When Anthony Rivera discovered the Lyric Theatre in 2015, he felt a sense of relief. The Melrose area venue — a low-key, nonprofit arts space in a neighborhood with few options for live music — was worth the Metro ride from his home in Long Beach. Rivera liked the low ticket prices and diverse bookings, such as singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and the first local residency from hip-hop artist Anderson .Paak.
“It was beautiful because you don’t often see people who look like me at those kinds of shows,” says Rivera, 26, who is black. In 2016, he attended a city hearing to advocate for the Lyric, as its owners applied for permits to renovate into a full-time arts venue.
“They were really responsible with their clientele,” Rivera adds. “Security was very friendly and wanted everyone to be OK. I’d never seen that at a venue before.”
After seven years, however, the lights at the Lyric just went dark.
The venue closed this fall after a years-long dispute with nearby Yeshivath Torath Emeth Academy. The yeshiva (also spelled Yeshiva Toras Emes) sued the city of Los Angeles, claiming the city erred in approving the Lyric’s permits. A little-known rule required the Lyric’s owners to fund the city’s legal defense, a bill that could have run into seven figures. It doomed the venue.
The Lyric’s demise illustrates just how difficult it is for an independent arts venue to open and operate in L.A. Byzantine city policy and dedicated NIMBYs can thwart well-intentioned small spaces, even those with the good fortune of owning their own building.
“The institution was successfully destroyed and viciously bled dry,” co-owner Ryan Braun, 33, says. “Big corporate-backed entities are the only ones the city wants to do business with.”
Braun’s family bought the building, now a 275-capacity black-box theater a few blocks from popular spots like Pink’s, the New Beverly Cinema and Osteria Mozza, in 2006. Braun took over managing the venue as a nonprofit in 2012, focusing on live music and comedy and supporting organizations like Arts for Autism and the Los Angeles Drama Club.
Some neighborhoods rightly worry about the changes new arts venues could bring, but debates around gentrification don’t seem urgent here. The city’s official Indices of Neighborhood Change listed the Lyric’s surrounding area — 70% white already, according to the 2010 census — as above the income threshold to risk displacement pressure.
Although the heavily Orthodox Jewish area has become a hot destination for high-end streetwear (Drake’s flagship OVO shop and an outlet for the U.K. rap favorite Stone Island are down the street), the surrounding area still has several Jewish schools and remains a busy, diverse commercial area.
Under talent buyer Sean Gaynor, 31, the Lyric became a hub for forward-thinking R&B, indie and hip-hop. .Paak and Sumney’s early shows helped kick off their careers (.Paak recently played the Forum in Inglewood). Record labels and promoters were glad to have a space between west and east sides to throw their events.
“It wasn’t too big or too small and was always run by a team that truly loved and cared for music,” said Caroline Yim, a CAA agent who booked acts like .Paak and Kehlani at the Lyric. “It was a place where artists could creatively do what they wanted.”
Chance the Rapper held an after-party that brought national attention to the Lyric. Tyler, the Creator popped in to perform with his friends. Major black, Latin and LGBTQ acts like Troye Sivan, Corrine Bailey Rae and Kali Uchis performed regularly. Marquis Lewis, known as Retna, painted a black-and-gold mural that became a street-art fixture.
For Braun and Gaynor, both gay men, the early emphasis on diversity set the Lyric apart from larger peers.
“There was always a social impact side to everything we are doing,“ Gaynor said. “We definitely put an emphasis on queer artists. We developed a reputation for just being very open and inclusive.”
Artists noticed too. “The Lyric Theatre was a boon to budding artists, a place where I learned the basics of how to put on shows,” Sumney said in an email. “I was living off La Brea in Mid-City in a shoe box apartment at the time of its heyday, and it was nice to have a place that was cool that wasn’t on the Eastside.”
The venue threw its shows with one-off daily licenses, which allowed for live performances and alcohol sales on a night-by-night basis. In 2016, Braun began applying for permits for permanent alcohol sales and structural renovations. At the first city hearing to consider the change of permit, 80 fans came out to speak in support of the venue.
Quincy Jones, who produced a youth jazz series at the Lyric, made a short video lauding the venue from in front of his “Thriller” plaques: “It gives me such joy to know that ... a younger generation is getting into its roots” at the venue, he said in the clip.
Some neighbors were happy to have them. “They were never a problem,” said Jamal Jeanpierre, a 26-year old musician who works at the Chocolate Girl, a confectionary shop next-door to the Lyric. He had hoped to perform at the Lyric one day. “They had a lot of big names play there,” he said.
The Lyric’s permit plans earned commendations from the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, and in its application, an officer from the LAPD’s vice unit said, “We are impressed with the detailed security plan proposed and we look forward to seeing it completed/practiced.” Representatives for the Los Angeles High School of the Arts and the youth Shakespeare troupe Los Angeles Drama Club wrote passionate letters of support. The L.A. City Council gave them a letter citing them as a “Public Convenience or Necessity,” and even their city councilman, Paul Koretz, often a nightlife skeptic, supported the declaration.
