North Park Theatre hums to a new tune

Jen Van Tieghem | Uptown News

The idyllic building on University Avenue, just steps from the North Park sign at 30th street, features an ornate façade and eye-catching marquee. Since being acquired by David Cohen, Bobby Jones and The Verant Group last year, the theater now has the means to play the part it is dressed for.

The iconic stage in the North Park Theatre (Photo by Marisa Mortati)

The iconic stage in the North Park Theatre (Photo by Marissa Mortati)

In its 85-year history, the theater has given patrons a place for entertainment the times demanded: films, symphonies, and musical and theatrical productions. But as the urban landscape of North Park has shifted in its business makeup and residents, it’s time again for the theater to follow suit.

One way the venue now fits that landscape is with a united front with West Coast Tavern. The popular restaurant, which operates in the lobby area of the building, was once a separate entity, but together they make perfect sense. With Cohen and his partners at the helm of both establishments, they will offer a historic concert venue and a chic restaurant and bar in one place.

“I think this is more in line with North Park overall,” Cohen said. “I think it’s bringing in a bit of a different demographic than was here for the [previous owners the Lyric] Opera, which brought out an older crowd. … [North Park] now has young    families that are getting started. [They] want to have some entertainment, some nightlife, some restaurants, some shopping and that 25 – 50 [year old] demo is really where our mixture will play well.”

Removing the theater’s permanent seating was another way to make the venue fit the neighborhood and clientele. This renovation was a seemingly easy decision for Cohen and his cohorts as they recognized the need for a convertible and open space.

“We need to attract as many artists as possible so we don’t want to be limited,” Cohen explained “Making the space as flexible as possible is really the key to getting it utilized.”

The theater now has several possible configurations for events. They can have a seated show with 550 chairs, they can accommodate 1,100 guests for a standing only concert or they can set up a combination of both; they can also bring in tables and chairs for corporate events or parties.

Of course, an imperative part of the theater’s equation for success is scheduling talent people will pay to see. Lykke Li and The New Pornographers are two upcoming shows Cohen said he’s excited for.

The booking has gone notably well thus far, mostly with help from another well-known venue.

“It’s an open house but Casbah is our partner,” Cohen said. “[Casbah’s owner] Tim Mays is our head booker and obviously he has a handle on the San Diego music scene.”

Mays, along with talent booker and publicist Rosemary Bystrak, have a firm grasp on what artists will suit the theater and fans.

“We had no doubt that The Head and The Heart would do well in San Diego,” said Bystrak of Seattle’s indie-folk darlings who will play the theater on August 11. “But the speed in which it sold out was very affirming in that we know San Diegans have wanted the theater activated for some time. We saw similar enthusiasm with Rodriguez, which is why we added the second show.”

As the first collaboration between the theater and Casbah, the two sold-out Rodriguez shows earlier in June also confirmed that the venue is heading in the right direction.

“We had music fans from 21 – 91 years old and everyone in between,” Cohen noted. “Seeing a wide range of people enjoying a great artist was the best part for me.”

The events also garnered heaps of praise from show-goers and musicians.

“As performers it was outstanding,” stated Max Plenke, drummer for opening band Rusty Maples. “The sound in there is nuts; easily one of the best systems we’ve gotten to play on. We weren’t given some bologna five-minute sound check as the support — they spent time getting it right.”

The band’s singer Blaire Dewane echoed praise for the theater and West Coast’s offerings: “The venue couldn’t have taken better care of us. There was a lot of pressure opening for a legend to a sold out theater, but the staff made it incredibly comfortable for us, and the food … was delicious.”

As such a prime spot in North Park, it would seem a daunting task to usher in a new era for the theater but by all accounts things are running smoothly.

“We’re ahead of schedule,” Cohen said of their progress. “We’re happy about it. The talent buyers are very excited about it. There’s a great ‘word on the street’ happening, so that’s awesome.”

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