The Yost Theater Is Ready for Its Closeup
When the 99-year-old Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana reopens on Aug. 5, it will be both hauntingly familiar and brand-spankin'-new. Anchoring what used to be called Fiesta Marketplace—the Latino shopping plaza on Fourth Street—on the corner of Spurgeon and Third streets, the oldest theater in Orange County was closed to the general public for 25 years, and then open intermittently since 2005.
The Art Deco signage and the façade will look pretty much the same, but once inside, the venue will look nothing like it did as its last tenant, Mount of Olives Ministry, a Latino Pentecostal church: Projection screens will hang from each side of the stage, and lights will dance and bounce off the walls and the handcrafted chandeliers hanging from the antique-tin ceilings. House DJ Colette will spin from a movable DJ booth wrapped in 16-foot-by-20-foot LED walls rising from the stage, looking down on what could be as many as 1,000 revelers on tiered dance floors. Stage dancers will perform on a platform. From the stage, a catwalk will extend. Carved iron railings will separate the VIP section's plush lounge seating from the dance floors.
Upstairs, there will be another room. The balcony will hold reupholstered seats, an extra bar and viewing bays from which to view the scene below. About $750,000 worth of audio/video equipment translates into the same sound board as the one at the Hollywood Bowl and the same speaker system as that at the City National Grove of Anaheim. In 2013, it's scheduled to expand to another 500-person space, opening in what used to be the Ritz Hotel.
For the partners who manage the Yost—Dennis Lluy, founder of the late, great punk-rock venue Koo's Cafe, and Level One Promotion head honcho Dave Leon—the reopening is a gigantic feat.
It's also a project that's at the forefront of Santa Ana's great gentrification debate, one fraught with drama and intrigue, as well as claims of racism, trickery and deceit.
The 25-year-old Fiesta Marketplace was recently rebranded the "East End Promenade," and the name isn't the only thing that has changed. In the midst of the wild plumage of the quinceañera shops, the cowboy and boot stores, the peddlers hawking phone cards, and Mexican foodstands, hipster enclaves have been popping up. There's an old-school barbershop that shapes designs onto your head with a straight razor and a coffeehouse that specializes in cold-pressed coffee. A gourmet burger shop is opening up, and so is a gigantic rehearsal studio that will offer bands lockdown spaces. What's gone? A Ritmo Latino store, the old carousel, the kiosk where Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha played with a local son jarocho group not even five years ago.
Lluy doesn't like talking about all that, he says, because "it has nothing to do with me." That's not exactly true; he signed a 15-year lease to operate the Yost in 2008, but it took him three years to get the venue up and running because of what Leon calls "growing pains."
Those growing pains have everything to do with the resistance from the local, majority-Latino community that sees the Yost as the main battlefield for white people running it out of the neighborhood. (Even though Lluy is of Cuban descent.)
There was opposition to the Yost's plans to serve alcohol while allowing minors in the theater (it now has a type 47 license, which allows alcohol to be served with food). Lluy, who founded Koo's on a DIY, punk ethos, has been called a sell-out by audiences who once celebrated his efforts. He's been accused of stealing the Yost management from the nonprofit El Centro Cultural de México. There have been claims from neighboring merchants that used condoms were found in the alley beside it after a recent event. Even as the duo has spent the past few months on site for at least 12 hours per day, overseeing the construction, the changing face of the Yost has been a sore point for many longtime tenants on Fourth Street, who remember its heyday as a Spanish-language theater.
This week, an anonymous group called Artists and Musicians Against Displacement asked for a boycott of the Yost and events hosted by Downtown Inc. In an open letter, it says, "It is impossible to perform at the Yost Theater without legitimizing and furthering the gentrification of our city."
And at a contentious July 18 City Council meeting, Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez called for an inquiry into how the biggest property owners on Fourth Street—led by the Chase family, who own the Yost—have handled the renovations. "I definitely see a pattern," Alvarez told Adam Elmahrek of the Voice of OC after the meeting. "And it begs the question: Is there a deliberate attempt to get rid of Latino businesses?"
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That the Yost is at the forefront of a huge change is undeniable; whether it's good or bad is still up for debate, depending on how you feel about downtown Santa Ana—what it is now, what it once was, what it should be. Leon lauds the area as authentic, living proof that Orange County isn't a sterile cultural wasteland. Ten years ago, he says, "if you didn't speak Spanish, you'd never come down here"; these days, downtown is "Latino-based, but a lot of artists and musicians have come down to live here." He points out that there are more historic buildings in the area than anywhere in Orange County. "We're trying to add to the party down here."
