Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – An Arcata icon is for sale, and with it comes instant status as a regional entertainment industry kingpin.
The Arcata Theatre Lounge, described by a current owner as Humboldt County’s “premier concert venue,” is for sale for $1,850,000. Along with the recently renovated venue comes two rental properties on either side, the storefronts presently occupied by Bluegrass Barber and Smug’s Pizza.
The property is available through Caldwell Banker Sellers Realty in Arcata. Contact realtor Amy Ferron at (707) 822-5971. The online blurb tells most of the story in one dense paragraph:
“Unique business opportunity to own and operate the historic Arcata Theatre in the heart of downtown Arcata. The theatre was remodeled in 2009 in keeping with the original 1930s Art Deco style and reopened its doors as the popular Arcata Theatre Lounge. ATL hosts major music acts, movies and special events. Brought up to meet ADA standards, renovation includes a full commercial kitchen, concession, bar with hard liquor license, walk-in refrigerator with remote keg system, newly constructed bathrooms, upstairs tech area with upgraded sound and theatrical lighting systems, projector, reconfigurable Wenger stage, large office space, new plumbing, alarm, electrical, heating and sprinkler systems, rear loading area with ramp leading to F Street. Building includes two commercial rentals, Smug’s and Bluegrass Barber.”
What that description doesn’t include is the blood, sweat and tears that owners Brian and Lara Cox put into building the business. As well documented by the Arcata Eye, acquiring, financing, remodeling and finally, standing up the ATL as an entertainment venue in the mid-late 2000s was both an arduous bureaucratic journey and a punishing labor of love for the Coxes. Just opening a grand art-deco multimedia entertainment venue doesn’t guarantee that anyone will perform there.
“When we were first booking performers, we didn’t have any connections,” said co-owner Lara Cox. “Nobody wants to share information – it’s very competitive. You have to just jump in.”
Jump they did, gradually earning booking cred and mindshare among the fabulous entertainers of our land. But success didn’t come overnight. Cox remembers evenings when the staff and featured performers outnumbered paying attendees. “You’d have a band and 10 people would show up,” she recalled ruefully. “You feel bad for the band, and you’ve lost thousands of dollars.”
With eventual success came a life of glamour and leisure for the Coxes … if by leisure we mean more years of grueling nightly toil and sacrifice. “There’s so much behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t know about,” Cox said. “People will say, ‘That was such a great show!’ I tell them, ‘Yeah, I didn’t see it’. I rarely have time.”
Cox describes the theatre as a “round-the-clock” endeavor. For example, after a full house concert, the 600-seat room configuration may have to be reset for a 200-seat setup with tables and chairs, or 300 seats with the stage removed. Cox recalls the countless mornings going home at 4 a.m.
Then there’s managing the 30 or so employees, keeping the kitchen running and a thousand other details to attend to. “It’s just a constant churn of tasks,” Cox said. “This is for somebody who enjoys a challenge and working evenings.” She recommends that the next owner “be a nighttime person.”
The result of all that effort is an established, smooth-running – if not exactly turnkey – and profitable venue with a much-diminished (but not eliminated) debt, a seasoned crew and hard-earned stature in the live entertainment industry.
“We’ve made this a stopping-off place for performers who’ve outgrown this size venue and normally wouldn’t stop here [in Humboldt],” she said. She credits the theatre’s relationship with World Famous Productions for the continuing stream of name acts.
“We’ve worked so hard to build this up,” Cox said. “The community is behind us, and we have lots of regular customers. For them especially, we’d like the place to continue.”
While a city redevelopment loan has been paid off, some undisclosed loan debt remains. Still, the place is profitable and growing.
“We’ve been paying down our principal steadily,” Cox said. “It’s doing great, and it just keeps getting better.”
Then why leave now? “Basically , we’ve been at this for 11 years,” Cox said. “We’re in our mid-fifties and we’re kinda burnt.”
She takes responsibility for the self-induced burnout, a consequence of the couple not phoning things in. “It’s such a big venture to run, and we’re such hands-on people,” she said. “We could go another 10 years, or, while we’re still young enough and have the energy, we could move on. Our options are pretty wide open.” One post-ATL option includes “dithering about in the garden with the chickens.”
For now, any dithering is off the table. “We’re going to continue with business as usual until the right buyer comes along,” Cox said.
Even then, the commitment will continue until the next owner has things up and running. “We’d help the new owners however we could,” she said.
They already have. Years of high-quality, high-volume entertainment have exorcised the venue of any malign spirits. “Any ghosts have been rattled away by the concerts,” Cox attested. “I think the building likes us.”