It’s the close of a particularly scorching Southern California day, and moisture-laden air hangs heavy around the entrance to the Ventura Theater. Something like 18 security personnel are huddled near the long-retired ticket booth, prepping for a full house. A line of concertgoers extends around the corner, and all of Chestnut Street is abuzz with anticipation. “Merica!” The chorus of mostly male voices bounces off the walls like church bells as another pre-show ritual is completed. For those who claim music as religion, the 86-year-old venue is indeed a place of worship — the sweat of rock and roll cemented into the stage, the altar where generations of fans have flocked in adoration.
The ornate movie house built in the 1920s for $400,000 is one of 12 Ventura landmarks on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. Over the past nine decades it’s been used for a variety of purposes, but it wasn’t until current owner Rob Antonini took it over in 1998 that its future as a dedicated rock music venue was sealed.
Photos by: T Christian Gapen
At the time, Ventura was pinning its hopes on a downtown redevelopment plan that leaned heavily on a flourishing arts scene. The area’s cultural elite, which included wealthy Thousand Oaks artist Larry Janss, had its sights fixed squarely on the Ventura Theater as a performing arts center. Those with financial interest in Ventura’s renaissance were foaming at the mouth over the possibilities, and there was even talk of using eminent domain to snatch up the historic building to leverage their highbrow agenda. But Antonini, who had already been leasing the theater, somewhat heroically exercised his option to buy, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A music fan to the bone, Antonini had success with much smaller venues in Santa Barbara, most notably the Anaconda, prior to taking over the Ventura Theater. He also owned a record store, the vinyl remains of which line an entire wall of his office. That’s where he met Loanne Wullaert who would become the theater’s manager. After working together producing events up north, they took the wild ride to Ventura; and 16 years later, they bicker like an old married couple, though they’ve never been romantically involved.
Bar manager/booker Roni Osmer and Ventura Theater owner
Rob Antonini spend quality time with Antonini’s records.
Eddie Viveros takes his position behind the lighting console beside Chris Husted, who mans the sound board. It’s his first official night running lights. Earlier in the day, while the headliner was loading in, Viveros, outfitted in rock-climbing gear, made the nail-biting climb up a flimsy-looking truss ladder high above the stage to reposition a bulb. What appears death-defying to the layman is all in a day’s work for stage crew. Wullaert, who’s made the same climb and traversed the narrow catwalk, darts around the venue greeting the numerous people who are preparing the room for the coming tsunami of music fans.
In her corset and tactical firefighting boots, Wullaert can often be heard scolding unruly, entitled patrons. “We kicked a guy out once for punching a girl in the face and knocking her out at the bar,” she recalls. “He ended up punching the ticket booth and breaking the glass. When we kick people out it’s because they’re complete raving lunatics. I hate being the pit bull, but it’s always had to be that way. When I started doing it at the Anaconda, I would deal with people shooting up in the parking lot and neo-Nazis trying to pass out pamphlets, and when I tried to stop them they’d come at me with a broken bottle.”
Contrary to public perception, theater matriarch Loanne Wullaert does smile.
She’s also an accomplished vocalist who produces
and performs in quarterly theater productions at the venue.
Her staff affectionately refers to her as “the dark mother.” A plaque they gave her with those words engraved on it hangs in her office near a pirate flag that reads “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
“I’m super-protective of my guys. Everyone who works here works so hard and puts up with so much. It takes a lot to be able to do it. It’s like a family. Everyone looks out for each other.”
As is the case with much of the staff at the Ventura Theater, Roni Osmer wears many hats. Tonight, she’s supervising the bar. She once had her wrist sprained by a cranky artist whose music wasn’t nearly as tasty as his name. “The people you think will be super-nice, the ones you grow up worshiping, [can be] total idiots, and the ones you think will be total idiots are the nicest people ever,” she says. Considering the roster of artists that have performed at the Ventura Theater and the legions that came to see them, it’s not hard to imagine the shenanigans that have taken place there.
“Sometimes people think security is rude, offensive, rough,” says Osmer. “But people have no idea what it’s like to deal with 1,000 drunks who want to fight you or spit in your face. People are looking for trouble. Ninety-five percent of the time, all our staff at any moment are doing the right thing for the right reason. They care about our customers and are super-nice, responsible, reliable guys.”
Wullaert has plenty of stories — some of which she can share as long as there are no proper nouns involved. There was the popular L.A. hair metal band whose singer was in a mad rush for the toilet. At the end of the night someone noticed a foul odor coming from behind a sofa in the dressing room, only to find a cup of human waste. Then there was the handsome punk singer who was caught providing more than musical pleasure to a female bartender. That singer’s guitarist caused the dressing room coffeemaker to overflow. When the manager at the time expressed displeasure about the mess, the musician ground a half-chewed protein bar into the floor and demanded he clean it up. On Viveros’ first day, he was told, under no circumstances to let anyone backstage without a pass. When the guitar player for that evening’s headliner showed up without his pass, Viveros did as he was told, only to be “cursed out.”
