To Galaxy Concert Theatre and Beyond
"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.
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.
For the most part, opening the Constellation Room was simple math. "You can't book 1,000-person shows seven days a week," Michaelis says, "but you can book 200-person shows seven days a week."
The tall, long-haired brunette is wearing long, flowy clothes and horn-rimmed glasses as she walks with Reiser through the theater. Huntington Beach native Michaelis, 26, double majored in Latin American and Eastern European history at USC. The partners show off the building's helipad and say hello to the new chef Brandon Erdo (he has a Mohawk!), who introduced a new menu and will likely spearhead the soon-to-open gastropub.
The blond Reiser (also wearing horn-rims) speaks steadily and is all business. Dressed casually in a plaid shirt and jeans, he's not flashy, not obnoxious and doesn't have the obvious trappings of success you'd expect of a concert-venue owner (save, perhaps, for the tiny Porsche parked out front). He's actually really cute, especially when he can hardly contain his excitement while giving a light and sound demo of the new sound system that "makes hairs stand," or while running his hand over the green-room walls backstage, which have been covered with chalkboard paint so bands can have fun doodling and leaving messages on them.
A self-proclaimed computer nerd, Reiser founded his own consulting firm in the early aughties and worked as an independent contractor installing computer systems for Fortune 500 companies (until last month, when he decided to put all his energy into revitalizing the Galaxy). Until very recently, Reiser co-owned the Detroit Bar with members of the Memphis Group, where he acted as the talent buyer from 2006 to 2011, but that wasn't his first foray into the business. "I spent three years getting approval for what is now Proof Bar," he says. "It was going to be called 215, but by the time we got approval, the area hadn't changed that much, so it didn't make financial sense to do it." At around the same time, some partners at Detroit Bar were selling their shares, so Reiser bought into the business late 2006.
Detroit Bar, which opened in 2001, was a game changer for Orange County's music scene from its inception; both by bringing big names (Elliott Smith, Stereolab) to a Costa Mesa strip-mall club that fit 250 people and by developing residency nights for local bands, it developed prestige and clout. It became a goal for local bands to play there, and it helped develop Orange County as a separate music market from Los Angeles nationally.
Reiser, who says he "fell into" booking acts at Detroit Bar (first by scheduling DJs, then residencies, then finally all seven days of the week), didn't have a music background before working at the club. But as he started arranging more acts to play, he did more research on bands and developed an ear, an instinct for what could do well. "It's really hit-or-miss," he says. "You have to read a lot of blogs, see who's booking national tours months ahead." At the time, he says, there were more DJ nights than nationally touring acts at Detroit Bar. He changed that, and maintained good relationships with agents, bookers, bands, management—relationships that, he says, will bring great acts to the Galaxy.
Detroit Bar is also where Reiser and Michaelis met. "I used to promote events [in OC and LA]," Michaelis says. "He told me, 'You are the most annoyingly efficient person I've ever met—come work for me!' So I did."
At first, Michaelis tended bar at Detroit; she eventually also promoted events and replied to emails. From working together, they became friends, and "we realized we had the same dream," Michaelis says.
That dream? To open a large music venue in Orange County—and then, open more venues in secondary markets: Arizona, Santa Barbara, maybe Sonoma County. "Places where people don't want to drive into the city but it's still a metropolitan area," Michaelis says.
"We'll get [the Galaxy] to where we want it to be first," Reiser says.
In a 2009 radio interview with Press Pass Music, Reiser said, "I absolutely believe we need more venues in OC; I welcome other people trying to open new venues in OC, especially all-ages venues, as there really aren't any established all-ages places in OC." And he kept trying to open a bigger venue, even before the Golden Bear. In 2009, when the Galaxy was vacant for a year due to a failed venture by Hollywood nightlife mogul Anton Posniak (see Vickie Chang's "Less of Mor," Nov. 21, 2008), Reiser says, he almost got the venue—but Gary Folgner beat him to the lease-signing by 24 hours. "Anywhere with a liquor license, we tried to get," Reiser says.
"The problem with Detroit was all the bands outgrew it," Michaelis adds. "Delta Spirit, Cold War Kids—who started [at Detroit]—they're too big to play there, so the idea we had was to have someplace where they could keep playing OC. They never play here anymore because there's never anywhere for them to go."
Reiser maintains that his original intent, when he was still chasing the Golden Bear, was to keep both Detroit Bar and a bigger venue. "If you look at any other events company—the Echo, the Silver Lake guys—they all have more than one venue because it's a lot of work. You're booking bands four months before the show, and you have to be way ahead of the curve. It's a lot of research, a lot of promoting . . . and when they finally get an audience, they're too big to play [your venue]."
Such was the case with Foster the People, whose Detroit Bar residency in January started with 50 people at the show. "By the fourth week, there were 400 people there and a line out the door!" Michaelis says. Building a relationship with Foster the People at Detroit Bar allowed Reiser to book the band at the Galaxy with a couple of emails—but without the Galaxy, a show at the much-smaller Detroit wouldn't have made the band enough money.
* * *
The breakup with Detroit Bar hasn't been easy. Dan Bradley, Detroit Bar's co-owner, says the only inkling he ever had that Reiser wanted to expand was in 2008, when the Galaxy was available. Reiser asked if Bradley would be interested in it. "It was the height of the recession, so I passed. I didn't feel that was a good spot to expand and cultivate the music scene," Bradley says. "It didn't seem right at the time."
Bradley says Reiser didn't tell his Detroit Bar partners he wanted to open a larger venue and was pursuing the Golden Bear or the Galaxy. He told them after the fact, and that was something the Detroit co-owners took issue with. "I think having an additional indie-rock venue is going to be great for Orange County," Bradley says now. "I wasn't suspecting it to be direct competition at the time . . . but that's okay. There's plenty of opportunity to go around, and we wish him the best of luck."
