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Five ways to save the Huntridge

Spencer Patterson

One of the final e-mails I received from Huntridge Theatre owner Eli Mizrachi provided me with this update on his intended renovations early in 2004:


"plans got delayed. we will be open till at least may 1. then we close for 4-6 months. then the party starts."


But as most Southern Nevadans know only too well, invitations to that party never got printed, decorations weren't purchased and entertainment was never lined up. Not even close. Since going dark following a metal show featuring Dimmu Borgir, Bleeding Through and God Forbid on July 30, 2004, the Las Vegas landmark at the corner of Maryland Parkway and Charleston Boulevard has sat vacant, unused except perhaps by the ghosts rumored to reside within its walls.


The Huntridge's website has been offline for months. Its longtime phone number is out of service. Even the occasional inquiry about its future within the local music scene seems to have dried up, as weeks and months without shows stretch into years.


Understandably, Mizrachi is far from eager to discuss the situation, having once assured doubters they had nothing to worry about, and that the historic structure's heart would beat again, louder and stronger than ever.


After several attempts to reach the Huntridge's 33-year-old proprietor via phone and e-mail prove fruitless, I finally catch up with him at Henderson's City Furniture, the 200,000-square-foot jewel in his family's chain of Valley retail stores. Mizrachi rides toward me on an electric scooter, an apparent must for the operator of a warehouse so expansive it appears to dwarf the Home Depot to its rear.


From the moment we settle into high-back chairs at one of the outlet's many dining room tables, I'm struck by Mizrachi's guarded demeanor. Gone is the wide-eyed dreamer who once excitedly laid out his plans to add balcony seating, a second stage and a restaurant to the Huntridge. In his place sits a somber realist with both eyes fixed firmly on the bottom line.


"In an ideal world where you could pay the mortgage and pay your employees and not blink an eye about spending X amount for talent, we'd reopen [as a music venue]," he says. "But it all costs money. And it just can't exist the way that it was getting supported before. That's why it's closed now, because it was losing money. I don't rule out the possibility of reopening, but it needs to pencil out, and it doesn't right now."


Mizrachi intimates that an initial redesign estimate of $1.7 million ballooned closer to $4 million in a matter of months, the result, he says, of skyrocketing construction costs following a series of delays in obtaining required building permits.


"We had the [$1.7 million] ready and we were all ready to go, but we hit some hiccups—change this, change that—and then construction costs quadruple and general contractors don't have time for you, so what do you do? When I got that $4 million number that was it," he says, shaking his head and staring off into the distance.


So Mizrachi—the energetic figure who served drinks, sold water and ripped tickets at more than 130 Huntridge concerts ("the best job of my life," he insists)—put his vision on hold and got to work selling furniture. And the Huntridge faded from view, as much as any 11,000- square-foot, art-deco edifice topped by a 75-foot tower can.


Until last fall, when word began to spread that Mizrachi, whose family also owns the Cima's Furniture store directly west of the Huntridge, had begun looking into the possibility of razing the 61-year-old theater.


Though the Huntridge has been listed among both the National Register of Historic Places and the Nevada State Register of Historic Places since the early 1990s, those designations alone do not serve as legal protection for any structure regarding demolition.


What does safeguard the Huntridge, however, are covenants attached to the property, conditions of a series of grants totaling close to $1.5 million, from the state of Nevada and the City of Las Vegas to the Friends of the Huntridge, the nonprofit group that managed the theater from 1992 to 2002.


Among the covenants: a clause that requires the Huntridge's owner to "assume the cost of the continued maintenance and repair ... so as to preserve the architectural, historical, cultural and/or archeological integrity" of the property.


Though the grant money had been spent by the time the Mizrachis purchased the site in early 2002 for $925,000, the covenants apply to them and any future owners until they expire on July 1, 2017.


According to Ron James, Nevada's state historic preservation officer, Mizrachi made preliminary inquiries about the possibility of paying back the $1.5 million in grant money in exchange for a lifting of the covenants preventing demolition last year, but did not submit a formal proposal before a September 30 public hearing on the topic. A Mizrachi family representative sat in on that meeting, but no action was taken.


