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"It's where local bands go to die."
At least, that's what people used to say about Santa Ana's Galaxy Concert Theatre, with its blood-red carpet, walls and patent-leather seats of the same shade. There was a musty smell everywhere, a bit like your grandmother's house, even after that last renovation and a whole lot of Febreze. The 18,750-square-foot theater, built in 1971, has held anywhere from 550 to 1,000 people, one of four rooms in Orange County that can hold that kind of number. The others—House of Blues in Anaheim, the City National Grove of Anaheim, and the Yost Theater in Santa Ana—all have a musical niche they want to tap into, but the Galaxy's hit-or-miss calendar always seemed like a black hole for random events. Some days, you'd find bands such as Kottonmouth Kings and Dying Fetus performing. The next week, you'd see Rhett Miller of Old 97's and Jimmy Cliff onstage.
But the lack of a hip factor wasn't the real reason people didn't hang out at the Galaxy. Sure, there were some uncool practices: local acts had to make sure they sold a specific number of tickets for a spot on the bill, drink- and food-order minimums if you wanted to sit at a table. But it also wasn't a place where you wanted to linger and hang out—smack-dab in the middle of business parks in Santa Ana, there were no other bars close by, no community surrounding it.
3503 S. Harbor Blvd.
Santa Ana, CA 92704
Category: Music Venues
Region: Santa Ana
Jon Reiser wants to change all that. In August, the 38-year-old Costa Mesa native, along with 26-year-old business partner Courtney Michaelis and a silent partner, quietly took over the Galaxy Concert Theatre and transformed it into a bigger, hipper version of a joint he used to run—the venerable Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa.
Or maybe we shouldn't say quietly; it was obvious, as soon as it was announced, that something different was going on. There was a new website that was easy to navigate, that didn't use eggplant purple in its color scheme, and did not use the popular-in-Y2K web-format frames. On the lineup? Hip indie performers, up-and-coming hip-hop acts, names you'd see regularly on Pitchfork and MTV. It Band of the year Foster the People were one of the first groups to perform at the new Galaxy, as were experimental electronic act Crystal Castles. Irvine natives Young the Giant, fresh off their MTV appearance and a tour with Incubus, are playing two dates in December. This month, young rappers Big Sean and Dom Kennedy will be onstage.
The last we'd heard from Reiser, he was trying to reopen the historic Golden Bear, a Huntington Beach venue famous for hosting acts such as Bob Dylan, the Doors, Jerry Garcia, Tom Waits and Van Halen. It closed in the 1980s. For more than a year, Reiser worked on what would've been a 1,200-capacity club in downtown HB. In August 2010, it seemed everything was set, and he was ready to hire a staff. But at the beginning of summer this year, he announced on Facebook that because of city ordinances, reviving the Main Street venue was on hold until further notice. Meanwhile, last year, Detroit Bar's lineup was slightly lackluster—rumored to be a result of Reiser abandoning the smaller club and putting all his energy into building the Golden Bear.
Then, next thing we knew, Reiser owned the Galaxy.
And those changes we were talking about? Tiny, compared to what happened next.
"Originally, we just wanted a bigger venue," Reiser says.
It's a Saturday afternoon, and with Michaelis, he's showing off everything inside the new-and-improved Galaxy. Once it was clear the Golden Bear wasn't going to work out, Michaelis and Reiser started looking at other large venues. The Galaxy was the most obvious one: "Like a lot of people, we thought this venue has an immense amount of potential," Reiser says. It's geographically convenient and has the capacity and a liquor license. "It just made sense," he adds. They started sending unsolicited offers to the previous owner, Gary Folgner, who bought it in 1993. "I don't know how we convinced him [to sell]," Reiser says.
The 70-year-old Folgner, who also owns the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, says the deal—he sold the business, not the property; Reiser took over the lease on that—offered him enough money for the Galaxy that he can open another venue in Temecula, maybe Phoenix also. Folgner had catered to an older clientele when he owned the Galaxy and managed it with practices that were a holdover from its dinner-theater past. "When you're 35, 40, you want to sit down for a while," Folgner said in a 2009 OC Weekly article. "We get those old punk groups and old guys that used to be fans of them; they're not going to stand in the pit for four hours like when they were 21."
Tables were at a premium, hence the drink minimums. He needed to fill the giant room to make money on a weekly basis, so having bands sell consignment tickets was an acceptable way of booking bands, Reiser explains.
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Once Reiser saw the Galaxy's interiors, he realized there was so much more they could do with the space. He split up the hulking venue so he had, in essence, two rooms: the Galaxy, which can fit 550 seated, and the Constellation Room, a small venue-within-the-venue that can fit 200. Both stages have state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems—all digital, all touchscreen—created by Rat Sound, the same company that does sound for Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the renovated Fox Theatre Pomona. "I'm the third person in the United States to buy that version of that sound system," he says proudly.