After a two-week appeal period, the theater was approved for permits, and Braun secured loans of more than $700,000 to get the building up to code — with new construction for ADA compliance, fire suppression and sound abatement. Half a year passed without incident as they began work on the venue.
A clerical error, then complaints
Then came the first complaint.
A neighbor living within 1,500 feet of the venue claimed not to have received notice of the Lyric’s applications. There had been a clerical error with the city’s notifications; the case was re-opened and a new appeal hearing set for four months later.
At the second hearing, a new wave of neighbors came out in force to lambaste the Lyric for its plans to operate as a full-time music venue near the yeshiva, which is in the same block, a couple of buildings away.
“They said, ‘They’re going to bring crime and drugs to the neighborhood, that we were ‘culturally unfit for their neighborhood,’” Gaynor said. “It felt so unfounded. Like, ‘Even if you’re good owners, we don’t care.’”
Braun said he offered to close the Lyric every Friday night and on Orthodox holidays and to fund additional security guards outside the venue beyond what was required. Nothing seemed to quell the objectors, and both he and Braun said they felt undercurrents of homophobia.
“I felt extremely threatened. I feared for my safety, the safety of my staff and the safety of the children in our classes,” Braun said. “I felt and continue to feel discriminated against.”
The city upheld the Lyric’s permit applications nonetheless. But a little-known, recent city rule required venue operators to post funds to finance the city’s defense if a neighbor sues over a permit approval. Soon after the Lyric won the appeal hearing, the yeshiva hired the white-shoe law firm Latham & Watkins to sue the city, claiming it should not have approved the Lyric.
The Latham & Watkins lawyers who filed the suit for the yeshiva did not respond to repeated phone and email messages requesting comment. Both Director Rabbi Jacob Krause and a rabbi who oversees the communications office for the yeshiva did not return several phone and email messages requesting comment.
Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in L.A., said that L.A.'s Orthodox communities are, like many insular religious communities in America, wary of outside influence entering their sphere, even in a tightly packed city.
“On La Brea, there are large number of Orthodox institutions, so maybe this is part of a broader concern, where ‘If this comes in, what else will affect the neighborhood?’,” Windmueller said. “Certain religious institutions seek to isolate and separate themselves to fully practice their traditions and lifestyle and values. It’s part of a larger question about the cultural wars in the U.S. Does a religious institution have a right to determine how the community operates and who they engage with?
“A symbolic change in the character of a community, even if handled with great caution and sensitivity and accommodation, can be met with pushback,” Windmueller added.
In its suit, filed Sept. 27 last year, the yeshiva claimed that “the approval of this Project involves the city’s complete dereliction of its legal duties” and that “the operation of that property as a concert venue with alcohol service ... would result in significant environmental impacts.”
Braun was required to post bond — which could have tallied as much as $1 million — to pay for the city’s defense. After paying for renovations and operating costs while closed, that sum proved insurmountable.
Renovated, for sale
Such suits and NIMBY-motivated appeals are a regular occurrence, said Dana Sayles, a partner at EKA/three6ixty, who runs land use for the development services firm. Sayles didn’t work on the Lyric but has handled permitting for similar projects throughout Los Angeles.
“The city’s appeals processes favor the neighbors. It’s very easy to challenge and very easy to find something to challenge,” Sayles said. Clients are often shocked that they have to fund the city’s defense from lawsuits. “It’s unfortunate. The playing field is not level and does not favor small guys.”
The Lyric is now closed permanently and up for sale as the Braun family tries to unwind from the venue after investing $1.5 million in it. They believe the city’s indemnification rules pose a daunting burden on small arts venues with an angry neighbor willing to finance a lawsuit. In a time when beloved small clubs like the Echo have sold to mega-promoters such as Live Nation and DIY arts spaces face intense scrutiny, such regulations could be a fatal final hurdle.
“What does it do to the cultural landscape of the city,” Gaynor asked, “if the only people that can open these kinds of entertainment and cultural institutions are big businesses or people with millions of dollars backing them?”
“I feel robbed, cheated and have no faith in the city and its process,” Braun said. ”We did everything they asked, jumped through every hoop. I have lost my identity, my business, my source of income. This process decimated my family.”
Sayles agreed that the city needs a reckoning around permitting if independent art spaces are to survive. “Someone has to allow good, creative uses in our society to continue to exist,” she said.
In the meantime, no one knows what will happen to the building. It’s fully renovated as an arts venue, but the history of opposition from the yeshiva will likely scare off potential operators.
Braun has since been working as a choreographer and backup dancer with the pop singer Marina, and Gaynor promotes concerts at other venues like SoHo House and the Moroccan Lounge with his firm Mixed Feelings. Both remain devastated — fiscally, creatively — by the experience. And the Lyric’s supporters now wonder if it’s possible to protect beloved venues.
“It’s rare to find a place in L.A. where the music matters more than appearances,” said Sumney, who had long since moved on to bigger stages. “My favorite shows I played there were sets of improvised music where we closed the bar and had everyone sit on the floor and just listen. It’ll be missed.”