In the long history of nightclub openings, Spaceland's introduction to Los Angeles in 1995 stands out as particularly troubled. In the pouring rain, Mitchell Frank — then a 33-year-old musician, DJ and promoter — moved his sound system into the venue, where he acted as booker, doorman and soundman.
“That first day was so chaotic,” Frank says 15 years later, sitting in the comfort of the downtown offices of his Spaceland Productions and remembering the wet March evening when the Silver Lake institution first opened its doors.
On that first night, L.A. music writer (and L.A. Weekly contributor) Jeff Miller was just 16, and he almost didn't get in because he was underage. “There was that biblical, torrential rainfall, and we were sitting at some restaurant across the street just waiting to get in. Rob Zabrecky [the singer of Possum Dixon] had called me earlier and left a message saying, 'Come see the show tonight, we're opening for Beck and some band called the Foo Foo Fighters.' ”
Back in 1995, Frank was one of many budding promoters hosting bands. Today, he's a successful entrepreneur and the Spaceland club is one of his many endeavors, which include El Prado bar, cantina Malo, the twin Echo and Echoplex venues, and his umbrella organization, Spaceland Productions. He also serves as president of the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce. If you've hung out in Silver Lake or Echo Park, chances are you've set foot somewhere connected to Frank.
“I just never wanted to be that guy with a gray ponytail sitting at the back of a show — no offense to guys with gray ponytails,” Frank jokes. “So I branched out to other businesses.”
Though his canny entrepreneurship would help redefine the demographics of Silver Lake and Echo Park, back in 1993 the first inklings of the concept that would end up becoming Spaceland stemmed from a stereotypically slackerish “Eureka!” moment.
“I was watching TV late at night and we were spacing out and we saw these girls scantily clad with T-shirts, and [the soundtrack] was like, 'Dreams, Dreams, Dreams of L.A.' Then this guy came on and hosed them down, very sensually. Then the address popped up: 1717 Silver Lake.”
Frank lived a few blocks from Dreams of L.A. and was convinced that this was the perfect spot for a different kind of club. The goal was to create a place in his neighborhood where he and his local friends in bands could hang and play without having to go to Hollywood. And the Dreams of L.A. location was central to the artists and musicians gathered in the hills of Silver Lake.
Mitchell then approached the venue's owner, a German expat named Horst Wolfram, with a proposal to host a monthly night called Pan. Wolfram had owned the building for decades, first when it was called Red Chimney in the '60s or the '70s (memories are hazy — it might or might not have been a gay club), which he then turned into Dreams of L.A. during the disco era. At some point in the '80s it mutated into the Top 40 club Frank saw advertised.
When he and his associates approached Wolfram with the idea for Pan, the club owner begrudgingly gave them Thursdays. Gradually, over the next two years, Frank split with business partner Nancy Whalen, expanded the club night to three days a week, and eventually, after a rebranding as “Spaceland,” took over the entire operation in 1995.
With the help of talent buyer Liz Garo and booker Jennifer Tefft, Spaceland developed a reputation among musicians and fans for breaking acts before they hit the big time. Frank readily lists the many legendary nights he witnessed at his club, including Jenny Lewis' first impromptu show, where she just walked onstage and began to play. “She wasn't on the bill, so I was about to throw her out. Then we heard that voice,” Frank recalls.
They once booked Elliott Smith for a “secret show,” one so secret that fewer than 100 people showed up. “This was before text messaging and the Internet, so I just got on the phone and called everyone I knew and said, 'You have to get down here now!' ”
But few of those early shows matched that first rainy night, when Frank made up for the less than ideal atmospheric conditions with a now legendary roster. Foo Fighters had just formed and Dave Grohl was still considered just the drummer from Nirvana (their last-minute addition did not even make it to the commemorative poster).
And the headliner had only recently graduated from being a folk musician playing Silver Lake house parties to national attention through the unexpected hit “Loser.” “Before the 'Beck thing' happened,” Frank laughs, “he was just the guy who would show up and play Woody Guthrie songs till early in the morning.” Beck of course would soon become a little more than a one-hit wonder — leaving behind poster mates Lutefisk and Possum Dixon.
Possum Dixon's singer helped the underage Jeff Miller and his friend sneak into the club, claiming they were his brothers. “We caught the last songs of the Foo Fighters, and Beck went on,” Miller remembers. “He was still a performance artist at this time, and near the end of the show, he put a walkie-talkie up to the microphone, and went into the bathroom with the other walkie-talkie and interviewed a guy peeing.”
Miller, like so many who had “found” Spaceland, spread the word about the “Eastside.” Then the L.A. Times proclaimed Frank as “The Mayor of Silver Lake,” and the hype of the “Silver Lake scene” began. Longtime residents of this narrow corridor would see housing prices jump from $200,000 to $2 million, and soon boutique coffee shops replaced corner bakeries and gentrification swept in. Spaceland — and the always-diversifying Frank — have gotten flack for being the shock troops of this demographic shift.
But whatever the larger social implications, Spaceland did become the hub of a certain bohemian music scene, a site Giant Drag frontwoman Annie Hardy calls “the place to play if you were wanting a quality audience and venue.”
“Having a residency at Spaceland totally makes you develop as a musician,” Hardy adds, “and it really helps to develop a fan base. Our residency there ended up getting us a record deal, I think.”
For some bands, says Joey Siara, guitarist and vocalist for the Henry Clay People, Spaceland is an essential place to cross-pollinate ideas and plant the seeds for larger projects.
“There's kind of a Cheers vibe going on,” Siara says. “Monday nights are free, so it's easy to just end up at Spaceland. You get enough other bands hanging out and drinking beers, and all of a sudden you have a music scene, where bands are constantly challenging and inspiring their buddies to make more — and hopefully better — music.”
For other bands, Spaceland is an integral step in solidifying a sound that bridges the gap between obscurity and accessibility. Nikki Monninger, bassist for the Grammy-nominated Silversun Pickups, says Spaceland made her want to move to Silver Lake, and the club served as an incubator that helped to launch her little band toward stardom: “We played our first L.A. show there. They were very supportive at a time when we really didn't know what we were doing. If Spaceland didn't exist, I'm not sure we would.”