Restless Maverick

Brian Newell just wants to open a theater in Fullerton. But will the city let him?

Photo by James BunoanMight as well get right to the point: "Downtown Fullerton is experiencing a mini-gold rush of sorts that any other city in the county would be begging for, and none of the businesses that are opening are corporate. They're all driven by people who believe in what they're doing. But instead of embracing these passionate people and rewarding them, the city treats us like criminals about to do some heinous crime, even though all we want is to add something new to the culture and atmosphere."

The speaker? Brian Newell, founder of the Maverick Theater, which is moving into an old warehouse just south of the train tracks that bisect the city. Once part of Fullerton's venerable Latino barrio, the area is now a central part of its SOCO (South of Commonwealth) District.

Newell plans on opening two 50-seat theaters in his 3,700-square-foot building, which will be designed in an "Art Deco, 1920s speakeasy feel." Everything from straight plays and musicals to dinner theater and late-night comedy offerings is in the works. He wants to stay open until 4 a.m. on weekends and create a true sense of place at his theater—somewhere people can drop by on any given night and watch or participate in something.

It's a great idea for a booming downtown—if the city ever lets him open. Newell, who already had a stage and seats from when he operated the Maverick at the Block in Orange, moved into his space in November and planned to open with the highly successful TheRockyHorrorShowin February. Now it looks like a mid-May debut at the earliest. The city wants him to install an emergency exit and another bathroom, which will cost about $20,000. Money is an issue, but mostly, it's the time needed to get the goddamn plans approved.

"I didn't anticipate that we'd need to get approval from mechanical, engineering and plumbing structural engineers, as well as an architect, to put in one exit and another toilet," Newell says. "They're treating this like we're going to launch the space shuttle from here, when we're just a 50-seat theater that wants to give something back to the community."

When the Maverick eventually opens, it will add to the radical transformation of the city's downtown. Within a few football fields' distance, there are now some 35 bars, restaurants and cafés, as well as seven cultural entities: Newell's Maverick, the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble (which also took forever to open because of municipal red tape), Stages Theatre, the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Fullerton College's theater complex, the Fullerton Museum Center, and the recently saved Fox Fullerton, which plans on opening in 2008 as a multidisciplinary cultural-arts venue. Add the hundreds of lofts, apartments and condos that have opened recently or are planned, and it's clear Fullerton is in the midst of creating Orange County's most energetic, vibrant, dense and diverse downtown.

Here's hoping the city's bureaucracy and myopic leadership (talk to just about any business or property owner in downtown Fullerton, and you'll get the same story: they make it very hard to open and stay open) doesn't poison the soil before things really take root. This part of town is well on its way to becoming a Bourbon Street West, with all its nightlife, sidewalk vomit pools, fights and trash. Or it could become a Greenwich Village West. The choice is Fullerton's.

 
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