By SARA FISHER
It’s the battle of the wig shop vs. the concert hall, and it has tempers flaring in the Miracle Mile district.
Since early May, the El Rey Theatre at 5515 Wilshire Blvd. has lost nine concerts, including popular acts Tori Amos and Sonic Youth, after the Los Angeles city Fire Department reduced the theater’s capacity from 771 occupants to 499.
Fire officials say they had no choice but to reduce capacity on April 17 after learning that the El Rey’s neighbor, His & Her Hair Goods Co., had fenced off a driveway that served as one of the theater’s emergency exits.
The dispute now jeopardizes the future of the El Rey, a popular concert hall that has helped revitalize the Miracle Mile district and helped pave the way for the opening of the red-hot Conga Room just down the street.
El Rey owner Rodney Nardi said he has lost $150,000 since the capacity was slashed, and that the rest of the summer lineup is on the brink of being canceled if he can’t persuade, or legally force, His & Her Hair Goods to allow an emergency exit gate to be installed in the fence that divides the two properties.
“All I want is to have a gate put into the fence as a safety precaution, and that wig company has refused to allow it,” he said. “The El Rey Theatre has had the legal right to exit people across that property for over 50 years. All I want is to have His & Her Hair honor that right.”
Nardi claims the theater has an easement for the exit, which was violated when the wig shop fenced off its parking lot four years ago. He has filed suit against Evergrow Industrial Co., which owns His & Hair Co., in hopes of forcing the company to allow the theater patrons to exit through the wig shop’s property.
The suit is scheduled for a hearing this week in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Neither Evergrow nor its attorney, Charlene Albosta, would comment on the suit against the hair company, which sells wigs and hair extensions.
The El Rey was originally built as a cinema in 1928 and is a registered historical landmark. It was converted into a video arcade in 1982, a nightclub in 1986, and a restaurant 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. He invested $900,000 in renovating the Art Deco theater back to its original glamour.
Since the Fire Department’s order, scheduled concerts and events with ticket sales over the 499-person cut-off have had to be relocated to various concert venues around Los Angeles.
L.A. city Fire Marshal Jimmy Hill said he sees little chance of reversing the order unless His & Her Hair Co. agrees to a gate in the fence.
“As a landlocked property, the only solution we can see at this time is for Mr. Nardi to make peace with his neighbor,” Hill said.
In an effort to keep business alive, the El Rey continues to host its dance club every Friday and Saturday night. Nardi is also looking to host record release parties to take advantage of the club’s state-of-the-art sound equipment, and to host charity events.
“My concert business is ruined, my reputation in the industry has been harmed, and I’m holding on by my fingernails,” Nardi said. “But I believe that I can turn this around. I have too much invested not to try.”
Miracle Mile community activist Sara Salinas has gotten 900 signatures on a petition in support of the El Rey and plans to submit it to City Council President John Ferraro, whose district includes the theater.
The petition’s cover letter asks Ferraro to maintain the Miracle Mile’s ethnic diversity with “no preference for a particular ethnic group.” The letter goes on to state that in the interest of diversity, no “particular foreign flag (should) be displayed unless it is at an established embassy.”
That language is an apparent reference to the Korean-American ownership of His & Her Hair Co. Located on the same block is the Korean Cultural Mission. In between is the El Rey and Brown’s Deli.
Last year, the deli successfully fought to preserve its easement when the Cultural Mission tried to prevent delivery people from crossing its parking lot to reach the deli. The deli’s owners declined to comment.
Nardi, himself an immigrant from Australia, said he appreciates the community’s support but distances himself from the ethnicity issue.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only issue that the petition should address is one of safety, and I’ve told them that,” he said. “I have noticed, however, that you can’t stop racial issues from surfacing in L.A. It’s very close to the surface here.”
Joe Hicks, the executive director of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission, said he was not aware of the petition but was not surprised.
“The city is undergoing a great deal of change, people are resistant and this isn’t a surprising result,” Hicks said. “Race relations have continued to be tense in the business community and neighborhoods since the riots.”