Last month, at about the same time, Open Fist Theatre Company and Celebration Theatre gave notice to their respective landlords, the primary reason being rent increases that were pricing them out. Particularly disturbing about this development is the history of both award-winning theaters, and their artistic contributions to their communities. Both venues are situated on a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard between La Brea Avenue and Gower Street, commonly known as Hollywood's Theater Row — home to about a dozen theaters of 99 seats or less.
Open Fist, a membership company currently run by artistic director Martha Demson, was founded in 1990 and operated in a warehouse space on La Brea between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards for 15 years, before being evicted when it was announced that the landlord planned to demolish that building to make way for a housing development. In 2005, the company, which specializes in large ensemble productions, took up residency at 6209 Santa Monica Blvd. (near El Centro Avenue) — a building owned by Jack Khorsandi — in the 99-seat theater previously occupied by Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang. This was around the same time that Robbins' troupe chose to leave Hollywood for Culver City after Khorsandi tripled its rent.
Khorsandi acknowledges to the Weekly that, in 2005, in order to start collecting market value on his property, he raised the Actors' Gang's $3,000-per-month rent to $9,000.
In January 2007, Demson says, her company was paying $8,000 a month plus utilities for 5,250 square feet, after the space had been subdivided into three smaller spaces in an attempt to make the building affordable for multiple tenants. In 2008, the rent went up to $8,500. After the recession of that year, Khorsandi agreed to lower the rent to $7,500, in order to keep Open Fist in residence. Demson praises Khorsandi for his flexibility but cites other frustrations with the building.
Though the building was subdivided, there is only one water meter for the whole property, and all utility bills come to Demson. At first it seemed a good idea that she would pay a percentage of the building's utilities, but as other co-tenants came and went — and some left water running or electricity on all night — the theater found its contribution to the utilities rising from $1,500 per month to, most recently, $5,000 — “and we were dark that month,” Demson fumes.
Among the most recent co-tenants was a rock band, who used the building's upper tier as a rehearsal space. Although the band tried to cooperate and not blast sound that would destroy delicate scenes being staged for a live audience in the theater below, accidents and misunderstandings occurred. The final straw came in April with the escalation of rent for the now-subdivided space to $11,500 — with an improv comedy club co-renting the adjacent space.
“Sounds of hollering and whooping seeped through the theater walls at all hours of the day and night,” Demson explains. “Imagine trying to put on a tender play by Horton Foote with that going on.”
Khorsandi claims to be a fan of the arts, and says he's upset to see Open Fist leave. He did agree to lower the rent to $9,000 from April through June, in order to ease Open Fist's transition to another venue. Khorsandi blames the city for not stepping in to aid struggling, established arts organizations.
Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti's director of communications, Diego de la Garza, told the Weekly that he couldn't comment on the situation, since neither Celebration nor Open Fist had contacted Garcetti's office about their immediate crises.
Not so, says Demson, who provided the Weekly with a copy of her email to Garcetti's office pleading for help. She says it went unanswered.
“I used to own several buildings in Hollywood but got burned when tenants stopped paying their rent,” Khorsandi says. His Santa Monica Boulevard property is now his only commercial building, and he says he needs to raise the rent to keep up with rising maintenance costs on the aging building. He says he has no replacement tenant lined up. “I'd like to have another theater in there,” he says. “Maybe one with more financial support.”
Demson says that without subsidy or patronage, the only people who can “make it” in the theater are the landlords, who might be able to collect the rents they're seeking from producers who have been saving up to present a single show. “The theater companies that actually forge a relationship with a community [by presenting a season of plays],” Demson says, “will have to find another way.”
Linda Duttenhaver, of real estate company Crossroads Trust, is the daughter of Mort La Kretz, a real estate investor and owner of multiple commercial properties in Hollywood, including Crossroads of the World, on Sunset Boulevard, and the 64-seat theater on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Brea that has housed Celebration Theatre since 1993. Before that, the company, which specializes in gay themes and stages shows ranging from one-person performances to musical spectacles, had been in Silver Lake since its founding in 1982.
Speaking to the Weekly by phone, Duttenhaver expresses astonishment that the theater had given its notice, since its most recent rent increase was in December 2012, and she claimed its leaders never discussed their dissatisfaction with Crossroads.
“We were sorry to learn they were leaving,” she says. “They've been good tenants with us for 21 years. We were surprised by the news.”
The theater's executive director, Michael C. Kricfalusi, says he has no desire to demonize the landlord. However, the economics of running a theater with only 64 seats, where rents keep rising and ticket prices are constrained by the actors union, Actors' Equity, “no longer pencil out.”
Twenty years ago, Celebration leased the 5,000-square-foot theater for $1,500 a month. The latest rent increase mentioned by Duttenhaver brought that figure to $6,750.
“When I got here five years ago, the rents had just gone from $3,000 to $5,000,” Kricfalusi says, “So in five years it's gone from $5,000 to “When I got here 5 years ago, the rents had just gone from $3,000 to $5,000,” Kricfalusi says, “So in five years it's gone from $5,000 to [almost $7,000]” — matching the average rent increase over at Open Fist of about 8 percent to 10 percent per year. This is on par with commercial rent increases in areas of L.A. being commercially revitalized, such as Hollywood and North Hollywood.
Kricfalusi cites other problems similar to what Open Fist experienced, with soaring, shared utility payments and co-tenants (using poorly insulated sound editing booths adjoining the theater) causing noise to bleed through walls at unpredictable times.
He says the theater is working with the city of West Hollywood to find a new space, since in one of local theater's more bizarre twists of fate, when West Hollywood incorporated and separated from Los Angeles in 1984, the line of demarcation ran straight through the building.
“Our stage is in Hollywood,” Kricfalusi explains, “but our dressing rooms are in West Hollywood. If we have a vagrant by the front door, it's handled by the local Hollywood safety patrol, but if that same vagrant moves to the dressing room door, it's in West Hollywood, and they're not allowed to do anything, so we have to call the sheriff. … We're just grateful the two cities are in the same time zone.”
In addition to seeking new spaces on their own, the theaters — along with Rogue Machine, a company dedicated to new plays that's housed in a two-theater complex on Pico Boulevard near La Brea — are looking into a co-ownership pact in which board members from each theater team up to purchase a large enough building to allow the three (or more) theaters to jointly pay a fixed-rate mortgage, rather than facing relentlessly rising rents borne of commercial development.
Rogue Machine's artistic director, John Flynn, says he's faced down threats of rent raises because there are so many vacant industrial buildings on his Mid-City stretch of Pico, “but it's just a matter of time. We're vulnerable, and we'd rather be proactive than suddenly find ourselves with nowhere to go.”
Small but potent cultural institutions such as Rogue Machine, Open Fist and Celebration help lend legitimacy to economically troubled areas, but often are priced out of the very neighborhoods they helped revitalize. Their plight is not exclusive to Hollywood and North Hollywood, but these are the areas seeing the region's most rapid transformations. There was a similar pattern in New York's East Village in the 1980s and '90s, and now in Brooklyn — the difference being how the city of New York will pay $33 million of a $40 million renovation project for a venue such as the Strand Theater, a destination for both tourists and arts-loving New Yorkers.
Flynn says, “I'm grateful for the $5,000 [the city of L.A] just gave us, but it's not a serious investment. I've been preaching for a long time that a number of theaters should have a destination residence, someplace if there were restaurants nearby, it could help increase the profile of L.A. theaters.”
Demson adds, “There's a silver lining. This situation may force us to do what we should have been doing years ago.”