LOCAL ARTS ACTIVIST INITIATES DEBATE THAT RECALLS “THE LAST WALTZ” CONCERT FILM AND “THE LAST PICTURE SHOW” NOVEL
Mark Weiss awoke Friday morning brimming with ideas about The Varsity Theater in Palo Alto, the recent site of Borders Books. On his way to one of his usual perches, at Peet’s on University, to set down and organize his thoughts, he ran into the media. This chance meeting interrupted the train of ideas and questions running through his mind: did he really know 50 comparable cases of theaters converted back to music or non-profit and non-traditional venue spaces? How could he make himself and his knowledge base a resource either to the the building owner, the hypothetical and perceived community group or the concert industry to make some fruition this time around? In 1996 Weiss joined an ad hoc group of what seemed to be about a dozen people who were trying to lobby city council to thwart the landlord, who needed a variance to convert the space from the historic theater to retail. They said they had 8,000 signatures on a petition. But that strategy failed, the council voted anyhow to grant the variance and Palo Alto therefore enjoyed, if not a downtown gathering hall then a pretty good book store for 17 or so years. And Bill Workman of the Chronicle wrote a column about Weiss , the cheeky promoter who said at the public hearing, in front of Fazzino, Simitian, Kniss et al, he could develop his twice-a-month concert series at 300-capacity Cubberley Theater and move that over to the much larger Varsity, if given time and opportunity. Also, Weiss’s concert concern, Earthwise Productions booked a short series of performances into the courtyard of Borders, for and with them, and he was quoted in the Metro lauding the Vienna Teng in-store which drew throngs.
So this July morning, whatever else happens, is said, or sung, Weiss is on record again regarding Chop Keenan’s showplace property, The New Varsity. He said, on KTVU Morning News, “Now that Borders is leaving, I think there is considerable community support for looking into the possibility of a theater or performing arts space.” (Sid Farhang of KTVU, a reporter with 20 years experience there, was shooting some footage and Weiss asked for a word with him).
A concert venue of course, is easier said than done.
But Weiss, a Gunn and Dartmouth graduate who has produced more that 200 concerts in Palo Alto since 1994 and ran for City Council, says he would think it would be worth doing, to to shoot for a business model that could find 50 shows a year, for ten years and then out. That’s 500 shows. It would be like Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” meets The Band, Bill Graham et al “The Last Waltz,” he says, referring to the 1966 novel (made into a 1971 movie) and the 1978 Martin Scorcese documentary, respectively. Added together Weiss dubs this initiative, “The Last Picture Waltz.”
“It might be too much to expect this to be permanent,” he says. “But it would be worth the effort to run the venue for a 10 year term, as a type of long goodbye.”
“I think the concert world might be more open to this now that Bill Graham Presents regional monopoly has split into Live Nation, Another Planet and Golden Voice, three of the country’s best promoters all nearby. Also, Freight and Salvage raised $20 million to build a new venue in Berkeley, as a non-profit. So the times they are a changin’.
Or, as Levon Helm might say, “don’t do it. Don’t break my heart.” Don’t add another retailer to that jewel-box gathering space, without at least one last kiss goodbye, or 500! Weiss is canvassing, by phone, text, email and in person, to find like-minded potential stake-holders in hopes of getting a hearing from Keenan, who was said to be already fielding queries from national retailers and 2.0 tech firms. He is said to be considering first floor retail and second floor office space. Speaking of chains, the ghost of guitar whiz Michael Hedges (1953-1997) reportedly said through a medium that he he prefers artists over code-writers in his former favorite haunt.