And he's right when he says of the revamped Yost that "there's nothing like this in Orange County." For the area's 3 million-plus inhabitants, there is a total of six venues that can host more than 800 people: the House of Blues in Anaheim (1,050 capacity), the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana (970), and the City National Grove of Anaheim (1,700), plus the huge Honda Center in Anaheim (17,000), Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa (8,500 to 10,000) and Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine (16,000). The Yost—which will be a 1,650-person space that will host concerts, international DJs, fashion shows and film premieres—is the coolest thing to happen, musically, to the county since, well, Detroit Bar brought in Stereolab. (Or since Exene Cervenka moved to Orange.)
Leon says the Yost's niche will be DJ culture and live music. "We've already got offers in for every big artist you can think of," he says. "We always wanted to have bands, but we never knew what level of artist we could get. Now, we have the best equipment in Orange County, so if we can get and afford them, we can host it."
Leon pauses, then says, "We just want everyone to experience the Yost."
The Yost wasn't always open to everyone. Built in 1912, it was originally called the Auditorium. Ed Yost bought it in 1919 and gave it his name. For a time, it was a vaudeville theater, where the likes of silent-film comedian Ben Turpin and vaudeville star Eva Tanguay performed, and it thrived in the early days of Santa Ana, when only whites were allowed to sit downstairs (Mexicans and other non-whites were relegated to the balcony).
In 1939, Louie Olivos Sr. worked at the State Theater (also in downtown Santa Ana), patrolling the balcony. He got a lease to run the Princess Theater by convincing his bosses that screening Spanish-language films to Latino audiences there would be a financial success. He was right. By 1952, he was able to buy the Yost and turned it into an exclusively Spanish-language theater.
"He always had his eye on the Yost," his son Louie Olivos Jr. says. "It had the stage; it had a huge capacity. It had everything." The Olivoses ran the business as a family affair, hosting movies, stage shows and sometimes music. They brought in such Mexican movie stars as Pedro Infante, Antonio Aguilar and Tin-Tan for meet-and-greets. For years, the Olivoses were shining pillars of the Latino business community, and the Yost and its sister West Coast Theater were the only shows in town. Their theater remained the center of the city's downtown, as it emptied of white-run businesses and gradually became almost exclusively Latino.
But in the 1980s, the Olivoses lost the Yost.
Today, Olivos Jr. says it all began with a plan by Santa Ana College to take over their building. Sometime in the late 1970s, Olivos Jr. offered to host a Cinco de Mayo celebration for what would eventually be his alma mater. A 1985 Los Angeles Times story ("4th St. Shop Plan Gains in Santa Ana") quotes Santa Ana Downtown Development Commission director Roger Kooi as saying the city wanted to use the theater as a cultural center, "possibly in an arrangement with Rancho Santiago College District."
Then, in 1983, the city of Santa Ana required all the businesses east of Fourth Street to bring their buildings up to seismic code. Louie Olivos Sr. took out a high-interest loan to finance the project.
At around the same time, the city of Santa Ana was pushing to "redevelop" downtown Santa Ana. The same Times story says the economic decline of an area that used to be a major hub for business and socializing saw drunks and prostitutes making up most of the after-hours pedestrian traffic. It was a place where "blood banks, beer bars and flophouses flourished," and the city wanted to clean it up.
To do this, it asked various developers for plans to build a family-friendly shopping center on what eventually became the Fiesta Marketplace site. Afraid of getting squeezed out of downtown, local businessmen and property owners banded together to form Fiesta Marketplace Partnership and develop the area themselves. Among these businessmen were Allan Fainbarg, whose money got the project off the ground, and his son-in-law, Irving "Irv" Chase. Chase spearheaded the $12 million project, partially funded by a tax-exempt $7 million bond program. It encompassed a four-square-block area bounded by French Street on the east, Bush Street on the west, and Third and Fifth streets. At the time, it offered an alternative to MainPlace mall's "well-heeled shopper." (Read: cheaper merchandise for immigrants.)
What the city wanted originally, Chase says, was to turn Fourth Street into a replica of LA's Olvera Street. "We said, 'You can't re-create a tourist attraction—it's just not going to happen,'" he recalls.
Instead, Chase brought in improvements that proved family-friendly: a carousel in front of the Yost, a gazebo for entertainment, benches for shoppers. Movie theaters, an ice-cream shop, a bakery and a pizzeria were also made part of the renovation.
Olivos Jr. says the Yost's business was badly affected during the renovation; the construction, which lasted for months, led to his family defaulting on the loan they took out for the seismic retrofit. The city then bought the Yost from Olivos Sr. for $600,000, which was less than the cost of the theater. Olivos Jr. blames Kooi for taking advantage of his family. "I thought he was my friend—instead, he bamboozled us," he says. Kooi died in 1997.