Though an official request could be presented prior to Nevada's Commission for Cultural Affairs' next Southern Nevada session March 2 and 3, Mizrachi sounds as if he has little intention of pursuing demolition at present.


"I bought it knowing that covenant was there, and I'm not gonna go fight anybody over it," he says. "I honestly don't think it will get torn down."


That's good news not only for residents of the adjacent Huntridge neighborhood, which derives its name from the theater, but also for those who treasure the surviving historic vestiges of a city with an affinity for imploding its past.


Designed by renowned movie theater designer S. Charles Lee, the Huntridge opened on October 10, 1944, and served a vital role in the community for more than three decades before closing for the first time in 1977. Among its many claims to fame, the Huntridge was the first Las Vegas theater to feature air conditioning and one of the country's first fully integrated movie theaters.


The Huntridge managed to survive the down periods that became more frequent during the 1980s and early '90s, along with a 1995 roof collapse and frequent scares the building might be torn down, initially morphing into a discount movie house and later reinventing itself as a music venue that hosted the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, Beck and the Beastie Boys.


To James, the Huntridge stands as one of the few landmarks Las Vegas cannot afford to lose. "We all know Las Vegas has a tendency to knock down its early structures," James says. "The Huntridge is a survivor."


Besides, reasons Bob Stodal, who sits on Nevada's Commission for Cultural Affairs, allowing Mizrachi to raze the Huntridge could set a dangerous precedent in regard to Nevada's other historically important locales. "It's never been done before, and if it did, it might allow prospectors to buy up historic sites, pay back grant money to have covenants stripped and then make enormous profits on their investments," Stodal concludes.


If bulldozing to start from scratch isn't feasible, and Mizrachi views his original renovation plan as a bad investment, what options remain for the future of the Huntridge?


Might Mizrachi be willing to wait out the covenants that protect the site for 11 more years, while continuing to shell out the mortgage of about $8,000 per month? Not a chance, he says. "It's not going to sit vacant until 2017. No way. Something will happen in 2006 for sure."


Still, concerns over the Huntridge's location—not within walking distance of anything particularly notable and in a part of town some Southern Nevadans might be hesitant to frequent—have Mizrachi at a crossroads.


"We're not in Summerlin. We're Downtown and it's reality," he says. "We have Circle Park. We have a huge homeless population there. We have a huge graffiti thing there. Let's not kid ourselves. It's not Green Valley, and a lot of parents won't let their kids go there."


Since Mizrachi no longer seems eager to pour his family's fortune into a Huntridge project, might he be willing to sell, be it to another private developer or a nonprofit group with financial support from the city and the surrounding community? Not likely.


"Not to be greedy or anything, but why in the world would I just give it back? It's my land. It's my property. And I'm going to do something great with it," he vows. "We just need to figure out what."


Well, Eli, we here at the Weekly have been giving it a lot of thought lately, and we've come up with a few suggestions.




1. CONCERT VENUE


Duh. The Huntridge has hosted rock shows, on and off, since 1992, when Friends of the Huntridge operator Richard Lenz began booking a string of diverse acts like Porno For Pyros, rapper Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails.


Southern Nevada's music scene has felt far too empty since the Huntridge bolted its doors 18 months ago. Sure, we've got the Rolling Stones and Coldplay at the MGM Grand and Styx and the Pretenders at the House of Blues, but where are the Arcade Fires, Lightning Bolts and MF Dooms to play?


"I miss it. I miss the crowd that goes there," says Kim Garcia, Mizrachi's right hand during the Huntridge's final days. "It just felt different from going to a show in a casino."


While admirable, Mizrachi's hopes of challenging the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay for top-tier bookings—by cleaning up the Huntridge's interior and adding a balcony to up its seating capacity—seem rather far-flung to us. Casino venues will always have more money to spend on acts, not to mention the ability to freely comp out tickets without consistently ending up in the red.


Despite its current hiatus, the Huntridge remains a brand name familiar to bands, promoters and booking agents, as evidenced by MTV2's 2004 2$Bill show featuring the Beastie Boys, who reportedly handpicked the venue despite the availability of Las Vegas' slew of shinier concert halls.