edit to add, 8/1: this is text of my letter to council:
|I am writing you to ask our elected representative government, our Mayor Sid Espinosa and eight additional City Council members, to intervene in the matter between the landlord/manager of 456 University Avenue and his prospective future tenant, at the Varsity Theater, in the wake of the failure of Borders national chain Books there.On these five grounds: 1) The venue could be a future site (as it was from 1927 to 1994, for more than sixty years) for a public hall, for entertainment, for a marketplace of ideas, for live music concerts, for live theatre, for lectures, for government outreach, for film programming and high technology showcasing, for up to 900 people at a time; this use is a rare thing, an essential thing for a Democracy, great for local economy (see Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class”) and consistent with our articulated values about “civic engagement.”2) When Council in 1996 voted to give landlord a variance to permit conversion from Theatre to retail, it was very specifically and popularly asked to only do so if the Theatre could be converted back; short of a literal covenant, the popular conception is that in the event of the failure of the national chain bookseller, the citizens (at that point 8,000 had signed a petition) would have a fair chance to present a proposal. Also, and former Mayor Gary Fazzino reminded me of this recently, the engineering done in 1996 very specifically was done so as to ease the reversion back to a Theatre or public hall use. (The website of Meserve Engineering of San Jose confirms this and has useful photos). 3) Our elected council should perhaps atypically take the initiative here in terms of directing or engaging with applicant in that he is generally perceived to be the most powerful land-owner in town, or one of “the Big Three”, endorsed eight or nine of the campaigns of the current Council; it would be in the public interest if Council strived to avoid the appearance of a two-track governance, for the elite and the commoners. Indeed, it looks like the three local papers have something of an embargo on this story, of the community interest in The Varsity Theatre. Also on Friday, July 29 a deputy city manager seemed to be making prejudicial, premature and biased comments on this issue, or words were attributed to him, that this proposal – the Varsity Theatre — was a non-starter (“that a theater wasn’t really a viable option”????). Also, given the historic value of this building, staff should be instructed to be thorough, diligent and error-free in its writings, research and reports on this topic (perhaps especially to refute the notion that the very powerful can somehow hermetically influence staff utterances); perhaps any application for permits at 456 University, in this context, could be grounds for calling a public hearing;4) In terms of the value of a proposed or potential Varsity Theatre, perhaps offering, via a qualified nationally-known commercial operator, by a non-profit or an ad hoc and to be formed new NGO, or by government, beyond the economic value to local restaurants, hotels, impulse-buy shops and perhaps CalTrain, one specific social value near to my heart would be its impact or synergy with Project Safety Net. I believe, especially in the context of the demise of our downtown teen center, and the closing of the public hall during the work on the Art Center, that there could be concerts specifically to raise funds or consciousness about teen suicide. In 1998, for example, I hosted and produced just such an event at Cubberley featuring a band called Pansy Division, who were famous as a clearinghouse for such information. More recently, I have been in contact with Kristin Hersh, who played Cubberley, was nominated for a Twilight Series show, and has spoken publicly about the suicide of her friend the musician Vic Chesnutt. Also, I thought of Judy Collins, who wrote a book about depression, and thought to contact her, regarding a potential concert here, via her associate my friends at Grassy Knoll management and label, Julia Reinhart. Joan Baez and Dar Williams are also well known, sympathetic, and have local ties.5) I think staff or council should be in contact with potential operators of a venue, who could also offer insight, encouragement and information should it come down to deciding that a local newly-forming operator is the best viable new tenant. People I have, since July 20, spoken to include: Jason Olaine, Gunn graduate, and manager of Yoshi’s San Francisco; Gary Meyer, founder of Landmark films; David Lefkowitz, manager of the Warfield Theatre, for Goldenvoice; the office of Alex Hodges, of Nederlander of Los Angeles, operators of San Jose Civic; Brad Kava, music writer, artist, and partner in Santa Cruz Blues Festival; Stuart Brewster, of Palo Alto Jazz Alliance; Steve Baker, manager, Freight and Salvage, of Berkeley (a $20 million dollar project that Palo Alto City manager Jim Keene told me recently he had a great familiarity with); Chris Cuevas, artist manager and founder of Wanderlust music and yoga festival; and Roger McNamee, artist, venture capitalist and investor in Slims/Great American. Also, I think we should contact Lee Smith, Michael Bailey and or Rick Mueller of Live Nation, who operate Shoreline, Mountain Winery and the Fillmore; Greg Perloff of Another Planet, who runs Fox Theatre in Oakland; Danny Scher, a Paly graduate, former president of Bill Graham Presents in San Francisco, principal of Dansun Productions in Berkely, who I believe consulted with his schoolmate Gary Fazzino on this matter in 1996; and Dawn Holliday, of Great American Music Hall, Slims and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass free festival. I have a list of more than 40 such potential sources on this matter, many I have dealt with personally. (I said to council on July 25 that I would on a pro bono basis help staff research and write a white paper on this important and timely matter. I am hereby repeating the offer and advocating that something like should be done, or asking).
While I know that many feel that government should not intervene with property rights and the free market, I think there are certain cases where we are compelled to act, and this case, of the matter of 456 University and the Varsity Theatre qualifies and merits it. I think, as keeping with the lore of social media, perhaps the crowd-sourcing and hive-sourcing, and wiki- , would yield a better solution than otherwise would be arrived at by the savvy and successful individual. There could be a win-win that generations of Palo Altans (and regional supporters) would laud your efforts and the efforts of the landlord here. It could be all of our legacy to act here and now on this matter.Many people here feel that the numbers 456 for further auspice are a lucky combination; I realize I am asking for something quite difficult to achieve or hope for.
Perhaps we could put funds forward to get a 60-day window for first right of refusal, to research these ideas.
Thanks in advance for whatever you can do.
Palo Alto resident
Following music w. government since 1978 when, as an 8th grade rep to Terman Site council I was amazed to hear Led Zeppelin played over Cubberley High p.a. while en route to a district-wide school-hours meeting