That's a much more diplomatic take than that of Mike Hussey, the new booker for Detroit Bar's Static Fridays. "He basically screwed Detroit over because he left," Hussey says, adding that Reiser betrayed the club by trying to poach all its employees, promoters and talent buyers, and contacts. Hussey has never met Reiser, but in the past year and a half that he's worked at Detroit, "Jon never was hands-on; he was never there."
Reiser shrugs off these claims and says they're not true. Whether they were poached or followed Reiser willingly, it's a fact that ex-Detroit Bar employees now pepper the Galaxy payroll. Dubstep event producers SMOG LA moved their popular Dubtroit night to the Galaxy within a month of Reiser owning it. Independent promoter Jeffrey Shuman of Club Mercy now books bands for the Galaxy instead of for Detroit Bar.
"Part of what made [Dubtroit] such a great experience was working with the Detroit Bar team. When Jon Reiser told us he had sold the Detroit Bar to take on the Galaxy, we knew immediately what was possible," says SMOG owner Drew Best.
Brett Williams, who manages Foster the People and Cold War Kids, has a simple explanation for why relevant bands are playing the Galaxy now: "Because Jon has developed enough good relationships with bookers and agents and bands, and because of what he's already done to that room, bands are going to want to play there. No one wanted to before because there was no culture."
Besides, "those relationships weren't just confined to Detroit relationships," Michaelis says. "The main guy at SMOG, I went to high school with."
Reiser's response to the negativity? "Personally, I just figured if I kept my mouth shut and did what I was already doing, [the talk about me] would work itself out," he says. "I still believe that. But it does get frustrating at times."
He built good relationships from being in the industry—by treating people well, meeting hospitality riders, being good to the bands, he says. But Reiser wants to keep the focus on the Galaxy: "I'm really passionate about this, and I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. . . . But I love Detroit Bar and wish them well."
Last September, I photographed Jamaican reggae and dub icon Lee "Scratch" Perry's concert at the Galaxy. It was a show booked prior to Reiser taking over (part of the sales agreement was all the previously booked shows would be honored by the new management), and although renovations were clearly in progress (the walls weren't wood-paneled anymore, and the Constellation Room was in progress), there were still vestiges of the old Galaxy. A waitress shooed me off a table because I didn't want to order anything, the crowd had more middle-aged hippies than hipsters, and the sound was good, but it wasn't the high-tech system Reiser demoed for me.
By October, many things had changed. When experimental electro Canadian band Crystal Castles hit the Galaxy's stage, they performed to a room full to capacity of drunk, dancing, sweaty and smelly hipsters; according to Weekly reviewer Mary Carreon, "It smelled as if I was walking into a 24 Hour Fitness." The duo played on a brand-new $600,000 L-Acoustics Line Array and presented a "blinding light show," although, Carreon said, "as far as the Galaxy goes, better speakers, ventilation and air fresheners might be a good idea for next time!"
The review raised Reiser's hackles; apparently, one thing he does get pretty defensive about is his new baby, and he sent the Weekly a couple of angry/frustrated texts and emails.
"I'm trying my heart out to bring talent to Orange County," he wrote. "I think it is a unique market from LA. It isn't easy to get people to play OC—and I am trying to change that. Why can't we just build a community and do stuff that's cool?"
On a national level, Orange County is still seen as a Los Angeles appendage, without a delineated identity. So it's a challenge for music venues to lure both touring artists and audiences to local shows, but Reiser says it's possible. "LA County has more than 20 venues that do music, and they're all doing well," Reiser says. He thinks Orange County's 3 million people can sustain more venues. In fact, the more venues the better—it's good for their business to define Orange County as a separate market from LA County, and there's not necessarily any competition.
Jon Halperin, the talent buyer for the Glass House in Pomona, agrees. "Yost is concentrating on the dance [music]; House of Blues will continue to book a wide gamut of artists that wouldn't work anywhere else, not to mention their proximity to Disneyland allows them to book pop shows; Galaxy books the pretentious indie-rock bands not interested in playing a mainstream room; Chain Reaction will continue to book the hardcore and punk and upcoming screamo artists; and the Glass House will continue to book the screamo/indie/pop punk/hardcore/ska, as well as secret Coachella shows," he says. "This isn't a 'me against them' mentality. Everyone has their niche, and there is room for all of us . . . as long as patrons continue to support live music, of course."
As Michaelis says, "We're going for a renaissance of music in OC."
Even as they've already implemented many changes (all while keeping the Galaxy operational), Michaelis and Reiser are still in the process of renovating and updating. "We want to send a message that what we're doing is different," Reiser says.
The décor, Michaelis says, is "eclectic/rustic/industrial"; it looks like a more streamlined steampunk. There are no food or drink minimums, no charging tickets for children, no selling tables. There has been talk of selling the place's naming rights to VIZIO, but as of press time, Reiser says he's definitely changing the venue's name to the Observatory. The name still has universal connotations, Michaelis says, because "we wanted to honor what's happened here before," and it was chosen by Michaelis' boyfriend, Justin Suitor, who fronts local metal band Railroad to Alaska. (The band, incidentally, are holding their residency at the Constellation Room this month.)
Luckily, that hit-the-ground-running management style was coupled with years of dreaming. "We had years to plan all this," Michaelis says. "Now we're just all on the same page, and we're doing everything we can to do well."
This article appeared in print as "To the Galaxy—and Beyond: Despite the grumbling over his departure from Detroit Bar, Jon Reiser is determined to be an OC music game changer."
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