Just because Southern Nevada is home to many live music venues doesn't mean the Huntridge couldn't fill a consistent calendar. A void exists for all-ages, noncasino venues that can service the many underground or up-and-coming national acts passed over elsewhere in town, and the many local acts that call the nation's fastest-growing city home.


Not that we're simply suggesting reopening the Huntridge as-is. The theater needs updating to meet current fire codes, and a fresh coat of paint—not to mention renovated bathrooms—might inspire folks to trek down to the Huntridge more often.


More than anything, some sort of secondary performing space would enhance a music-centered Huntridge. It's embarrassing when Mogwai or the Libertines—quality headliners who routinely sell out larger venues across the Southwest—draw fewer than 150 bodies to the Huntridge's 1,000-capacity main hall. And other lesser-known acts, who expect to draw no more than 100, also seem wildly out of place in the cavernous room.


For a time, the Huntridge hosted small-scale shows in its lobby. We're not architects, but perhaps that space could be expanded to provide a more permanent second-stage area.


Extra care would need to be taken in booking acts Southern Nevadans care about. Though Phantom Planet had amassed a significant fan base when the band played the venue in April 2004, ticket sales were sluggish, as they often were for many semi-underground acts that suffer from a lack of airplay here. A second stage might alleviate the problem to some extent—headliners that didn't sell well in advance could move from the main room to the secondary space—but clearly, some shows simply would not make financial sense for the Huntridge, whatever their cultural appeal might be.


Upon reopening, the Huntridge could also benefit from a massive publicity push. Though a fair number of teens and twentysomethings stayed abreast of the theater's happenings, many others seemed unaware even that the venue was operating again under Mizrachi.


Efforts to get more information—not just listings, but focused event features—into the area's many newspapers, magazines and websites could go a long way toward drawing larger and more diverse crowds back into the Huntridge.


"You can't underestimate the importance of marketing and branding," says Kate Hausbeck, a resident of the adjacent John S. Park neighborhood who dreams of a thriving Huntridge complex. "Maybe you do it in stages. Step 1: 'Welcome to the renovated Huntridge. We painted it, and we've got some cool bands coming.' Step 2: 'OK, we've added a bar and some gaming.' And so on. A series of steps might get people invested, thinking, 'OK, it's alive again.' "




2. MOVIE THEATER


The Huntridge served primarily in this capacity for its first 48 years. Who's to say a return to the building's roots wouldn't restore its former glory?


Sure, Southern Nevada has plenty of movie theaters. But most of them are cookie-cutter multiplexes showing the same Hollywood fare, leaving a giant niche for those with a taste for independent, documentary, foreign-language and black-and-white films, among other offerings mostly unavailable in the Las Vegas area.


"And it wouldn't have to be just art-house films," says Jeff Howard, president of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. "It could be retrospectives. It could be film festivals. LA and San Francisco have silent-film festivals, and I've always wanted to do that down here."


A few ideas from the Huntridge's past could even be reincorporated, such as the Saturday morning "Kiddie Matinee" from the 1950s or the late-night Rocky Horror Picture Show gatherings of the 1980s. Howard suggests bringing back midnight showings of The Three Stooges that used to draw sellout crowds to the now-defunct Parkway Theater further south on Maryland.


"You could do a lot of things with it. I saw Disney movies there when I was a kid, I saw all the Planet of the Apes movies when they originally came out. I took dates there in high school when they split the theater in half and had two screens," says Howard, a 39-year-old Las Vegas native who helped bring one of the Huntridge's final films, a limited run of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie to the theater in the mid-'90s. "I've always wanted to do a retrospective of the Airport films; how cool would it be to see Airport '75 down there? Or I want to start bringing in movies and bringing in directors and producers and actors and doing Q&As. So if you bring in Capote, there's Philip Seymour Hoffman to talk to you after the movie or before, you bring in something extra."


Checko Salgado, cofounder of independent movie advocacy group N.O.T.B.A.D. (Nevadans Organized To Better Address Diversity), points out that local filmmakers also desperately need an outlet. "A lot of kids are coming out of the film systems at the community college and UNLV with nowhere to go, nowhere to show their films," he says. "There's a scene building up here, but we don't have a central location. A place like the Huntridge could bring people together, help form a film community."


