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Friday, Jul 1, 2022

Curtains Close IN NoHo

A year after the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on the performing arts, five live theaters in the heart of North Hollywood are closing their curtains for good.Nancy Bianconi, who runs the NoHo Arts District blog promoting tourism in the region, told the Business Journal T.U. Studios at 10943 Camarillo St., Secret Rose Theatre at 11246 Magnolia Blvd. and Acme Comedy Theatre at 5124 Lankershim Blvd. have all folded. She said the two other theater owners requested she not publicly share their closures yet.Ronnie Marmo, who operates the 99-seat Theatre 68 at 5112 Lankershim Blvd. – sometimes referred to as the “crown jewel” of the arts district – confirmed to the Business Journal his theater is on the verge of shuttering as well.

“It’s looking bleak,” he said. “My landlords have been awesome. I’ve given them some money but not nearly enough. They’ve been very patient, but they’re getting impatient and I don’t blame them.” With around 5,500 square feet of space, Marmo pays one of the highest rents of any theater in the neighborhood. He hasn’t been able to make those payments consistently or in full since the pandemic halted in-person plays and acting classes last March.If Theatre 68 goes under, he said, it’s likely his landlord would convert the building to a retail space.“They’re going to want some Urban Outfitters, you know. Especially my building … it’s huge. And Amazon Fresh opened across the street in this pandemic. My landlord for a couple years has been sending me emails about that structure going up. He’s kind of been priming me for all that.”Pandemic pivotAccording to Bianconi, prior to the pandemic North Hollywood had 22 independent theaters – the highest concentration of live theaters in any square mile of the U.S. outside of Broadway in New York.Soon after the virus hit, Marmo and his resident acting group, the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Co., transitioned their classes and training exercises to a remote model using video conferencing software from Zoom Video Communications Inc. Over the subsequent months, they wrote and presented a virtual series of 10-minute plays featuring the actors in their own homes.

“It was an 11-week run. We did really hardcore lighting design within our homes, sound design. People painted a wall in their home just so they could look like they were in the same room as another actor. We went for it,” Marmo said.  He said it didn’t feel right to charge upfront for such an irregular event, so he set up a donations portal but didn’t require payment.

“It wasn’t a lot of money. It certainly wasn’t enough to pay the rent. I paid as much as I could throughout the time and then put the money back in Theatre 68 and paid the bills.” Bianconi said operating virtually with Zoom and other video services was possible for some theaters, but can be technically challenging and doesn’t make sense for venues that don’t have an acting company attached to them.What would really help, she said, is the ability to host distanced in-person events outdoors. However, the city hasn’t allowed that to happen.

“The city has restricted the department of parks and recreation from providing event permits at this time,” Bianconi said, lamenting that other businesses are allowed to operate with masks and distancing but theaters aren’t. “I hope the city or the county will see clear to allow theaters to do things in their parking lot, something like that, or in a park. These things would not only help the theaters survive, but give people a place to go.”Without for-profit events, venue operators have no way to pay their lease or other bills. Bianconi led a crowdfunding campaign last summer to raise $108,000 – enough to buy two months of rent for the 18 NoHo theaters that don’t own their buildings – and successfully lobbied L.A. City Councilmember Paul Krekorian for another $200,000 in grants from the city. That, plus a few PPP loans, bought the theaters a little more time, but not enough to keep them solvent through a full year of shutdowns.

Bianconi said that without additional financial assistance or a meaningful change in theaters’ ability to operate, even more will go out of business.

“In the next six months, if we’re not open … probably we’ll have half our theaters gone,” she said.Cycle of lifeThe pandemic’s impact threatens to change the social and economic fabric of North Hollywood, in particular its identity as an arts district. The theaters attract visitors to the neighborhood, providing clientele for restaurants and shops. And the arts district has become a major draw for residents moving to the area.Bianconi explained there’s a common lifecycle for theater districts. It starts with venue operators and their acting companies setting up shop in run-down, industrial or lower income neighborhoods, attracted by the low cost of real estate. They foster a culture of artistry and creativity and draw other businesses and later residential development to the area.

Over the years, demand rises, pushing up rent prices until the theaters can no longer afford to renew their leases. Landlords see opportunities for greater returns from retail or hospitality tenants, and eventually the theaters disappear in search of their next hub.

“That’s an issue that’s always in the back of my mind,” Bianconi said. “I’ve worked in New York. First we had Greenwich Village. Then we had SoHo. Then we had Chelsea. Where do theaters go next when their properties get too expensive?” She worries the same fate will befall North Hollywood in the wake of the pandemic.

Broadway producer Ed Gaynes was one of the first theater operators to set up shop in NoHo. He opened a two-theater complex called the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center on Magnolia Boulevard in 1988, and now runs a total of four theaters in the arts district, including the Whitmore-Lindley Center, the Avery Schreiber Playhouse on Lankershim and the BrickHouse Theatre on Peach Grove Street.Gaynes said this cycle of gentrification and rising real estate prices nudging out theaters “could be inevitable” for NoHo.“It happened in Hollywood in the Melrose Avenue theater district in the ’80s,” he said. “The only theaters that survived in that part of town are the ones that own their buildings. All the rentals are gone.”That hasn’t happened quite yet in NoHo, but Gaynes said the pandemic is accelerating the pattern.

Marmo, who also has a presence off Broadway in New York, concurred.“Theaters are always the first ones in and the first out,” he said.He added that if Theatre 68 officially calls it quits, he would love to start anew in North Hollywood, but it will be a challenge to find affordable real estate. He said it’s more likely he’d find a shared theater space to lease one day a week for acting classes and on an as-needed basis for shows.

Gaynes predicted a possible musical chairs situation.

“What’s going to happen that I can foresee is everybody is going to have to leave their theaters because of the landlords. Then, when things finally open, there’s going to be lot of available theaters around. Everybody will rent somebody else’s.”Bianconi’s outlook for the venues is more sobering.

“How many landlords are going to be willing to go through this again?” she asked. “Some will want theaters to leave so they can bring in a restaurant or some other business that will pay higher rent.”

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