The Comeback of a Cabaret : The pioneering owners of a defunct performance art Mecca rekindle the flame at Cafe Largo in the Fairfax District

It may not have been the Copacabana or Rick's in "Casablanca," but the Lhasa Club was the closest thing '80s Los Angeles had to a prewar German night club-cum-cabaret. It was a holdout, a place where straight and gay poets, punks and performance artists mingled during the early Reagan days that some artists would call "Mourning in America."

In retrospect, Lhasa's founders and impresarios, Jean-Pierre Boccara and Anna Mariani, created the physical and mental space in which once distinct and competing art forms--like solo performance art, cabaret high jinks and shows pushing multicultural expression--could co-exist.

Yet Boccara and Mariani say they "had no idea what they were doing" in those early '80s years. They were Europeans with little at their disposal but a funny hankering after an American Dream of an artsy Utopia that they, as jaded Continentals, had once pooh-poohed.

At its height, Lhasa contributed to Los Angeles' national prominence in the field of performance art. Yet, "we never made enough to do more than pay rent and offer the artists a little here, a little there," Boccara reminisces. Because Lhasa was in a residential area, Boccara and Mariani were never able in the eight-year life of the club to secure a liquor license. Due to additional problems with its Hollywood environs (the club was at Santa Monica Boulevard and Hudson Avenue) and most significantly, sky-rocketing rents, Boccara and Mariani shut down their hay-wire operations two years ago on New Year's Eve, 1988.

Experimental artists and local cognoscenti, who were dependent on the club for intellectual stimulation, were outraged not only because Lhasa had closed, but so had other experimental venues.

But the spirit of Lhasa lives on, albeit in a less rough-hewn incarnation. In May, Boccara and Mariani made a comeback of sorts when they opened their new digs, called Cafe Largo, smack-dab in the Fairfax district, across the street from Cantor's. Sure, this cushy cabaret is a far cry from the marginality of Lhasa. Yet many of the barbarian bands, lounge lizards, stand-up story tellers and political monologists who were nursed at Lhasa now give birth to acts that a more upscale clientele can savor.

Provocative collage art covers the walls of the restaurant. And toward the front is a small stage over which hang lights and enough microphone cable to project the likes of Sandra Bernhard's grainy ballads, Philip Littell's satirical song-cycles and Ludar's sensual Chilean stylizations--all to the part-terminally-trendy and part-starving-artist contingent that shows up nightly for sweet profiteroles and satirical pizazz.

There's a temptation to criticize Largo when comparing it to Lhasa. With average dinners around $20, no place to flirt secretly, and a stage hardly bigger than a soap box, some artists have worried that the European impresarios have, "gone '90s." Unlike Lhasa, Largo serves beer and wine; a hard liquor license seems in the cards, Mariani explains.

"We are aware of the problems," says Boccara. "The idea of an upstart working out some material like they did at Lhasa, we can't have. It's a shame. The audiences who come here are a bit more upscale, demanding--some had never even set foot in Lhasa--and we need to have acts we can count on."

"I miss the way performance artists would try things out, though!" cries Mariani, with Boccara darting her nervous "shut up" glances.

The two are long-time business partners. Boccara has the reputation of being the hard-boiled ambitious one; Mariani is known to revere the artists to distraction, allowing creative stink bombs and potential art coups alike the latitude of exploration.

Both still "believe in L.A." and its audience. "We could never transplant Largo to Paris," Boccara says. "The diversity of multicultural art doesn't exist (there) and the audience isn't as daring and exploratory as it is in L.A."

While Lhasa enjoyed the reputation of being a serious performance art venue--with artists who repudiated theatrical artifice or campy carnivale style--Largo comes closer to the owners' true tastes. They still book serious acts, but they also love crazier performers such as Babooshka, the nutty chanteuse; Maureen Mahon, a chic torch singer; El Vez, the Mexican Elvis; the Hollywood Wow Cats, four guys singing a cappella songs; Lypsinca, who lip-syncs in drag to a variety of '30s and '40s tunes; and Black Watch's heavy metal routine--all of which have played at Cafe Largo.

One of Largo's more jam-packed and successful extravaganzas came in the form of a Lhasa child: Weba Garretson, the lead singer of Weba and her Wailing Turbans. Draped in Moorish veils, Garretson sang about her "big butt" and her "new bra" along with the accompaniment of Keith Joe Dick and John Garretson in turbans and muscles.

