The Steve Allen Theater in Los Feliz, known in recent years as the Trepany House, will be torn down to make way for condominiums in early November, according to the theater’s founding artistic director, Amit Itelman.
The landmark 99-seat theater was long known as the Center for Inquiry, home to a nonprofit group founded by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to promote secular humanism and scientific-based thought. The venue’s executive director, James Underdown, named the theater after television personality Steve Allen — a proponent of scientific skepticism — in 2003 and Itelman came on board soon after, booking an array of eclectic and immersive entertainment.
Music, comedy and theater at the space have always been out of the box, with themes and presentations that stayed true to the venue’s and CFI’s original forward-thinking vision. From multiple L.A. Weekly Theater Award winner Re-Animator: The Musical to workshops with Marc Maron to hip magic with Rob Zabrecky to Catopia (a fest for the feline-obsessed featuring music, art and pet adoption), Trepany has been a hub for subversive ideas and performance. But first and foremost, it's always been about fun.
“There are so many moments that felt like highlights here, “ says Itelman of the past 14 years. “We had Rudy Ray Moore perform his last stand-up set here before he died, and I grew up on Re-Animator, so working with Jeff Combs and Stuart Gordon on the musical version was a treat. The Idiots was one of our first shows, a comedy about famed scientists Watson and Crick, starring Craig Anton and Ron Lynch. That led to Tomorrow!, our weekly midnight show, which has been a bedrock of weirdness in L.A. Kate Micucci got her start at the theater, Metalocalypse started as a sketch, and Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show developed material here. Eddie Izzard developed his biggest show, Force Majeure, here too. And I directed Max Maven's Thinking in Person, which has gone on to tour the world.”
About five years ago, Itelman’s Trepany House took on an even more prominent role, adding sound-driven experimental performance to the mix, and working often with the musical mind of Kristian Hoffman. Best known for his seminal punk band The Mumps, which he started with Patti Smith Group co-founder Jay Dee Daugherty and Lance Loud of the groundbreaking original reality show An American Family on PBS, Hoffman’s pedigree also includes stints with The Swinging Madisons, Ann Magnuson's Bleecker Street Incident, The Contortions, James White and the Blacks and, perhaps most notably, Klaus Nomi, for whom he wrote pop hits, including “Total Eclipse.” Hoffman also was Rufus Wainwright's first musical director, was in Mink Stole's band and has toured Europe with Joey Arias, Dave Davies and Prince Poppycock. His 2002 album “&” features duets with Russell Mael, Van Dyke Parks, Lydia Lunch and others.
Hoffman first became aware of the theater when he attended a Nomi tribute there. “I thought, 'This will be really embarrassing, and I'll feel really old and alone, and no one will know who I am,'” he recalls. “What happened was that the amazing opera singer Timur Bekbosunov was performing there, and his musical professor dragged him over to me. We have been working together ever since. And he recorded five of my songs for his first album.”
Hoffman quickly became friends with Itelman, and they collaborated on memorable shows there including Prince Poppycock’s The Beastly Bombing and a postmortem Bowie tribute (“You haven't lived until you've seen Cherry Vanilla's version of 'Heroes' with Blondie's Clem Burke on drums,” Hoffman asserts), a holiday party with comedic actor Dave Foley and CBGBs West, an ode to his East Coast punk roots.
He also was behind the book release party for Lance Out Loud, American Family matriarch Pat Loud's coffee-table volume celebrating her famous son. Pat Loud, who is a mother figure to Hoffman, inspired his last production at Trepany too, a tribute to German composer Kurt Weill taking place on Friday, Sept. 22.
“Pat has been amazingly supportive of everything I do, and comes to every show. She has been begging me for about eight years to do a Kurt Weill tribute,” Hoffman says. “I have scant experience with the Kurt Weill canon. Mainly I know the Judy Collins version of 'Pirate Jenny' and Bobby Darin's 'Mack the Knife,' but finally, as the demolition date neared for this venue and her 91st birthday approaches, I thought, what better time than now to answer Pat's request?
“There is a lot of community support for the theater, and every show I've ever done there has sold out, which is bizarre at my advanced age,” Hoffman jokes. “Amit has been amazingly supportive of the community and made a spiritual home for all sorts of people who just have a crazy idea and want to run with it. A perfect host and, thankfully for all of the supremely gifted nuts and weirdos I always bring in, a very patient man.”
Though Trepany will be operational for another month and a half, Itelman says the Weill extravaganza is a significant event for the venue. “It’s representative of the sorts of shows we have been doing in the past 14 years for a number of reasons,” he explains. “First of all, the cast — Kristian, Ann Magnuson, Prince Poppycock and more — are regulars here who have developed their acts and given years of entertainment to the patrons here. Of course Kurt Weill’s body of work is an inspiration to anyone in the performing arts. He had that rare balance of artistic integrity, singularity and commercial appeal. He was able to create darkness that was joyous to experience. Trepany House is a proper home for the 'Threepenny' life.”
Hoffman agrees. “This was a chance for me and my band to explore the passion of all the great artists we have worked with over the years at the Steve Allen, as well as this great composer's music,” says the keyboardist, who delves into similarly eclectic territory as musical director of Brookledge Follies and as a founding DJ at internet radio station Luxuriamusic.com, where he hosts the weekly program Pepperland Spicerack. (Yours truly broadcasts a show there as well.) “This has been a real voyage of discovery for me.”
For his part, Itelman says Trepany is likely to continue in some form somewhere else, “although I am unclear where or when that somewhere will be,” he adds. “If anyone wants to help us, go to trepanyhouse.org and contact me. We will be staging Bride of Blood, a psychedelic bibliodrama, somewhere in 2018.”
“It's a horrific shock and a wake-up call to the communities that these art spaces made interesting and attractive in the first place. Steve Allen is a lovely, comfortable space with a private parking lot, in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood,” laments Hoffman, who like many who perform there also admires the building's quirky history. “Framed on the walls are original Houdini signed letters and articles where he disproves psychics' claims about their seances. It's a very healthy and questioning atmosphere, where everything is allowed. In the America of 'the 45,' that is a treasure. Amit has sworn to find a new venue, and he will. But this is a cultural, spiritual and community loss of great measure.”
Pat Loud's Stars to Get Lost In, a Kurt Weill Tribute will feature Kristian Hoffman, Justin Tanner, Ann Magnuson, John Quale (aka Prince Poppycock), John Fleck (NEA Four), Abby Travis (Go-Go's, Bangles), Crissy Guererro, Pinky Turzo, Timur Bekbosunov, Ursula Gueringer, Adele Bertei, Todd Lowe, Taquila Mockingbird, Steve Moramarco (Abe Lincoln Story), William Bongiovanni (El Vez band), Pierre Smith, Slim Evans, Kim Serene, Danny McGough, Paul Laques and more, Fri., Sept. 22, 8-11 p.m. at Trepany House, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; $20. facebook.com/events/117438952257270 or trepanyhouse.org.