It takes a village: Entrepreneurs ask the community for help in saving the Huntridge

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<p>The Huntridge Theater. PHOTO: MARTIN S. FUENTES/LAS VEGAS REVIEW JOURNAL</p>
<p>The Huntridge Theater. PHOTO: MARTIN S. FUENTES/LAS VEGAS REVIEW JOURNAL</p>

The history of the Huntridge Theater is a lot like that of other post-middle-aged Americans: a short happy rise followed by a slow but accelerating decrepitude.

Now a trio of young, entrepreneurial Vegas guns is riding in to save the theater. And these business samurais are asking for the help of the villagers. Are you a villager?

You might be. There are a lot of people who want to save this 69-year-old symbol of midcentury Las Vegas. In its favor, the theater is intact and just on the margins of some of the city’s hottest retail and residential areas. Drive by, and the hole in the signature obelisk still winks at traffic at the busy intersection of Maryland Parkway and Charleston Boulevard.

And the history of the Huntridge Theater is the history of Las Vegas. A startling number of people say they had their first kiss, saw their first movie or took in their first rock concert in the brick-lined urban artifact. Everyone who grew up in Las Vegas has a Huntridge experience. Some of the most important names in American popular entertainment over a five-decade span appeared at the site. In 1993, the theater was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

But for years, people have been wondering how long the Huntridge will be with us. The decay is evident in the unhealthy paint job, in the fact that trailer repairs are regularly performed in the parking lot, and in the tacky looking signs for cut-rate furniture sales on a portion of the exterior.

The present owners, the Mizrachi family of Las Vegas, advanced plans to rehabilitate the property in 2006, but those plans were derailed by the recession. More recently, the family began work on the building’s exterior, which went awry; the Southern Nevada Health District has fined the owners $6,127 for a paint-stripping effort that, because of the toxic lead in the old paint, created a hazardous waste site.

Two of the theater’s would-be saviors are direct participants in the still-nascent rebirth of downtown. Michael Cornthwaite owns several spots downtown, including The Beat coffee shop and the Downtown Cocktail Room, and is a board member of the Mob Museum. Joey Vanas operates the monthly First Friday event for Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project. And the third caballero is Rehan Choudhury, the former music booker at the Cosmopolitan, who is putting together the downtown Life Is Beautiful music festival later this year.

The three have a lot of allies. Count among them Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, one of more than a dozen people who last week filmed their stories about the Huntridge for filmmakers hired by the trio.

“I love coming on the property,” Coffin said at the event. “I grew up here. … The first time I ever kissed a girl, it was here. We had a ball.” Movies were two bits (25 cents), he recalled.

Another man who filmed his story was John Angus, who saw Danny Thomas perform at the Huntridge in 1952. Angus, now a resident of Idaho, grew up a few blocks away, at 11th Street and Wengert Avenue.

Vanas said whether future generations of young people will share similar fond memories depends on the level of support from the community. “It’s a few years — two or three years, probably,” he said, before the project will come together. “We’re not in a huge rush just to do something. It needs to be right. And it really depends on the support.”

Huntridge Revival is registered as a for-profit company, but Vanas and his colleagues still are counting on community support of various kinds, including financially. Vanas and Cornthwaite said they plan to “crowdsource” the project.

Crowdsourcing involves using Kickstarter or another online platform to ask for financial contributions. Contributors can give whatever they please, and in return, they are often rewarded with mementoes of their support — typically T-shirts, posters or other merchandise.

Often Kickstarter projects are shoestring affairs, such as a band seeking help to produce a record, but for-profit efforts aren’t unknown to Kickstarter.

“We’re going to crowdsource to get it off the ground,” Vanas said. “It’s going to take private investment, too.”

People who contribute through the crowdsourcing effort will get something back, he said, but he’s not sure what that will be yet. “We want to get people to be a part of something,” Vanas said. “They may only have a buck or 10 bucks, but this gives everybody a chance to be involved.”

But the investors agreed that crowdsourcing won’t be enough to pay for the project, which could cost $15 million or more. At some point, other investors will have to come in with sizable stakes.

Michael Cornthwaite has been here long enough to remember the rock bands that played before the theater shut down in 2004. He saw Smashing Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Huntridge. He said he is motivated to save the theater because of that personal and public history of the edifice. “It’s part of the fabric of Las Vegas,” he said.

Vanas and Cornthwaite said they will work with the theater’s many past and present would-be rescuers, which include the Huntridge Neighborhood Association (representing nearby residents) and the Huntridge Foundation, a nonprofit that has been gathering testimonials on the importance of the theater.

At a meeting of the Huntridge Neighborhood Association earlier in May, some residents groused that the trio of would-be theater rescuers hadn’t done enough outreach to the community. Dan Roberts, president of the Huntridge Foundation, said he has offered to help with the rescue but hasn’t heard back from the trio on his offer. He said he still thinks this new chapter represents a new hope.

“I’m very optimistic that someone is willing to put time and money into the theater,” Roberts said.

Cornthwaite, a day after the filmmaking event in the theater parking lot, said the new effort is fundamentally different from efforts in the past that amounted to little. In this case, the trio has a “very good” relationship with the owners.

Cornthwaite said he and his partners have placed a nonrefundable deposit for purchase of the property. This gives them what the Huntridge Foundation and others did not have: control of the property.

“We’ve got the necessary elements,” Cornthwaite said.

But money, quite a bit, is another necessary element. Cornthwaite said it may cost $10 million to $15 million to rescue the theater, and two-thirds of that may go to rehabilitating the dilapidated structure inside and out.

He declined to say how much the deposit was on the building.

“A considerable amount,” Cornthwaite said. “Enough to keep us highly motivated.”

Cornthwaite said larger investors will have to come into the project at some point. Although elements from Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project are indirectly tied to the Huntridge effort, Cornthwaite suggested that it would be a mistake to think this is one of the Zappos’ entrepreneurs’ projects. Hsieh is working downtown, and the Huntridge Theater is outside of that footprint.

But Cornthwaite also isn’t ruling out anyone. Potential investors, though, will have to know what they are buying into, and that is still undecided.

“We have ideas, but we also have to know what people will support,” Cornthwaite said. “Film, concerts, off-Broadway — we have to know what it is, exactly, that people will support.”

He said in the coming weeks, representatives of Huntridge Revival will meet with the neighborhood association — and anyone else who has a stake in the theater’s future — to get feedback on what the project should be.

He said that so far, the reaction has been almost entirely positive. “There’s probably not one person who doesn’t want to see this happen,” Cornthwaite said.

And this new effort may be the last, best hope to rescue and restore its glory days.

“If we can’t put it together and make this happen, it’s probably not going to happen,” he said.