Owner and manager Rodney Nardi laughs about the “overnight success” of his El Rey Theatre, which over the last few months has showcased Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Everclear.
“All it took was almost four years of sheer stubbornness,” he said.
Nardi’s stubbornness and that of his tightly knit core staff has paid off, raising the theater out of its red ink and into the ranks of notable L.A. venues.
“The El Rey has a good size, location, look and sound,” said Melissa Miller, vice president of talent at Universal Concerts Inc. “No shows have done badly there. It’s not surprising that the venue is doing well.”
The theater’s biggest coup to date was getting Dylan, who is booked to perform five shows at the theater beginning this week. The 871-person capacity El Rey is the only mid-sized venue on the songwriter’s national tour, and tickets for all the L.A. shows sold out quickly.
Even Nardi is a bit surprised at the booking.
“Quite honestly, sometimes even we don’t know why we get certain acts,” he said. “But we did hear that Dylan’s lighting designer said that we were the only place where his feet didn’t stick to the floor.”
The theater sits in the middle of a dilapidated block of the Miracle Mile business district an unlikely location for a concert venue, but apparently not a drawback.
“When people want to hear bands they like, location really doesn’t influence whether they will or will not go to a concert,” said Tim Cannon, a talent booker for Avalon Attractions. “The El Rey may be in a different part of town than other concert venues, but it’s easily accessible.
“What is a draw is the theater’s atmosphere,” Cannon said. “It’s cozy. It has an intimate, kind of elegant feel.”
The El Rey has an Art Deco look, complete with red velvet wall hangings and chandeliers.
Nardi renovated the theater himself, using skills learned in his years of renovating Art Deco apartments from the 1930s and ’40s in his native Australia. The stage is framed by a muted olive green, gold and silver deco design, which Nardi designed and built.
“This was a faux renovation a very Hollywood touch, if you think about it,” said Nardi. “I didn’t recreate what was, since the theater never looked this way in the first place.”
The El Rey was originally built as a cinema in 1928 and is a registered historical landmark. But a succession of owners over the last 15 years have turned it into such things as a video arcade removing the seats but failing to get the needed permits; a nightclub that stayed open for two years; and a restaurant catering to a Russian clientele that folded in 1991.
The theater remained vacant until 1993, when Nardi stumbled upon it while on vacation from his job as a flight attendant for Quantas Airlines.
“I knew that I had to have this place,” Nardi said. “Then I had to figure out what to do with it.”
Under his ownership, the venue started out as a dinner theater catering to Japanese tourists, then for six months as a jazz club modeled after the famous New York Cotton Club, and finally as a concert venue with a dance club on Saturday nights.
Nardi has invested $800,000 to $900,000 in renovating the theater and its facilities. “I’ve totally liquidated my assets for this place,” he said. “I sold my home and cashed out my pension plan from the airline.”
The El Rey boasts state-of-the art lighting and a Vernon Systems sound system, new technology that doesn’t leave a concert-goer with ringing ears.
“The place sounds really good,” Universal Concerts’ Miller said. “Their equipment is impressive.”
The El Rey also is earning a reputation for customer service. Nardi believes his 14 years in the airline industry has made him sensitive to customer needs.
“I want my theater to be the no-problem place,” he said. “Everyone and everything is customer focused. It’s the airplane way.”
Concert bookers agree that the staff is a selling point for the theater.
“The staff is really friendly and treats people with respect,” Miller said. “That’s pretty remarkable.”
Nardi is proud of “the team” that stuck with him through the last couple rocky years, even when he couldn’t pay them. Staff members took freelance work to stay financially afloat, but didn’t abandon ship.
El Rey’s financial performance turned around in April, when a protracted legal fight with a former investor finally ended. In the subsequent months, Nardi has been able to work on growing the theater’s name recognition. The theater has generated about $1 million in revenue this year.
“Before April, things were tight,” he said. “Actually, earnings were about zero. We kept things pretty low-key until April, but now it’s full force ahead.”
As a result, the El Rey’s multi-tiered business is picking up. It hosts not only concerts and the Saturday night dance club, but also Hollywood wrap parties (including those for “Evita” and “Lost Highway”), corporate parties and movie and video shoots.
Even the marquee generates revenue. Advertisers and some movie makers have used the image the most recent being Toyota Motor Corp., which filmed an ad for a car in front of the theater.
Concert bookers say El Rey’s direct competitors are the area’s other mid-sized venues, namely the House of Blues, the Palace, Billboard Live and the Mayan.
“We have the potential to be as high profile as they are,” Nardi said. “I really feel that we’re creating something here, something special. We’re much more than a box for music. The spirit of the theater is making sure of that.”