Photo by James BunoanThe volunteers at Koo's have suffered through a lot of shit: chafing city regulations, unruly patrons, cranky neighbors and crankier PA systems, and bands that could make a grown man weep—for all the wrong reasons. Oh, and also actual shit. Lots of that, too.
"No joke," says old-school volunteer Justin Dupee, remembering ye olde cloggy septic tank. "It was a weekly thing—I'd have to step through a fountain of shit."
That was back in Santa Ana, when feces was the least formidable matter facing a club that city officials never quite understood.
Koo's "played a really important role in terms of their ability to reach out to a younger, kind of hip audience," says Don Cribb, founder of the Santa Ana Artists Village and president of the Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture. "I felt the city's attitude toward them was relatively immature, considering how much money they'd spend on organizations that don't provide nearly the services [Koo's] does. I hope Long Beach has a greater regard for them—I won't be surprised if they're the spark that ignites the Long Beach art scene."
There's a lot less shit—metaphorical and otherwise—to wade through at Koo's now. After a fortuitous talk with artist/arts advocate Tom Walker, Long Beach art mover and shaker Shelley RuggThorpe swept the then-locationless art-advocacy organization into a sweet new home in Long Beach's artsy East Village this summer. And a permit or two later, Koo's was restarting their steady diet of all-ages rock & roll shows in September and settling into an arts community that was thrilled to have them. "We were all so happy to hear Koo's was coming to Long Beach," says local musician/artist/ activist Chase Frank, whose Safehouse installation in the late '90s was the first attempt to rehabilitate the new Koo's building at 530 E. Broadway. "Koo's is such a powerhouse!"
"There's so much passion and excitement and drive in this area—I'm blown away," says Dennis Lluy, longtime Koo's coordinator. "People felt like Koo's is for them—and I feel it's just about the artists. There's no other agenda."
It's fun talking to Lluy and hardcore volunteer cabal Dupee, Dave Clark and Alex Scott right now—with a year and a half of uncertainty since they left their original Santa Ana location in January 2002 finally behind them, there's a certain jubilant stability (knock, knock, knock!) to the Koo's crew, geographically and otherwise. When this reporter spent a summer volunteering at the old Koo's—ah, 1999, you were unemploymentastic!—Dupee, Clark, Scott and Lluy were all active, booking bands, running the door, hosting the all-girl music workshop Soapboxx Sessions and keeping the under-21 music scene in Central OC from sinking into pay-to-play emo hell. And though the location is gone, the spirit managed to survive.
By January 2002, 1505 N. Main in Santa Ana, was history: Lluy backed away voluntarily last January after city police warned him that occupancy maxmimums—which, for what amounted to basically a four-bedroom house, were prohibitively low—and door-donation policies would be strictly enforced at upcoming shows. The Koo's consensus is amiable: "Growing pains," says Lluy, who still serves on the board of Santa Ana's Grand Central Arts District. But the sprawling space at 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach—which used to house theater group the ARK—could house several old Koo's and still have room for wall after wall of worthy local art. And the Koo's volunteers—with Lluy, Dupee, Clark and Scott still instrumental in Koo's operations—have the same camaraderie, reinforced now with experience, perspective, and a renewed sense of possibility and optimism.
Dupee laughs modestly when Lluy taps sustainability and efficiency as hallmarks of the Koo's philosophy. "Efficiency? Us?"
But—and as someone who only got coffee-shop tips out of pity, this is hard to write—it's true. Koo's has their shit together now like never before.
"I'm amazed these people exist," says artist Doug Hart, whose Reception Perception Deception won fat accolades from the Weekly in February. "Every time [Long Beach artists] did something, nobody saw the bigger picture. But the people at Koo's see the bigger picture—it's why they're so dedicated. I could have only hoped in my past that I had these people."
Before he left school, Lluy says his anthropology classes taught him that although suburban stress factors could surpass urban stress factors, people in urban environments at least had more outlets. ("In OC," he says, "you go to the mall.") That's partly where Koo's comes from, he says. "It's a big part of my life's work to inspire change in a social context," he says. "And for me, a lot of that is through Koo's."
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Halloween's Edgar Allen Koo's event was a surprise monster mash, directing unprecedented traffic through a series of theme rooms (lavishly decorated thanks to sponsor Condom Revolution), and Koo's has already snaked in high-profile bands such as Wrangler Brutes, Casual Dots and Numbers that, before 530 E. Broadway opened, probably would have gone speeding down the 405 without even rolling down the windows. But Lluy has bigger plans than that: to transfer the lessons Koo's has learned from almost 10 years of tussling with city officials, neighbors, bands, patrons and balky toilets into a model anyone can duplicate anywhere. In short, says Frank, a Koo's on every corner—and a community-based arts-advocacy organization that works for any neighborhood that needs it.
"As cheesy as it sounds and as much as I hate to say it, honestly, we do it for the kids," says Dupee. "Growing up, I went to Koo's. And I'm stoked to have it."
"Yeah," adds Clark. "We're just older kids now."
FOR MORE INFO ON KOO'S, GO TO WWW.KOOS.ORG.