti-drug campaign is a big hit.

DR, STEVE LOPEZ / L.A. Times


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