Death by Parking 

Why Paula Holt said “Enough”

Wednesday, Apr 4 2007

We loved the Tiffany Theater. We loved its spacious lobby, the comfortable seats in its two 99-seat houses and the fact that it was built on the site of the detective office featured in 77 Sunset Strip. We especially liked its 17 seasons of plays, whose L.A. premieres included Bouncers, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Oleanna and The Mystery of Irma Vep. When word surfaced a decade ago that the entire West Hollywood block it sat upon was about to be razed for a new development, a hope persisted that the Tiffany would somehow survive. After all, West Hollywood prided itself on promoting culture and supposedly had laws on its books preventing the permanent removal of arts venues.

It didn’t work out that way, though, and in 2002, the theater went the way of previous Sunset Strip tropes such as Dino’s and Gazzari’s. Paula Holt, the Tiffany’s owner and artistic director, has not run a theater since, and her reasons, though personal, are familiar to many other producers who have given up on owning the theaters they work in.

“The Creative City was a big disappointment,” recalls Holt today, dryly referring to West Hollywood’s civic moniker. “The influence of the developer became disproportionate to the line that the city fathers [tried to] hold in their pathetic way.”

click to flip through (2) Pushed off the Strip: Holt, outside the Tiffany (Photo by Joaquin Lazo)
  • Pushed off the Strip: Holt, outside the Tiffany (Photo by Joaquin Lazo)

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Holt had zero theater experience when, in 1984, she and her then-husband, media-ad mogul Dennis F. Holt, built the Tiffany where an art-house movie theater, famous for its midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, had stood. The year before, during an Olympics fund-raiser at the Huntington Library, she’d heard French Culture Minister Jack Lang declare that Los Angeles would be the capital of the 21st century.

“I wanted to be part of that,” she says. “I started collecting articles about all the theaters that were going to be built in Los Angeles. I thought, ‘Great, I’m going to be part of this boom.’ None of those theaters got built.”

Holt had no idea what the Tiffany would be exactly, initially imagining it as some large performance space to be rented out. She was even less certain about her role in it, although she soon realized her main joy came from choosing scripts and producing them herself.

“My intention,” she says of her dream floor plan, “had been to build a midsize house, but I didn’t have the ceiling to do it well.”

Instead, the Holts listened to their architect, John Sergio Fisher, who built the Los Angeles Theater Center and would later build Burbank’s Falcon Theatre and Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court. Fisher told them the Tiffany would ideally hold two 99-seat theaters. Paula Holt embraced the idea, figuring to use one space as a rental that would finance the other theater. After a rocky introduction to Actors’ Equity, the Tiffany began its long run of slickly produced plays that made the theater a popular venue with the public and critics.

Then came the Holts’ divorce. In 1987, as part of the settlement with Dennis, Paula got an ironclad lease on the Tiffany for 10 years. As soon as that lease expired in 1997, she got a call from Dennis saying that she needed to begin talking to Apollo Real Estate Advisors. The New York group allowed her to run the Tiffany on a month-to-month basis for the next five years as the planning and permitting process ground through the city bureaucracy. She agreed to promote the development before the West Hollywood City Council in exchange for Apollo’s commitment to rebuilding a theater in its new Sunset Millennium hotel-retail complex.

Plans changed over the next few years, however, and talk of including a theater in the new development became vaguer and less certain. One day, shortly after West Hollywood had presented Paula Holt with a proclamation “for her tireless service and dedication to the arts,” that talk ceased altogether.

“I had no question that the support from the city of West Hollywood would be there,” Holt says. “But suddenly I didn’t hear a word [from the city], and in the new version of plans, the theater had been eliminated. I called my ex-husband and asked, ‘What just happened?’ He said, ‘Too much money showed up.’”

Paula Holt’s predicament was a classic one faced by theater companies who suddenly find their rents tripled or receive eviction notices when a buyer unexpectedly takes control of the property. And, like these companies, Holt had to decide whether to rebuild elsewhere or call it a day. She decided not to move the Tiffany or to start over again elsewhere with a new theater.

“All the joy went out of it,” Holt says. “It was more and more difficult [maintaining] my right to hang on.”

The awful truth sank in one day during rehearsals for Oliver Mayer’s drama Joe Louis Blues. When the Holts owned the building, they controlled the parking lot, and Paula would make sure a theater production’s staff and cast were not charged. That changed when Apollo bought the property, and lot attendants began charging everyone who entered between $10 and $17.

Mayer’s play was a period boxing story whose supercharged testosterone was not confined to the stage. Every day, arguments broke out between company members and the theater’s parking-lot attendant, who denied them in-and-out privileges.

“It was the fourth day in a row,” Holt says, “that I had looked out to see the beginnings of a pushing-and-shouting match in the parking lot, which was now in the hands of a Wall Street–based investment company with a Midwestern-based developer. And I thought, ‘It’s over.’ It was death by parking.”

She remained in good company, though. “The incredible cost of real estate,” she says, “has cost the end of the Shubert, the Canon, the Tiffany — any theater that existed in prime space.”

Still, she refuses to brand her experience as a typical L.A. story.

“That would be too easy,” she says. “It’s happening in New York and Chicago — any big city with incredible growth.”

Today, Holt sits on the board of L.A.’s Cultural Affairs Commission. She has retained her love of producing (Holt has five productions on the drawing boards, from New York to Santa Fe) but has never attempted to set up another theater.

“There’s no business logic to my having built the Tiffany Theater — it came out of passion. No one in their right mind would do that. It was a case of fools rush in. I learned on the job,” she says. “The Tiffany was my M.A. and my Ph.D.”

Click here for more stories of L.A. Theater 2007

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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