Sunday, January 07, 2007

Dog Bits Man! Downtown News Scoops LA Times!

Once again, the Downtown News scoops the LA Times on an important story - the sale and - hopefully - reopening of a major cultural venue:

Kathryn Maese

A new player has entered the mix in the hot Staples Center neighborhood. Downtown's latest building transaction could bring a hefty dose of drama to South Park.
The Variety Arts Center has been sold to David Houk, a local developer who once owned the Pasadena Playhouse.

Former Pasadena Playhouse owner David Houk last week told Los Angeles Downtown News that he has closed escrow on the historic Variety Arts Center for an undisclosed amount. Houk, who heads Downtown-based Houk Development Company, purchased the 1924 theater and event space at 940 S. Figueroa St. from Anschutz Entertainment Group.

"We bought it to restore it and produce new plays and musicals," he said. "We plan to read new scripts and pick shows."

Houk said the deal closed Dec. 7, after his business plan was approved by AEG. Renovation of the Variety Arts Center is expected to last a year; he plans to move his offices and theater company into the location once the project is completed.

AEG, which owns Staples Center, did not return calls for comment.

The transaction has sparked enthusiasm from area players.

"I would think because of [Houk's] background that it's a real opportunity to create a potential new theater and entertainment center adjacent to the L.A. Live complex," said Mike Pfeiffer, executive director of the South Park Stakeholders Group, which represents many of the area's businesses. "It seems like the best fit. It's a building that's needed something like this for a long time."

AEG purchased the five-story Variety Arts Center for an estimated $8 million in spring 2004, with plans to develop it as a key component of the $2.5 billion L.A. Live sports and entertainment district rising two blocks away. The first phase is set to open late this year with a host of big-name restaurants and retail shops; later phases include a theater, movie complex, ESPN broadcast center, housing and a hotel.

Houk had eyed the Variety Arts Center for several years, and said he tried to purchase it around the time AEG bought it. When he heard that Anschutz was looking for a quiet sale, he jumped at the opportunity.

"It's a fabulous location to put on shows," Houk said. "I was told that more than dollars they were interested in a compatible use for what they were doing."

The elegant structure, which is a registered historic cultural landmark, houses a 1,000-seat theater along with a smaller theater and nightclub space, a lounge, a library and offices. Over the years the venue has seen a smattering of events from concerts to film shoots to fashion shows.

"We're very excited about hearing his plans and the timing couldn't be better," Pfeiffer said. "When you look at that location and that building, it has tremendous history. The architecture is so beautiful and it's another of those features that attracts people to the Downtown core."

The Italian Renaissance-style theater is among Downtown's most historically and architecturally noteworthy structures. The building, which is sometimes overlooked because of its simple gray facade, was constructed to house the Friday Morning Club, a social and political organization for women founded in 1891 by Caroline Severance. To pay off the construction costs, the club built the main theater, whose elegant design includes a gold-leafed, coffered ceiling and faux-marble columns, as a playhouse to generate income. Will Rogers was toastmaster on opening night, and guests included Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille.

Throughout the 1930s the Variety Arts Center attracted prominent speakers including Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Parker, and hosted live radio shows by Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. The structure, and its anchor club, began to decline by the '70s. It was sold in 1977 to the Society of the Preservation of the Arts. Paul Sehdeva purchased the building in 1989 and held onto it until AEG acquired it.

The Variety Arts Center is one of nearly half a dozen Downtown theaters that are being brought back from obscurity. Developer Tom Gilmore is currently rehabbing the State Theater on Main Street and plans have been announced to fix up the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway.

If the Variety Arts building becomes a theater, it would have an ample audience within walking distance. Developer South Group is building five condominium towers in South Park and Houston's Hanover Company is constructing a 26-story apartment complex at Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

Contact Kathryn Maese at

It is now over a month since the sale closed and the Times still doesn't seem to know about it.

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