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Silver Lake’s the Satellite returns to restaurant roots as coronavirus upends live music

Manager Ashanti Rogers, left, and owner Jeff Wolfram are pictured at the Satellite
Manager Ashanti Rogers, left, and owner Jeff Wolfram are shown at the Satellite, a music venue that was a hip Silver Lake mainstay for local and established indie bands before the pandemic hit.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The coronavirus outbreak is forcing the Satellite in Silver Lake to rebrand yet again.

The indie music and alt-comedy club has hosted live shows and dance parties for 25 years but will no longer do so, its owner announced Friday, citing failed attempts to reopen during the pandemic.

“We’re still figuring a lot of it out but we know we’re not doing live music anymore. That’s just not in our future,” Jeff Wolfram, 51, said by phone on Friday.

Instead of shuttering completely, however, the hip neighborhood mainstay will remove its stage to ready the space for dining. As a restaurant, owner Wolfram hopes the Satellite will be “more of a place to get good quality drinks and food.”

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The small venue shut its doors March 12 after bands started canceling shows and the city, county and state’s evolving shutdown orders halted operations for bars and nightclubs. Rock band Dirty Cakes played the venue’s last show on March 11, which happens to be Wolfram’s birthday. By the end of the night there was an audience of only about 20 people, singer Charley Tichenor told The Times, despite an earlier line out the door to get in.

The pandemic has hit live music venues hard. Wolfram said the Satellite can no longer afford to wait to be allowed to have shows again. “If we do that, we will not have the money to continue and will be forced to close forever.”

The haunt will return to original form as a restaurant. The redesign plans include reopening the Satellite’s kitchen and resuming dining operations in its parking lot and on the sidewalk for the time being. They’re also looking into hiring a food truck. But it’s slow going.

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Wolfram initially set up a GoFundMe fundraiser for employees, but when the donations stopped coming in, he shut it down.

“Right now we’re putting money back in the business to try to open up. We don’t know if it’s going to be much different, but we’re going to try to do the best we can,” Wolfram said.

He reached out to family for help, invested his own funds and has taken out a small loan to transform the space. But it isn’t the first redesign the venue has had. Not even the second, third or fourth.

Manager Ashanti Rogers, left, and owner Jeff Wolfram are pictured in the Satellite.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
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Before it was the Satellite, the establishment was the Red Chimney restaurant, which Wolfram’s family bought in 1967. Traditional German performances inside ultimately gave way to disco in the 1970s when the eatery was renamed Le Chic, a Top-40 dance club. It changed again and again, with other names that include Dreams of L.A., Pan and Spaceland in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Wolfram, a self-proclaimed ski bum who was living in Mammoth, moved back down to L.A. in 1995 and took over the business from his father. That’s when he rebranded it as the Satellite.

“This redesign is more sad than any of them,” Wolfram said. “We built a community, we had customers come in for years. You get people coming back all the time. It was more of a family. I love the live music. I loved seeing the shows. It broke my heart to have to change this again.”

He recently plucked his brother-in-law Ashanti Rogers from a restaurant and made him general manager. Together, they’re still coming up with a menu and figuring out the other details. They’re hoping to a create a space with an indoor seating capacity of 260 people — assuming indoor dining can resume again in L.A. Country after the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.

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An oral history of the coronavirus pandemic, as told by the staffs of four iconic L.A. nightclubs: the Troubadour, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Sound and the Satellite

The Satellite has hosted many nascent alt-rock ensembles over the years and counts the Foo Fighters, White Stripes, Lady Gaga, Beck and Foster the People among the acts who shaped their routines there. Its Saturday-night dance party, Dance Yourself Clean, became a signature local event.

Wolfram said people are reaching out to buy Satellite logo T-shirts, and he has been touched by the response.

“You know that a lot of people cared about the venue, but the overwhelming reach-out that we got from people is amazing,” he said.

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Wolfram recently told The Times that the venue had been doing fine until the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, was canceled in early March. But the venue, like many others, continued to struggle along. Wolfram said it was getting tough to pay utilities, and he had to start the online fundraiser to pay his employees.

“People think, ‘Oh, you own a venue, you must be rich.’ No, not at all,” Wolfram said. “Every small venue, we operate on restaurant margins. You don’t make money, but you do it because you love it.

“I’ve reached out to [Rep.] Adam Schiff and organizations for venues, and there’s been lots of enthusiasm. Live Nation and Goldenvoice will be fine, but indie venues are screwed.”

On Friday, Wolfram said he hoped fans would support the National Independent Venue Assn. and similar groups as they ask Congress to assist indie clubs “so they do not have to change format like we did or just close their doors forever.”

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“I’d love to see the other venues survive,” he said.


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