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Photo by Chris ZieglerNo one thought they'd ever make it through the first few months, but Dennis Lluy and the volunteers at Santa Ana's Koo's Art Café defied all expectations to turn a ramshackle former Chinese restaurant into one of the county's—maybe even the nation's—most respected all-ages venues for independent art and music. But Koo's finally shut down indefinitely last week after seven long years and one short phone call from the Santa Ana Police Department. Lluy picked up the call on Jan. 3 to hear police warn him that occupancy maximums and door-donation-policy codes would be strictly enforced at upcoming shows. At that point, says Lluy, he felt the "responsible" thing to do was to voluntarily cancel upcoming concerts to avoid potential conflict with the city—with an eye toward reopening a new-and-improved Koo's in another Santa Ana location.
"Right now, we're moving as many [scheduled] shows as we can, talking with other venues about cooperating with them on their facilities," says Lluy. "And I'm scheduling meetings with city officials as well. It's 'hiatus' a week at a time, basically."
It's an abrupt but not entirely unexpected development after a long and sometimes rocky run at 1505 N. Main St. Ironically, the closure comes not long after the all-volunteer Koo's made its first application for a conditional-use permit, a step toward further legitimacy. The question of whether the money requested at the door is a cover charge or a donation has dogged Koo's since its beginning; with a conditional-use permit, Koo's would have been able to legally change the donation to a cover—except that property improvements demanded by the city in conjunction with the permit application (among them, 35 parking spaces and several thousands of dollars' worth of drainage and other environment-related fees) are prohibitively expensive for the traditionally barely break-even-level nonprofit.
"You have to consider that this is a labor of love for us," says Lluy. "You can't go anywhere else and see bands for the amount of money that we ask for. We're completely accessible to everybody—we could easily charge more, but we don't because that's not what we're about."
Since its inception in 1994, Koo's has grown from a demure coffee-and-poetry parlor into a nationally recognized and locally beloved venue for all-ages, independent music, as well as a resource for local art and activism.
Certainly, it has also endured its share of growing pains, including tussles with the then-non-incarcerated ex-City Councilman Ted Moreno and a skirmish in court—decided in favor of Koo's—over the legality of the $5 charge at the door. But for Koo's volunteers, this latest closure doesn't mean it's time to stop growing.
"I think we've kind of worn out 1505 N. Main St.," says Justin Dupee, a four-year volunteer with Koo's. "We're more in touch with the music scene than we were a couple of years ago, and we have more potential for better and bigger shows. I think we can do more."
Lluy says he's considering other local sites for a new Koo's, but first he has to settle the issue of the current building's lease—and the painful possibility that he might be stuck somehow covering six months' rent without any shows to generate income. Best-case scenario? Koo's is allowed to finish off its lease with their regularly scheduled live shows and then make the transfer to a new location.
"We agree with the city," Lluy says. "In a lot of ways, [1505 N. Main St.] is a location that's not completely suitable for what we're doing."
Despite the optimism, it's still an uncomfortable situation for the county's dwindling all-ages scene, now down to only a handful of similar venues—notably Anaheim's Chain Reaction and AAA Electra 99—and without any like-minded community organizations to fill the vacuum left by Koo's.
"Right now, Koo's is home," says Alex Scott, co-founder of SoapboXX Sessions, a program promoting young women's involvement in music headquartered at Koo's. "We just walked in there, and they welcomed us with open arms. I'd feel kind of bummed to start looking for another place."
"One of the most beautiful things they do [at Koo's] is the cross-pollination of different backgrounds," says Don Cribb, president of the Santa Ana Arts Council and a longtime Koo's supporter. "It's a microcosm of what we try to do on a citywide basis, and a form of wealth that the town sometimes has a hard time recognizing. When the situation seems shaky, it seems to me that the community should try to help them."
Lluy says he'd like to see the 1505 N. Main St. building continue as a showcase of the visual arts, which wouldn't court any code violations, and invites anyone interested in possible development to get in touch. As for the hundreds (even possibly thousands) of local Koo's patrons, volunteers promise that the website will continue to post both show-rescheduling information as well as the latest updates on the venue's situation.
"There's a sense of sadness involved, a major sense of sadness," says Lluy. "We feel some obligation to make sure something keeps going, that this whole vision and concept of Koo's gets taken to a higher level. We're not looking at it negatively—we're looking at it as the next step in our evolution."Check the Koo's Art Cafe website for updates at www.koos.org. Contact Dennis Lluy at Dennis1505@aol.com or (310) 832-2441 if you're interested in turning Koo's into a visual-arts place.