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Old Bones, Still Rockin' 

Avalon's secret is perpetual reinvention

Thursday, Mar 18 2010
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If you were forced to guess, what do you suppose the average life expectancy of a nightclub is? Two years? Ten years? How about a club that lasts 30 years?

That's how long nightclub entrepreneur John Lyons and his brother Patrick ran a nightclub in Boston alternately known as Boston-Boston, Metro, Citi and Spit — before settling on the name Avalon.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because on Vine Street, just north of the newly appointed W Hotel complex, you'll find one of L.A.'s oldest nightlife venues, a former vaudevillian theater with the same name as its sister spot back East. Although the building, originally christened The Hollywood Playhouse when it opened in 1923, has only been an Avalon for eight years, it is already proving to be one of the most durable club brands in a city where hot spots come and go faster than you can say, "I'm on the guest list."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Avalon

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"The thing that attracted me to this building were its bones," explains Lyons, who is seated in the backroom office of the club, while the rumble of bass vibrates the pipes against the wall.

An enormous man who offers up a giant hand to shake when introduced, he seems better suited physically to be a bouncer than a club owner. "It had good infrastructure for doing the kinds of performances I like, but it had fallen into disrepair."

Anyone who has ever attended a party at the Palace, Avalon's former name, understands the disrepair Lyons is referring to. At the time, pretty much all of Hollywood Boulevard was in a similar state. First Lyons cleaned up the joint. Then he began fixing the sound.

"All of the room's acoustics were meant for voices to project from the stage without amplification," he recalls. "No one had ever really addressed that for modern use. People over the years had tried many things to mitigate that problem, and it always involved putting in more speakers and turning it up louder, which in fact exacerbated [the poor sound]."

If you've been to Avalon recently, you know that sound is no longer a concern. The venue now has what might be the city's best sound system. Lyons developed the speakers, also named Avalon, in partnership with manufacturer EAW, to create a system specially made for dance clubs. Since then, Lyons has built one of the premier sound installation companies in the country — John Lyons Systems. He often hangs speakers in his competition's venues. He recently ended a two-year stint spent mostly in Las Vegas, installing sound and lights for the clubs in the new City Center complex.

Lyons is a "tinkerer" at heart, a penchant that has served him well during his storied club-operating career. Beyond its sound, Avalon also stands apart in its lighting design, run by former U.K. World Light Jockey champion Richard Worboys. For Avalon attendees, many of whom have been coming week after week for years, the constantly evolving visual spectacle keeps things fresh. Lyons is so enthralled with the technology in his venue that he stops midway through the packed throng of sweaty dancing boys at the weekly gay night, Tiger Heat, just to point out the new multicolored spotlights onstage.

Avalon is indeed a multipurpose venue, hosting everything from occasional Live Nation concerts to frequent private VIP bashes. But Avalon is best known for its Saturday-night party, Avaland, one of America's biggest temples for big-name DJ worship. It's fitting that Lyons presides over the weekly super-DJ ritual. His former club, Axis in Boston (located next door to the original Avalon) hosted U.K. superstars Sasha and Digweed on their first American adventures. It might not be Lyons himself calling up the world's biggest DJs to come play his venue, but his connections certainly don't hurt in securing the talent.

"I appreciate that [John] always wants to step things up at Avalon and keep the club ahead of the curve," says promoter Damian Murphy, founder of long-running dance-promotion company Liquified, who does actually book the talent.

Recently, Avalon brought in a former competitor as co-promoter, Dave Dean from Giant. It's clear that the competition hasn't affected the two's current working relationship.

"Having known John for the better part of a decade, I still find I learn something from him in every situation," Dean relays in an e-mail. "There's not another large club owner in L.A. who is as tuned in on the current market."

The ever-evolving promotions team also includes White Lite Productions, which hosts the Friday-night Control party, which takes a younger slant on the megaclub phenomenon, booking everything from hipster electro (Steve Aoki) to dubstep (Rusko), disco (Hercules and Love Affair) and party rap (Amanda Blank, Kid Sister). The newfound success on Friday nights is notable for those who often wondered why a club as renowned as Avalon sat dark on many weekend nights.

"It's more profitable to have a handful of really large events, and then go dark," Lyons says, explaining that the club had just enough special events booked Fridays to make running a regular club night impractical. So why the change of heart?

"I used to always say, If you want to fill a club, you could always have 25-cent beers and a wet T-shirt contest, but I don't really want to be in a room that's doing that," he offers as explanation before bringing up his early time at Avalon Boston, when it was called Spit and hosted the nascent punk- and new-wave scenes. Thirty years later, Lyons still enjoys promoting new music. "I like having the breeding ground for new talent. We made a commitment to it and said we're just going to block out the calendar and go for it."

The more time you spend with John Lyons, the more you want to hear his stories. This is the guy who bought his first club from Studio 54 impresarios Steve Rubel and Ian Schrager after their arrest for tax evasion. Lyons recalls a time when dance clubs had a live drummer to play along with the records to make up for the lack of low end in pre-sub-woofer loudspeakers. He's a guy who opened the first House of Blues in Boston with pal Dan Akroyd (an investor in Avalon).

These days, you might catch the friends together at Bardot, the lounge on the top floor of Avalon, where Lyons' favorite event takes place every Thursday: A weekly open-mic gig that invites everyone from American Idol's Ryan Starr and Australian electro-pop star Sam Sparro to perform a sort-of live karaoke. Lyons is particularly enthusiastic about a still-unknown singer named LP, who regularly performs.

Even in his 60s, Lyons still closes out his club, staying until the last drawer is counted and the last security guard hands in his walkie-talkie. With such longevity, it's little wonder his clubs survive in a world where the competition comes and goes.

"I never understood paying too much attention to what the competition is doing," he says. "I'd rather take that time and energy and put it into improving my own business."

Reach the writer at jglazer@urb.com

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