Thursday, Oct. 31, 2002 | 8:23 a.m.
Eli Mizrachi remembers the angry reactions he encountered as he briefly considered turning the historic Huntridge Theatre into a furniture store or restaurant early this year.
"I had some people yell at me when they thought I was closing the place," Mizrachi said. "The secretary of a friend completely stopped talking to me for a while."
Mizrachi, whose family purchased the 58-year-old Las Vegas landmark in January, won't have to worry about receiving the silent treatment again anytime soon. Under his supervision, the Huntridge is once more up and running, set to reopen its doors to the public Friday night.
"The community loves the place," said the 30-year-old Mizrachi, whose parents also own Cima's Furniture, positioned next to the venue at the corner of Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway.
"It's amazing the positive feedback we've received since we decided to reopen."
As Mazrachi contemplated using the Huntridge as a concert hall, he turned to an old friend, musician Michael Stratton. The former guitarist for popular local band 12 Volt Sex a group that dissolved last year, ironically after one final show at the Huntridge -- jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
"I've been friends with Eli for a long time, and he called me to pick my brain," said Stratton, 28, who quickly signed on as Huntridge's new general manager. "I've played so many shows here and come to see so many shows here that it tickled me when Eli called. Things have a strange way of happening."
Opened in 1944 by actresses Loretta Young and Irene Dunn, the Huntridge spent nearly 50 years as a movie theater. For a time it was best known for its popular screenings of Disney productions.
The venue earned recognition as both a State Historical Registered Site and a National Historical Registered Site in 1993, ensuring that the building would never be demolished.
In 1992, the Huntridge entered its next phase, becoming a concert hall that soon began attracting some of rock music's top modern acts, including Beck, Sheryl Crow, the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Operated by the nonprofit organization Friends of the Huntridge Theatre Inc., the venue survived a massive roof collapse in 1995, using an infusion of public grant money to remodel.
Ultimately, however, the theater was unable to meet financial demands and compete with Southern Nevada's plethora of music venues, closing its doors on Jan. 1 after a New Year's Eve show by Guttermouth.
"The peculiar niche that they had started to disappear," said Hal Rothman, chairman of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas History Department and author of "Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century."
"But the Huntridge's situation is not unique. You see theaters like that in other cities closing as well."
Stratton, for one, says the 1,100-capacity hall can thrive again, providing a neighborhood alternative to Strip venues such as The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel and the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay.
"At the larger venues, if you have 400 or 500 people in a show, it looks empty. Here, we're working on a curtain system to make the room smaller for certain shows," Stratton said.
The timing might be right, as the area around the theater is undergoing a revitalization.
Sights and sounds
Mizrachi has already funded a considerable upgrade to the theater's sound system, welcome news for anyone who experienced the Huntridge's lackluster acoustics first-hand.
"I think a lot of people got disillusioned with the theater over the years," Stratton said. "They'd see their favorite band and it sounded terrible."
The Huntridge's lighting equipment has also been overhauled, providing performers with more options for improving the setting onstage. The lobby has also undergone a face-lift, with work on the exterior among future plans.
Mizrachi and Stratton have retained the services of Tom Anderson, longtime talent booker for the Huntridge. He has already booked several popular punk rock acts for November -- The Damned, The Vandals and The Dead Kennedys -- but Stratton insists the venue will also look to attract acts outside its traditional modern-rock genre.
"We'll literally open up the doors to everyone," Stratton said. "We're going to have the sound and lighting to bring different acts in, whether it be comedy, poetry, whatever."
The venue's movie screen will likely remain in place, making film screenings an option, and art exhibits would be another possible way to draw crowds, Mizrachi said. The new proprietors also hope to book Hispanic musical acts.
"Our Latin population is so huge, to not cater in those markets is not doing the city or ourselves justice," Stratton said.
Though Stratton's vision may sound far-reaching, Marco Brizuela, general manager for Big B's record store, said the longtime musician may be the man to pull it off.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction that someone who has performed on that type of stage is behind the scenes running things now," Brizuela said. "That might make the venue more performer-friendly."
Filling a niche?
Wisely, Mizrachi isn't predicting the Huntridge will challenge the Strip's popular venues for the music world's larger acts. Instead, he believes the historic theater will offer a middle ground for bands caught between playing small bars and large halls.
"In the late '80s, no modern rock bands played Vegas, but it doesn't have that stigma now. It's not cheesy to play Vegas anymore," Mizrachi said. "And that's a credit to the House of Blues and The Joint. They've brought music to the forefront in this town, and we think we can do it on a medium scale."
For now, the Huntridge will operate without a liquor license, offering only all-ages shows for the foreseeable future as the owner and GM rebuild the theater's reputation.
"It's new management, new owners, so the city is going to take it step by step," Stratton said. "Everybody is being very careful, taking the proper steps to do everything right and make sure we play by the rules."
That quest begins Friday night with the Mercury Music Showcase, an event featuring 10 local bands for a $5 ticket price. Whether the public will offer long-term support of the theater from there is uncertain.
"The local community has an overwhelming feeling that they want to keep places like this going," Stratton said. "Now it really comes down to whether they come."