Emporium With a Homey Aura to Lose Home in Huntington Beach

Times Staff Writer

It was a slow night at the Finally a Unicorn Emporium, but the scattered regulars who did show up for the weekly open-mike lineup protectively offered reasons for the sparse turnout.

First, there was the rain--a cold, steady drizzle had fallen all evening. And, it was the night before Thanksgiving. All in all, hardly the sort of night likely to draw a big crowd to the unusual little coffee bar/gift shop/nightclub/theater in Huntington Beach’s scruffy downtown area.

Trey Wilson, a local guitarist who had stopped by to jam with some friends, remembered the standing-room-

only days of July and August, at the height of the surfing and tourist season. “This place was kicking butt,” said Wilson, who looked every bit the veteran surfer as he stood outside in shorts and a T-shirt, apparently oblivious to the chill night air.


Inside, Dale Stimson drew on his pipe as he flipped the pages of a photo album, pointing out shots of concerts, plays, parties, poetry readings and other events from Unicorn nights past. It was just one of a stack of albums, all filled with photos Stimson has taken since he started coming to the club in 1986.

Stimson helps out around the nightspot in exchange for free admission, and said he has never missed a show. “It’s got a home atmosphere,” Stimson said, explaining his affection for the emporium. “It’s like you’re walking into your living room.”

But that aura of domesticity is due to come to an end. In October, the city sent owner Lee Miller an eviction notice, and she has until Jan. 6 to move out and make way for a parking lot as part of the city’s redevelopment plan.

Miller was not surprised by the eviction. “Actually, as long as we’ve been here, we knew this was coming,” she said, sipping coffee at a table in the Unicorn. But, she said, “It didn’t make it any easier. . . . I think it was easier to let go of my two sons as they grew up.”


Miller and partner Michael Aquila, who produces the club’s theatrical offerings, are busily trying to find a new location. They say the Unicorn will not go extinct, but so far they haven’t found the ideal site--"something within eye view of the water and within our rent,” as Miller explained.

And even if they find a spot, can Miller and Aquila re-create the atmosphere--an odd combination of kitsch and bohemian artsiness--that recently led readers of the weekly Pacific Coast Revue to vote the Unicorn the most unusual nightclub in the county?

Aquila said the outside of a new building would not matter: “Inside, it’ll be the same atmosphere.” But Miller admitted that a big hike in her rent would probably force a re-evaluation of the club’s policy of giving stage time to anyone who asks for it. “We’ll have to change accordingly,” Miller said.

The Unicorn, as it stands today at 214 Main St., is as much the result of chance as design. There is a gourmet

coffee bar, open days, and a counter offering an eclectic assortment of gifts, trinkets and assorted collectibles. Five Dobro guitars--distinctive metal acoustic guitars, made right in Huntington Beach--hang on the wall, offered for sale by local musician Thomas Long.

The decor can only be described as early yard sale, with a mismatched array of chairs and tables. Customers can browse through a shelf of well-worn books, mostly on metaphysical topics. At the far end of the small room is the stage, just 6 inches off the floor.

Miller opened the first incarnation of the emporium in April of 1984--April Fool’s Day, to be exact--in the storefront next to the present site. She moved to the current location seven months later, offering the coffee bar and the gifts but no entertainment yet.

“I was just kind of floundering around,” she admitted. “I knew what I wanted to see, but I didn’t know how it was going to jump up in front of me. . . . My ideal thing was to have entertainment here.”


She met a local musician, and slowly added live music to the schedule. From two nights a week the entertainment lineup eventually was expanded to four, and, then, about two years ago Miller hooked up with Aquila, a veteran of local theater. Since “Volcano” opened in January, 1984, Aquila has produced 24 plays on the Unicorn stage, nearly all of them premieres and many by Orange County playwrights.

The current production--the last on the emporium’s present stage--is “The Man Who Played Jesus.” It’s a first-time effort by county resident Gerald A. Smith, whom Miller described as a regular customer who decided, after seeing several Unicorn productions, that “I can do that.” Aquila plays the title role, an actor who begins to identify a bit too strongly with his role as Christ in a touring production.

Miller said the production exemplifies the emporium’s philosophy of allowing artists who might not otherwise have the chance to show their work. “That’s what we’re about,” Miller said. “Michael reads everything that’s submitted to him.”

“I’ve gotten scripts from as far as San Francisco,” Aquila said. The playwrights don’t make money on the productions, but then neither does Aquila. “I don’t pay royalties,” he said. “I go into my pocket just to pay the rent.”

The Unicorn has never been a moneymaking venture, and Miller doesn’t expect it ever will be.

“It’s never done what a business is supposed to do,” she said. “It’s blatantly said to us, ‘Forget it if you ever think you’re going to come out even.’ ”

For Miller, who grew up in Hollywood, it’s more important to re-create the open and expressive atmosphere of the coffeehouses of the ‘50s and ‘60s. “We have some really outrageous stuff, but it’s fun,” she said. “Actually, everybody who walks in here has a talent.”

And the clientele, she said, is generally willing to accept whatever comes along. “Everybody in here is very supportive,” said Miller, who frequently stopped during the interview to greet her regulars with a hug. “They’re more than just customers.”


“The Man Who Played Jesus” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. through Dec. 10. Wednesday open-mike nights are from 8 to midnight, with 15-minute performances by local performers, including musicians, poets and comedians. The espresso bar and gift shop is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Days and times are subject to change. For information, call (714) 969-1794.