Olivos Jr. claims his family retrofitted all but one wall of the building, but the city wouldn't let them keep the Yost. "Kooi told my dad, 'If you sell to somebody else, the city of Santa Ana [will] condemn the Yost Theater as well as the West Coast Theater' . . . and he could kiss his home on Greenleaf Street away and lose his 80-acre ranch in San Diego."
He says now, "My dad accepted [the city's offer] because he was facing foreclosure on his home, but we were not willing sellers." Going through personal as well as financial losses—he lost two brothers and a son shortly after the family lost the Yost—"We couldn't fight them," Olivos Jr. says. "We didn't have the heart."
A few months after forcing the Olivos family to sell the Yost, the city sold it to the partnership for $50,000 as part of Fiesta Marketplace. In fact, the city of Santa Ana paid $7.5 million for several downtown properties and sold them to the partnership for just less than $1 million, with the understanding that the buildings needed major renovations. Olivos Sr. died in 1999. In his final years, he would mutter to his sons that they needed to go open the Yost.
* * *
For the next 25 years, the Fiesta Marketplace Partnership—Chase; Fainbarg; and local business owners Raymond Rangel, Jose Ceballos and Robert D. Escalante—successfully targeted the Latino market, turning Fourth Street into a shopping center designed for a Spanish-speaking customer. "It was one of the first in the country specifically geared toward that demographic," Chase says. "It was very, very successful until about five years ago, when Hispanic retailing changed."
And the Yost?
"When we opened up Fiesta [around 1989], we renovated the Yost," Chase says. "We spent $750,000 renovating it so we could use it for entertainment purposes. But then we couldn't generate enough activity to keep it open and use it on a regular basis, so it operated as a church for many years, and it was allowed to decay."
The Chases' various business entities have holdings in 16 states. The four blocks of land in Santa Ana's downtown, they say, might be the chunk of land that makes them the least profit. "But it's the one we're most passionate about," says Ryan Chase, Irv's son and president of the Santa Ana PBID (Property Business Improvement District) Downtown Inc., a locally based nonprofit corporation made up of Santa Ana property owners that receives assessments collected by the county from those property owners to promote downtown and keep it clean and safe.
Ryan Chase's great-grandfather Nathan Fainbarg opened a shoe store on Fourth Street in 1919. His grandfather Allan (Nathan's son) owned a gas station in Santa Ana. The family has an emotional attachment to the city and has always considered itself part of the Santa Ana community.
In 2006, the Chases say, they started seeing the demand on Fourth Street wane. "Sales started to decline, there were vacancies, people weren't paying rents on time," Ryan Chase says.
"The Hispanic marketplace is the most sought-after demographic due to the large families, disposable income and loyalty," he continues. "So all the big retailers—Wal-Mart, Target, Costco—they all figured it out. They have bilingual help, bilingual graphics. People [stopped shopping at Fourth street and] started shopping at MainPlace."
The younger Chase says that they've dropped rents from 25 to 75 percent on their property since 2007. In 2008, they started meeting with tenants and tried to improve the merchandise on Fourth Street to attract more customers, but nothing worked. "That was when we realized we had to do something."
This change has been the catalyst for what Santa Ana community members are nicely referring to as gentrification and not-so-nicely calling "ethnic cleansing," as declared at one meeting by a member of El Centro Cultural de México, who asked to not to be named.
The Chases' new strategy revolved around the Yost. Seeing the success of the neighboring Artists Village made them realize that "downtown renaissances" were driven by the arts.
"We realized we had to have some anchorability [in the area]," Ryan Chase says. The Chases spent a lot of time driving around various downtowns and concluded that nighttime entertainment was the key: "Restaurants, movie theaters and places where music is done—performance places!" he says "That was when we made the decision to use the Yost."
Ryan Chase continues, "Nowhere in Orange County can you go to shop, grab a bite to eat and hang out afterward. The Yost has that. It has history, it has character, and it attracts different people—locals and outsiders at the same time. Someone's probably not going to drive an hour to eat at a restaurant or shop, but they'll do that for a band. So this will be a regional draw, beyond Orange County. That's really critical."
* * *
Sam Romero, owner of St. Theresa's Catholic gift shop and chairperson of the Logan Neighborhood, says that after the Pentecostal church vacated the Yost in 2007, the Fourth Street business owners asked Irv Chase's permission to let El Centro Cultural de México to use the venue.
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.
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.
Lluy insists he never swooped in on the Yost to take over what was already El Centro's. "I even volunteered my time to do sound and lights for so many of their events," he says. "And if they ever return my phone calls, they'll find that I still want them to do events at the Yost."