In a doughnut skirt that disfigured the trim singer, Garretson bounced her "spreading butt" and shook her cleavage throughout a blushing audience packed with the likes of writer Terry Wolverton, Santa Monica Museum director Thomas Rhoads, performance artist May Sun, not to mention Columbia exec Barry Sabath.

Many artists saw Garretson's show as a mix of what was best in both Lhasa and what is possible in Largo: social commentary on the abjection of women in a vaudevillian framework that fed on the same titillation it challenged.

But on Tuesday nights, any of Boccara or Mariani's Continental trappings hibernate for the sake of an unlikely marriage between poetry and Hollywood, called "Poetry in Motion." It's a weekly series of poetry readings, in which luminaries such as Wanda Coleman have roared angry urban verse. Mostly, though, the recitations come from Tinsel Town honchos with an itch to write lyric poetry after a tough day on the set.

Run by Michael Lally, an actor/poet who has appeared on "L.A. Law" and "Cagney and Lacey," the series has attracted the likes of such aspiring poets as actors Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Hutton and rock singer Billy Idol. When Largo is handed over to Lally, the club is so transformed by Industry buzz ("Look who Richard Dreyfuss showed up with!") that Boccara and Mariani dart empathetic glances at artists who by chance wander in.

It's true that the celeb poetry has put Largo on the media map. There have been write-ups in People and Newsweek. But has Largo sold out?

Absolutely not, say most artists, even as they complain of French waiters affecting rudeness. "Sure, Largo isn't as raw as Lhasa," comments critic/writer Jacki Apple. "Yet, it's miraculous that in this day and age, Anna and Jean-Pierre have been able to continue their vision at all. . . providing a show case for artists who are bridging the gap between art and entertainment and should even be having some level of commercial success, such as Philip Littell."

Few are more emblematic of the Lhasa/Largo experience than singer/actor Philip Littell. He has worked at the Los Angeles Theater Center and Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, but has, at the same time, established himself as an innovative and popular performance artist crossing over into mainstream acceptance without jeopardizing his poetic imagination or charisma.

He writes his own song lyrics--canny metaphorical musings on sex, love, narcissism and the Lost Generation. His partner, Eric Cunningham, writes the music, a fusion of John Coltrane and the Talking Heads. Littell is lanky and mischievous and as energetic as a lit firecracker.

One night when Littell ran through the Largo audience, and as his band, What Is Said, accompanied him, he conjured up the traditions of Lhasa. He boldly sat on laps and danced on tables. He shook his limbs. He tantalized some with his own lyrics, but then steered his audience into a sublime detour with his song about someone dying from complications of AIDS, "Up in Smoke":

At the end he asked for cigarettes and whiskey / He couldn't see / He couldn't hear / But he could kiss / And his friend would light one up / And place it in his hand like this / Down to the end of the cigarette / He'd take it in and hold it in his chest / Smoke spirals up to the ceiling / Put out the cigarette / And let him rest.

Littell began his long tenure at Lhasa with the 1982 hit, "The Weba Show." Directed by David Schweizer, it starred Weba Garretson, Littell, and Jerry Frankel who died two years ago. It both examined and parodied pop culture with Garretson, in pink leather, belting out "There's Got to Be a Morning After" and then "Moon River" to Frankel's arrangements.

In the background, Littell would run in place or climb on the piano in dancerly feats of narrative mime. He could be seen staging a show where two Barbie dolls engage in unspeakable sexual acts as Garretson would hike up her dress and shimmy her hips before sending the crowd into a mass roar with her infamous "Goldfinger."

According to Schweizer, "We had no idea what kind of energy was possible here. I was a relative newcomer from New York when we put this show together." Schweizer made mock videos of crowds roaring and reporters flashing cameras to show before Garretson's entrance on stage. Eventually, the Weba Show became so popular that real crowds roared and real TV reporters came. This was when the Lhasa Club earned its stripes. Schweizer says he was so inspired by the "bridges being built to different worlds by Lhasa" that he stayed in Los Angeles and formed his Modern Artists, the producing entity responsible for some of avant-garde L.A.'s award-winning stage productions such as "Plato's Symposium."

Littell says that his own work might be compared to the way Boccara and Mariani approach theirs, "because it's based on the insane faith that the L.A. audience has a clear sense of itself, which is why Lhasa-Largo thrives. . . . No one at Largo wishes they were at a Lakers Game."

How did the Lhasa/Largo spirit begin?

Boccara, 35, who was born in Algiers, knocked around in Los Angeles 10 years ago--hustling around for a break in "cinema" as a director. Mariani, 35, was a political radical from Italy with theatrical training. (Even though they are obsessed with the same work and spend a lot of time together, Mariani and Boccara are not romantically involved).

