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Linda’s Doll Hut Built Rock-Solid Legacy in O.C.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aspiring musicians found a home-away-from-home at Linda’s Doll Hut and a nurturing big sister figure in owner Linda Jemison, who announced this week that by summer’s end, she will close the Anaheim club, long regarded as the epicenter of Orange County’s grass-roots music scene.

“No music scene can survive without a club that is there to support the bands,” said singer-songwriter Bryan “Dexter” Holland of the Offspring, which returned to the Doll Hut more than once after the group’s 1994 album “Smash” propelled it into pop music’s platinum stratosphere. “That’s what the Doll Hut did for Orange County.”

Many in the music community credit Jemison for establishing a new business model in Orange County for rock clubs after she bought the Doll Hut in 1989 for $32,500. In that model, respect for musicians and patrons ranked ahead of profits, which Jemison said have dwindled with attendance in the last three years, in large part because of construction on the nearby Santa Ana Freeway related to Disneyland’s expansion.

“When I went into this,” Jemison said, nibbling on a muffin and nursing a cup of coffee, “my intention was to help change the reputation of promoters, because I had enough bad experiences when I was playing in bands. I think maybe I did that. Now there are promoters like Mike [Concepcion] at the Gypsy Lounge and Craig McGahey at Club Mesa, and they’re doing a great job and getting a lot of loyalty from the bands, which can make or break a club.”

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For a time, Jemison, a former musician who became a bar owner chiefly to provide other musicians with an alternative to clubs that often exploited bands, considered bringing in a partner to keep the Doll Hut afloat.

She even thought of selling the Hut, a cramped, windowless 100-year-old bar with a ceiling so low there wasn’t room for a stage. Bands set up in an open corner and the club’s front and back doors would be propped open, especially on sweltering summer nights, providing only fleeting wafts of fresh air amid the ever-present aroma from decades of spilled beer, sweat and tears.

“When I started looking into what it would take to revamp the place, it hit me: I think I’m done with this,” said Jemison, her red gingham blouse, wide eyes and still-wet tousled dark brown hair giving her the look of a rock ‘n’ roll Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. “It’s a shame, but I realized when you’ve been doing something like this by yourself for as many years as I have, if you bring someone else in, you’d just end up telling them what to do.

“Plus,” she said, “I wasn’t convinced the people I’d talked to would make the commitment you’d have to make to do this. Continuity is important to me, and if it couldn’t be done like I did it before, I’d rather just bow out gracefully.”

She developed admirers among would-be rival promoters and club owners, from House of Blues talent buyer John Pantle and Chain Reaction owner Tim Hill to Coach House and Galaxy Concert Theatre owner Gary Folgner.

She will continue to promote special events occasionally, including the annual Hootenanny roots-rock festival (July 7 in Irvine this year), and do some fund-raising on behalf of musicians. (Jemison worked for the AIDS Services Foundation Orange County and the American Lung Assn. before she bought the Doll Hut.)

She’ll devote most of her time, however, to band management and has started working with two clients, pop-alternative band Wonderlove and singer-songwriter Jay Buchanan, both regulars at the Doll Hut.

“That’s really my calling,” Jemison said. “It’s what I’ve been doing all along anyway--nurturing bands. . . . We had a couple of really bad shows [that lost money] last fall, and that’s when I started thinking, maybe it’s time” to move on.

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“I hope people won’t hate Wonderlove, because that’s not the reason I’ve made this decision,” she said. “I’m very excited--I feel the same way I felt when I quit my job to start work at the Doll Hut.”

Jemison is planning several farewell shows over the next three months--"We couldn’t do just one,” she said with a wide smile.

“There’ve been so many clubs that closed suddenly,” she said, “I didn’t want to do that to people.

Even though Jemison is bowing out, neither she nor the Doll Hut will be quickly forgotten.

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“When we were getting started,” Holland said, “we had one club in Berkeley where we could play regularly, and the Doll Hut. That was pretty much it. . . . [Jemison] fostered what was happening in Orange County and gave the scene something that was sorely needed. . . . I’m sad to hear that she’s going. . . . She deserves a lot of credit. I know it helped us.”

Jim Guerinot, veteran concert promoter who now manages the Offspring, No Doubt, Social Distortion and others, as well as running his Laguna Beach-based record label, Time Bomb Recordings, said, “If you’re an entrepreneur starting a club in Orange County, you’d have to ask, ‘How does she do it?’

“The Doll Hut doesn’t have the most state-of-the-art sound system,” he said. “It’s not the same as playing the big stage of the Universal Amphitheatre. So why do bands, after they’ve sold tens of millions of records, still want to go there?”

Answering his own question, Guerinot added: “It’s because of her way of doing business. I think good business people copy good business practices to succeed, and I think her influence will be felt for many, many years.”

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