By Adam Lovinus
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By Gabriel San Roman
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By Mike Seeley
Established in 1994, El Centro is a not-for-profit, Santa Ana-based organization (a beneficiary of the California Endowment Fund) that creates various programs to help people explore and understand Mexican culture, including workshops in dance, music, art and literacy.
"Instead of paying for a professional band, we told El Centro Cultural that we would pay them, so they could bring bands to Fourth Street," Romero says.
It was, he says, a hit.
307 N. Spurgeon St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Category: Music Venues
Region: Santa Ana
El Centro held one of the first events at the Yost after it started being leased out on a per-diem basis, for its annual Dia de los Muertos event. "We came in, and we had all the volunteers help out, and I kid you not, the bathrooms were not working, there was carpet on the stage. . . . The whole place was trashed," says Carolina Sarmiento, a board member of El Centro. "So we cleaned it; we brought our own sound system, brought in an award-winning band."
The event, which brought son jarocho revivalists Los Cojolites onstage at the Yost (see Gabriel San Roman's "Songs Without End," Nov. 2, 2007), was emotional for many in the audience. It triggered fond memories for old-timers who remembered what it was like to have Latino entertainment at the venue. "At the show, people were crying, saying the last time they were in the theater, they were sent upstairs," Sarmiento says. This time, the Yost's lower level was filled with more than 600 attendees. "They loved it."
For Santa Ana's Latino community, it signified that the Yost was back to where it rightfully should be: a place that preserved and showcased the best of their culture.
But . . . it didn't work out. Sarmiento says El Centro had an "understanding" with Irv Chase for the use of the Yost—but nothing on paper. "This is how we found out we no longer had the space," Sarmiento says. "One day, we were fliering outside for one of our events, and we heard people inside the Yost, opening champagne bottles!"
That was the beginning of the end, she says.
"We no longer had use of the space—or we could, but we had to pay like everyone else," she says. "We had put together a yearly calendar. We thought we could use the theater to do stuff, like at the Centro. We were trying to get a contract, but we never really had direct communication with Irv Chase."
"I think what took place was that someone got one of these," Romero says and holds up a calculator and starts fake-computing, "and what happens? El Centro is gone. The kiosk for bands is gone. The seating outside, where the people would sit and eat their pizza, gone. The construction is choking up the businesses, and business is down 60 percent to 70 percent. It was a very purposefully done plan to squeeze out certain people."
Irv Chase scoffs at the idea that they would have given El Centro Cultural de México free rein over Yost. After the Pentecostal church vacated the theater, his family spent "a couple of hundred grand to clean the Yost up and try to get the Spanish-speaking customer back." He adds, "So we did some events with El Centro Cultural de México and some other groups, and we packed the place with people. But it didn't translate to sales. Well, maybe the taco guy or the pizza guy had sales. But no one else."
Chase was still determined that the Yost, as a music venue, would be at the heart of a Fourth Street revival. "If we're going to change this and broaden the customer base, how are we going to do it? If the Artists Village has art, our niche [will be] music.
"And that was when Dennis Lluy fell into our laps."
* * *
Lluy made his name in Santa Ana when he founded Koo's Cafe in 1994; in those days, he was everyone's hero. Then 20, Lluy turned a house—located just a few blocks from downtown Santa Ana—into a hub of punk rock, social activism and cutting-edge art.
"It often supported local bands, DJs and renegade groups," recalls musician Alex Xenophon. "It was a very organic approach at a time when venues were either scarce or sterile, and the vibe was always welcoming and comfortable."
Eventually, Lluy left Santa Ana. City officials had often cited Koo's for noise violations and other permit issues; he moved Koo's to a larger space in Long Beach in 2002. That location never quite had the success of the Santa Ana house; Lluy closed it five years later.
Shortly thereafter, Lluy was hired as a consultant to renovate the Festival Hall across the street from the Yost. And the theater was in his peripheral vision; "I'd always had my eye on it," he says, having discovered the venue at an art walk years before. Soon after El Centro started having events at the Yost, the Times published a piece (headlined "An Old Theater Is Case in New Role") lauding all it was and all it could be. Gil Marrero, a downtown property broker, sent the article to Lluy and introduced him to the Chases. (Lluy and Marrero knew each other from the early development of the Artists Village.) By November 2008, Lluy says he was helping the Yost with its audio/visual system; he also booked (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Entrance Band and Nortec Collective at the space.