In the early '80s L.A. culture seemed for them less predictable than they had expected ("it's not just Hollywood on one end and (Charles) Bukowski's Skid Row on the other," says Mariani). So much art seemed possible, but, except for the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, so little was being cultivated and workshopped. Could they be the catalysts?

In the fall of 1981, only weeks before they were to return to Europe, they "counted pennies" and rented a $1,400-a-month two-room "hall" that would be known as Lhasa.

Lhasa caught on. Littell says, "Jean-Pierre and Anna shaped and sustained the arts community. That's no small thing in the geographic, stay-at-home, madhouse sprawl that is Los Angeles."

Jackson Hughes, the celebrated writer/performer of "Our Man in Nirvana," who died last month, developed material at Lhasa. "As an actor," he said shortly before his death, "I wouldn't have had the initiative to write and stage my own material had it not been for the . . . Lhasa craziness."

The demise of Lhasa sent shock waves through the L.A. art world. Performance artist Susan Mogul, whose comic analyses on her Jewish mother had found an audience at Lhasa, remembers panicking. "We had counted on Lhasa to take risks. We had zilch other alternatives."

Recalls Apple, who was instrumental in the founding of New York's Franklin Furnace in 1976 and was its curator until 1980, "it was a terrible feeling of loss--it felt like the real estate interests of this city were about to swallow up culture like in New York."

The art community was upset because "Lhasa's demise, and the dissolving of several other spaces, was ignored by art administrators," recalls performance artist Allan Pulner. Scott Kelman's experimental Wallenboyd Theater was defunct around the same time that Lhasa closed its doors. The House, Santa Monica's modern dance showcase, had closed.

Recalls Claire Peeps, program director of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival: "There was a sense that artists were being besieged on all sides. With Lhasa, we lost a pivotal center, one that combined art presentation and a social atmosphere which was rare in L.A. This forced artists into being more outspoken and politicized, and the situation began improving."

Peeps refers to the lobbying efforts on the part of artists that succeeded in establishing a $20-million dollar arts endowment last year. And the recent appointment of Al Nodal to the office of general manager of cultural affairs, ensured artists that a powerful advocate for the experimental and multicultural arts was now in charge. Also, new spaces have opened in Los Angeles and Santa Monica to fill the gap of Lhasa. It's clear to the likes of Peeps and Apple that the closing of Lhasa helped to precipitate the changes.

'Baah," Boccara sighs, in his inimical French manner, when relieving darker days. It's mid-afternoon, a few hours before show time, and Boccara boasts the optimism of a Pangloss. "We had every intention of making an American-styled 'comeback.' " Adds Mariani, sitting next to him: "This community of artists was too on the verge of its renaissance to get dismantled so easily."

When Lhasa closed, the two ran a huge room for heavy metal bands in Hollywood, called Lhasa Land. An interim venue, a departure from Lhasa, it was unsuccessful. After a year and a half, they met the renter of what would one day be called Largo: He was bankrupt and offered to hand over his lease to Boccara, Mariani and financier Emmanuel Alexandre for only $2,800 a month.

Now Largo seems to be thriving financially and critically--even though Boccara says it's a constant struggle to draw audiences.

"Meanwhile, we haven't abandoned the spirit of Lhasa," says Mariani, looking at her watch. The two could talk about art for hours, but it's gotten late and there's so much to do--clean off the tables, vacuum, do a sound-check for the heavy metal band Black Watch--or story teller Barry Yourgrau or Weba Garretson's new show, "Weba and the Wailing Turbans."

There's a small staff (it seems just Mariani, Boccara, a chef, a tech person and a few waiters) and Boccara is getting that pursed-lip look that means he has no more time to talk.

But Mariani calms him down. "We were able to establish a nonprofit arts organization called the Lhasa Foundation. We hope to fund art projects with it. And one day, before too long, we want to have a gala club, where you can eat in one room, watch performance art in another, listen to music in another."

"Yes, yes. It's our dream to have a large nightclub, not too far down the road," Boccara says. By now a dozen punk bass players have stormed into the restaurant. "C'mon Anna," Boccara calls out, "we have our hands filled."

They do indeed. Later that night the place was packed to the rafters--with Lypsinca wailing frenetically and then Littell singing sensually. Mariani and Boccara were so captivated by both the performances and with tending to their managerial duties, they refused to pose for a newspaper photographer.

"It's the performers who are important," Boccara mumbled. "Excuse me. I have to make sure the next act is ready. My performance artists need me."

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