“Sometimes they will order $1,500 worth of catering and then leave it behind,” says Wullaert. “That happens a lot. The Ramones wanted YooHoo and there was none to be found. Once I had to get Tofurky for someone and nobody knew what it was. The week after that show it was in every store.” Recently, Reverend Horton Heat was jonesing for Marley’s Mellow Mood iced tea and a runner was forced to drive all over town looking for it.
Yet for all the craziness, there are at least as many fond memories. “Weird Al is an absolute sweetheart,” says Osmer. “Rick James was amazing, talked to everyone.”
“Hank [Williams] 3 always asks for a monkey on his hospitality rider,” says Wullaert, “and we always get him a stuffed monkey ’cause we love him. He’s awesome.” The day of Williams’ first concert at the theater, Wullaert fell off a ladder while painting the entryway. Her injuries prevented her from seeing the show, a huge disappointment. When Williams heard about it, he sent her a T-shirt and wrote on it, “To my future ex-wife.”
From a cluttered, no-frills office above the theater box office, the soft-spoken, reclusive Antonini (his nervous Pomeranian usually within arm’s reach) discusses how much the industry has changed since he purchased the theater for a cool $1.8 million. “It’s all very dog-eat-dog now. When we started, the shows were coming left and right because there was no competition,” he says.
Thanks to the Internet, artists are increasingly dependent on touring to survive, which translates to high ticket prices and fierce competition between venues. While living in relatively close proximity to L.A. is a plus in some cases (down time between Coachella weekends), it often works against the theater’s ability to book trending talent. An artist playing at the Wiltern, for example, may be prohibited from performing within a 100-mile radius during that tour. And given a choice between L.A. and Ventura, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the rest.
“You can’t do a lot of the acts people are wondering about,” explains Antonini. “Those bands are getting just short of $100,000 to play these days, even at The Canyon. They get the whole door and tickets are 80 and 90 bucks. The Indian casinos have also created a lot of that. The business completely changed after the millennium.”
Wullaert, who’s been in the business for some 30 years and attended thousands upon thousands of concerts, finds herself discouraged by the current paradigm. “This was my dream job. I had energy forever for doing it,” she says. “Now you have to have a degree in economics or business. They’re all about money. One of the companies I deal with, if their agents don’t make the nut for the year they get fired. They are under pressure to produce. That’s where it turns into the big machine.”
Osmer remembers when the Ventura Theater was the only player in town. “We were the coolest club. The Canyon didn’t exist yet, we had all the classic rock bands and there were no casinos. It was way easier. We would keep the ticket prices down but new venues opened with bigger pockets,” she remembers.
These days, rap usually guarantees a full house, and is often what allows the theater to put on smaller, indie shows. Certain punk bands and “white boy reggae” groups are fail-proof, and ’80s acts are the new nostalgia draw with artists such as Adam Ant and Pet Shop Boys selling out. Antonini and company do their best to ride the waves, and there’s no doubt it’s getting tougher all the time to keep the lights on and the payroll full. Fortunately, they were never in it for the money. For Antonini and Wullaert, Viveros, Husted, and Billy Johnson on monitors, the box office staff, the bouncers, the bartenders and the cooks, it’s a labor of love. Every one of them has an abiding reverence for music and great respect for one another. Many of them grew up attending shows at the theater. They share life, love, birth, death, gain and loss like any other dysfunctional family, but they do it with the best soundtrack.
“We’re like the island of misfit toys,” Wullaert half-jokes.
“We are still here after all these years with the city wanting the building and people wanting to buy us out,” says Osmer. “Rob doesn’t owe anyone, there are no collectors coming after him, it’s his building, his business and nobody can take it away.”
It’s all goosebumps and butterflies as a thousand sweat-drenched fans raise their cigarette lighters and cell phones high. The band returns for its final encore, the singer tosses a T-shirt into the audience and smiles. Knowing glances, hugs and high-fives are exchanged. This sacred exchange of energy between artist and fan, the mutual gratification, the connection and the sense that all is well as long as the house lights stay off, this magic moment, this night of worship is brought to you by the Ventura Theater. Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Ten things you might not know about the Ventura Theater
• The disco ball that’s stored way up in the rafters originally belonged to Beyoncé.
• Public Enemy forgot its banner four times. It’s now safely stored at an undisclosed, heavily guarded location.
• During a sold-out Fugazi concert, a couple of fans climbed to the roof and ripped a hole in it for a birds-eye view of the concert. Punk rock.
• During a record-breaking el niño weather event, the theater was flooded with two feet of water, destroying parts of the interior as well as a good chunk of owner Rob Antonini’s valuable record collection.
• Inside what theater staff refer to as “the catacombs,” there is a spooky 4-by-8 foot hollow wall. They suspect foul play.
• The theater’s electric bill hovers around $5,000 per month.
• When they were first exploring the nooks and crannies of the cavernous building, they found a matchbook from John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in the crawlspace.
• Legend has it that Chester, the man who built the stunning chandelier hanging in the center of the theater’s main room, fell to his death while changing a bulb. The front-of-house crew has sensed a strange presence there.
• The stars that decorate the walls of the upstairs area were hand-painted by Loanne Wullaert.
• Many performers have favorite pawn shops, restaurants and thrift shops that they return to during each tour.