But, Howard cautions, to succeed as a movie theater, the Huntridge would require a dedicated, regular crowd comprised primarily of film buffs, a group he suspects might be tough to gather in Las Vegas. "You really have to have film fans that support that type of thing, and I haven't seen that here," he concedes.


Other potential stumbling blocks for such a scenario include a lack of available parking and, perhaps most significantly in Howard's estimation, the semi-depressed commercial area surrounding the Huntridge.


"If I had a million dollars and someone said you can have the Huntridge and restore it, I would do it, but it's not time yet," he explains. "You've got to look at the surrounding area. It could be a cornerstone in that community, but until they start redeveloping that area, that thing's gotta just sit like a hibernating bear."




3. PLAYHOUSE


In a bizarro version of Las Vegas, the Huntridge is a playhouse, permanent home to a professional local theater company and sometime host to community and visiting productions. Can't picture it? Well it almost happened, says Robert Brewer, artistic director for the Nevada Conservatory Theatre at UNLV.


"Way back when—when Richard Lenz was running the Huntridge and before we had the NCT at the University—we were thinking about starting a theater there," Brewer recalls. "We were looking at that space and working with that fellow, and we went quite a ways into mission statements and things like that before he decided to do rock shows there instead."


To Brewer, the Huntridge offered an old-world feel missing from any other potential theater space in Southern Nevada.


"The Huntridge architecture is something you cannot buy, and that's why I loved it," he says. "I walked in and I said, 'My God, an old theater! I feel like I'm in New York. It's a theater with ghosts. How wonderful!' "


Though Brewer and his NCT eventually found a home at UNLV's Judy Bayley Theatre, there's little doubt Southern Nevada's performing arts scene could benefit greatly from additional theater venues. At present, several area theater companies—including Test Market, Stage Door Productions, Jade Productions and Cockroach Theatre—are without permanent facilities (though they rent spaces around town), setting the Huntridge up as a potentially galvanizing site for the theater community.


"We've been looking for a home, that's for sure, and the Huntridge would suit our needs perfectly. It sells itself, and it suits the kind of shows we do," says John Lorenz, co-founder of Cockroach. In recent months, Lorenz's group has staged shows at the Aruba Hotel, Las Vegas Little Theatre, the Katherine Gianaclis Park for the Arts, the Funkhouse and the Arts Factory. "We've been everywhere," Lorenz adds wearily.


Could a central theater location such as the Huntridge actually turn a profit? Ernest Hemmings, artistic director for Test Market, seems to think so. "If there was a facility that was all ready to go, designed for that purpose with four or so theater companies working together, it would be profitable. The problem we run into is most companies put out about four or five shows a year, and you have to have something going on all the time to pay your rent. But if you had four different companies in there—one in the spring, one in the winter and so on—it could work. And it would create affordable entertainment for the Las Vegas community, far more than what they're used to getting for the price."


Hemmings suggests that in addition to collecting rent from the various leasing theater companies, Mizrachi could sell tickets through the Huntridge website, collecting a service fee a la Ticketmaster. Additionally, the Huntridge would continue to operate its bar and sell merchandise such as historic Huntridge Theatre T-shirts.


"It could work, there's no doubt about it in my mind," Brewer agrees. "I dreamt big dreams with that space."




4. COMMUNITY THEATER


OK, so we're not quite as jazzed about this one, since it wouldn't really impact the city as a whole the way our other suggested solutions would. But listening to the residents of the adjacent Huntridge and John S. Park neighborhoods, such a project could make a major impact on the immediate area.


"There's not a community center anywhere near here, so that's a great idea," attorney JoNell Thomas, a John S. Park resident, says excitedly. "And that could also lend itself toward all kinds of things—meeting space, art classes, museum space—especially as, potentially, thousands of people are going to be moving Downtown into condos. I think having a community [center] nearby is important."


Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese, councilman for Ward Three, agrees that the need for a gathering place will become more critical as the area continues to change. "We have folks buying up three or four city blocks to put up apartments down there, a place where city employees, hotel workers and school teachers can rent some nice condominiums and townhouses," he explains. "So in a couple of years, there's going to be a need on down Charleston, and I think it would be a huge success, a place were neighbors can go two or three times a week."


While residents of the area surrounding the Huntridge agree that a community center at the corner of Charleston and Maryland could help spur the overall neighborhood revitalization they've been hoping for, most concede it likely wouldn't appeal to a private developer.


"On the one hand, a community center would be fantastic," Hausbeck says. "But that isn't exactly a for-profit business, and in some ways I think there are better locations for a community center than in the old, historic Huntridge. That isn't to say there couldn't be a community component to the Huntridge, but I think it's sort of a mistake to think about the Huntridge as becoming one thing. It has such a rich and varied history ... if it's going to fit in and maximize its potential for connecting with the community and booming as a reinvented business, I think a multipurpose space would make the most sense."


You read our minds, Kate. Which leads us to ...




5. ALL OF THE ABOVE


What good would a list of options be without the traditional catchall choice? He probably doesn't want to hear it, but Mizrachi's original instincts were right on target. Turning the Huntridge into multiuse space capable of housing music, movies, theater productions and community events makes the most sense and provides the best chance for the building's survival as a long-term, profit-making private endeavor.


According to Kasey Baker, designer for Mizrachi's intended renovation project, the remodeled facility was to span not only the Huntridge Theatre, but also the furniture store on the corner, one-time home to the Huntridge Bank. That portion of the site, Baker says, would have been divided between a cafe and a restaurant/bar, with room provided for small-scale shows in that space as well. A historic bank vault inside the restaurant was to be transformed into a giant wine cooler.


"He had it completely multiuse," Baker, a Huntridge neighborhood resident who worked on the architectural drawings for more than a year, says wistfully. "It would have been used at all times. You could have a cup of coffee there in the morning. It would be our neighborhood cafe for lunch. It would be open for dinner, small shows, community rooms. We designed it for banquets of all types and, of course, the big shows. You could use it for movies. It could have been everything, and it's what we need."


Even music, film and theater scenesters who would love to see the Huntridge utilized for their specific areas of interest concede its best chance for success would be as a multipurpose facility.


"It shouldn't work as one thing," Howard says. "It's a great venue to be used by the community for everything from convention meetings to special events, private parties, plays. It could function like a library would."


Baker describes Mizrachi as receptive to all such ideas, skimping on nothing in his attempt to restore the historic venue. "It was a design that I would rest my entire career on, a really, really great project, and he wanted to do it right," Baker says. "I respect him for that."


But, she admits, she can't help but feel let down by the end result. "When it came down to the money, he started feeling a little apprehensive about it. It was a relatively expensive renovation project for what he perceived as kind of a shaky investment. Of course, I never felt that way, and I don't feel he did until he started seeing the other possibilities, the development happening Downtown versus what he was going to be able to do at the Huntridge site. He just got cold feet."


As for whether the Huntridge renovation project might be resuscitated—a process that would require new building permits and another bid to construction contractors—Baker suggests a renewed neighborhood push might re-energize Mizrachi.


"Neighborhood support started out really strong, but people aren't really rallied behind it anymore. They just kind of assumed it was going to happen, and I think he kind of lost his push when he didn't feel like everybody was supporting him," Baker says. "If he's not going to feel supported in this part of the process, how is he going to feel supported that we're going to keep his doors open by eating dinner there twice a week or going to shows or whatever?"


Baker says she and Mizrachi communicate only occasionally these days, trading phone messages when one of them has a Huntridge-related idea flash. But mostly, their relationship mirrors the state of the historic building itself: on indefinite hold.


Perhaps one day soon, we'll drive past the Huntridge and see workmen toiling away, preparing the landmark for its long-awaited next phase. Maybe its walls will reverberate with music again and movie- or theatergoers will line up outside its box office to snatch up tickets. And just possibly, it will become the inspiration to the neighborhood's other developers, and the corner of Maryland and Charleston will thrive as it once did.


Until then, at least we can dream ...

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