* * *
While Lluy was encountering three years of "growing pains," the Chases say, they did not charge rent. But they're not calling it charity. "We did it because we thought [Lluy] and his partner were perfect for us. It's been a lot more money and time than we expected," Ryan Chase says. "But at the end of the day, the most important thing you could have is the right people. We gave him a pretty good deal because he gets the community, he lives in Santa Ana, and he gets the big picture."
And the big picture isn't about race, Irv Chase says. "A lot of people act like this is some sort of battleground, and the white guys are trying to take it. If you know anything about Fourth Street, it was a white downtown till the '60s! These people act like they have some sort of God-given right [to the property]. . . . They don't have that right! This is retail. The marketplace dictates change."
Nor, he adds, is it about community. "It's not our responsibility to provide a carousel and benches for people!" Irv Chase declares. "Landlords aren't supposed to provide a public place for the community—the city's supposed to provide parks, not me! I owned the merry-go-round, and I lost money on it every month! And I gave it to the city! Not only that, but I never made a dime on Fiesta Marketplace because it didn't work financially!"
The Chases say they feel unfairly maligned in the controversy over the Yost. The big picture, Ryan Chase adds, is not about whether you're brown or white. "At the end of the day, it's all about the green," he says, rubbing his thumb and forefingers together. "We're rolling the dice on the Yost succeeding. If it doesn't succeed, we won't succeed."
Unfortunately, Sarmiento says, "When you look at gentrification and changes in Santa Ana, you can't separate the race from the economic issue. When you have cases of displacement, there's pretext being used—blight or poverty. The excuses that are repeatedly used—a place is not up to code, it's dilapidated—is a pretext to displace a whole community. The idea of rebirth is that what was initially there wasn't good enough. So when you have these words, it's usually associated with people of color." El Centro itself is being evicted from its current home at Fifth Street and Broadway by its landlord, a company in which Allan Fainbarg owns a substantial stake (see Gabriel San Roman's "El Centro Cultural de Someplace Else," July 15).
The Yost and the rest of Fourth Street is under Ward 2 Councilwoman Michele Martinez's jurisdiction, and she doesn't necessarily agree the area is being gentrified. "It's hard to say it's being gentrified when the majority of the city is Latino," she says. Instead, she believes, the changes are more generational. "You have young Latinos like myself who want different amenities that appeal to us. Santa Ana's downtown always had Fourth Street [focusing] on the immigrant community. But there's also a young generation that wants the downtown to be for them as well, not just their parents."
Martinez, who says she doesn't shop on Fourth Street either ("I shop at Nordstrom or Forever 21"), says the city of Santa Ana can't control the market and what property owners want to do with their holdings. "We can't control who Irv Chase wants to rent to or what color he wants his buildings to be. . . . All we can control are zoning and land use."
Sarmiento recalls one meeting with Lluy. "I remember Dennis taking it very lightly, laughing at people calling him 'the gentrifier.' I said, 'That's a very serious thing to be called! That's part of our history that's being raped!'" she says. "I think they see it as [just] a market-driven project."
The Yost's new management team feels it hasn't been given a chance to prove itself to the community—yet. Lluy and Leon's lease stipulates that they host two community events per month at cost. "I just laughed at that clause because we were already doing that," Lluy says. "I feel the businesses have an obligation to the communities they're in." As for selling out, he says, "Just because there's money involved and that I learned my lesson after 20 years doesn't mean it's not DIY. We're here every step of the way; we're not just hiring contractors and going on vacation. I still have that ethic. It's not like I changed; I just got smarter about getting things done."
And it seems Lluy's efforts to connect with his neighbors on Fourth Street are working the closer they get to opening day. They're talking to a neighboring restaurant about putting up a taco cart after concerts. The Yost will be using ice cream from La Nueva Reyna de Michoacán, located on Fourth Street, in its desserts. "We've all invested so much, and we've all got to band together," Lluy says.
Even Teresa Saldivar, who owns Teresa's Jewelry, is excited about the whole thing. From the ages of 12 to 18, she manned the ticket booth at the Yost. (Her aunt married Alfonso Olivos, the brother of Louie Olivos Jr.) "I really enjoyed it; the movie would start, and I'd do my homework, then I'd go backstage with all the movie stars. . . . When the Olivoses left, we missed them tremendously."
Saldivar would've preferred the Yost host more cultural entertainment. "But as long as it's being utilized, I don't have a problem [with it]. Just get some traffic in here," she says. Maybe, when the kids at the Yost grow up, they'll buy jewelry from her, she adds.
"The other day, I was talking to one of my employees about the Yost," Saldivar says. "Her kids are 15 and 18. She said, 'I'll pick them up from the Yost instead of taking them to LA—we need a venue in Orange County.'"
This article appeared in print as "Change of Venue: A renovated, revamped Yost Theater is ready for its grand reopening. So why aren't all of its downtown Santa Ana neighbors celebrating?"
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