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They named their son Ulysses.
They wanted a name that conveyed an adventuresome spirit, and for a boy who would be joining Brett and Elizabeth Cline, co-founders of San Francisco’s The Lost Church, an adventuresome spirit would come in handy.
When the Clines decided to turn their living room into a small theater, they knew it was an audacious undertaking, and to keep it running for 10 years was equally challenging. But they had no idea that they would one day face a pandemic that would shut off all earned revenue, not for a week or a month, but for a full year.
And yet, the adventuresome spirit still burns. The Lost Church has not joined the small performance venues that have thrown in the towel.
The Lost Church is using this time when the stage is dark to make plans not just to reopen, but to carry its mission up and down the coast of California with a string of “performance parlors,” where artists of all kinds will be able to work their craft in the intimacy of small settings.
It is a bold vision — perhaps a crazy vision — for these difficult times, but it burns in Brett Cline.
Cline came out of Mission Viejo in Orange County, a master-planned suburban neighborhood where he says every seventh house was identical. The sort of development where E.T., the extraterrestrial, landed in in the movie. “The only thing we had was a Taco Bell,” Cline says. “It was a cultural wasteland.”
And yet “a lot of Southern California punk rock came out of the suburbs.” Cline started his first band in grade school. He sang, and a friend played snare. He says, “It was a snare-and-vocal band, very ahead of its time.”
He went to UC Santa Barbara for college but left before graduating and moved to London for a year where he worked in graphic design.
He loved London, but he knew he was going to return to California. It was “like a part of my superpowers disappeared when I was in England,” he says.
He had visited San Francisco as a sixth grader, and it seemed a magical place. When he left London in 1994 at the age of 23, he moved to San Francisco and settled into the Mission District.
When he was 26, he stumbled upon an opportunity to buy a funky property at 65 Capp Street, between 15th and 16th streets in the Mission. The building had been owned by the minimalist artist David Ireland and was where the Capp Street Project originated.
With his parent’s co-signature on the mortgage, he bought the place.
In 1999, he met Elizabeth Jones at Burning Man and 53 days later, they eloped. When Elizabeth came back to San Francisco and saw 65 Capp, she was incredulous, “This is yours?”
Cline says the first year of marriage was rough. At times, he wanted to throw in the towel, but Elizabeth said, “No, we got married. We are giving this the shot.”
Cline explains, “We worked through it, thanks to 65 Capp having the room to be in different parts of the house and not have to actually divorce. And so then at the end of that year, we did a renewal of vows.”
They have now been together 21 years.
For seven years, Cline worked as a union stagehand at theaters in San Francisco. He fell in love with the city’s theaters. “These are our churches,” he says. “These are places for the arts. You can feel the magic when you go in those buildings. You can feel all the love and creativity that still resonates within those walls.”
His favorite was the Geary Theater on 415 Geary St.
Elizabeth is also a musician, and in 2007, they rented out 65 Capp and went on the road for a couple of years, touring as “Juanita & the Rabbit.” Cline played bass and sang; Elizabeth played drums.
They lived in a van with their dogs and toured around the country. According to Cline, they “had an absolute blast.”
They also saw a lot of small venues.
Cline remembers a night playing the 5-to-7 slot at a comedy club in Austin, Texas. When they started there was no one there but the bartender. “And in walks this one guy; he sits down,” he says. “He’s sitting there after the third song. He raises his hand. ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’”
Cline shakes his head at the thought and says with a laugh, “It’s a lot of pressure being the only audience member.”
After a couple of years on the road, the Clines started thinking about having a child and returned to 65 Capp.
From Living Room to a Theater
Cline was writing some musical pieces for theater at the time and got the idea to perform them for friends in his living room at Capp Street. The space wasn’t huge — it was only about 1,000 square feet — but it worked well.
He and Elizabeth decided to turn the space into a theater for other performers.
In his years as a stagehand, he never liked the feel of black box theater; he had a different vibe in mind. He was thinking more like haunted-mansion spooky, but cool and beautiful.
Elizabeth Cline, a seamstress, made gorgeous red drapes. A friend rigged up a row of footlights from vanity lights he got at Home Depot. The Lost Church opened to the public in 2011.
Folding chairs, judiciously located, allowed for exactly 49 seats.
The walls displayed a curious combination of art. Tobias Green, a 33-year-old real estate broker based in Marin, has been to The Lost Church eight times.
He says the artwork “seems completely random,” but he remembers when someone, maybe a bartender, said to him, “There’s a common theme to all of the artwork hanging on the walls. Can you identify it?”
Every time he returns, Green tries to figure it out, but “to this day, I still don’t know what the theme is. Nobody’s ever told me. I don’t know if they were just messing with me or not.” But it doesn’t bother him. He says, “It’s thematic of my experience there. It just produces a sense of wonder and awe.”
Brett Cline says, “A lot of the art in there actually was when the Geary Theater, their scene shop, got shut down. All of a sudden there was all this old scenery from the plays at the gallery. So I went and grabbed a lot of them.”
When Cline decided to open the theater, he was blown away by the demand. He didn’t advertise, but word-of-mouth in the Mission was a powerful communication platform. “It just shows what a desperate need there [is] for these places. I was getting tons of emails asking for people to play … There [are] so many desperate artists. I was overwhelmed straight out of the gate.”
The economics of a 49-seat theater require a thought-out business plan. As the theater went forward, some key principles emerged. A performance had to be run by a single person who would take tickets and manage the cashbox at the door. He or she would also host the show, introduce the performer and work the PA system.
For the first couple of years, that person was Cline, but over time, he hired other artists for the job.
He experimented with different financial arrangements over the years but ultimately settled on a model where the first $175 from ticket sales goes to the house, then the performer and house split on an 80-20 basis. The performer is responsible for generating the buzz that sells tickets, but it is a lot easier to sell out a 49-seat house than one that seats 4,900.
Cline feels good that on average performers make half the door revenue. “Our whole job is to try to get as much money back to the artists as we possibly can,” he said.
The intimate size is a constraint, but it is also a huge attraction. Cindy Emch, a singer-songwriter with a country, rockabilly-punk vibe has played The Lost Church 13 times over the years, sometimes with her band, the Secret Emchy Society. Having played as many as 300 different venues over her career, Emch — rhymes with bench — is something of an expert on live music venues.
The Lost Church is one of her all-time favorite places to play. As a performer, for her the most important thing about a venue is the sound. She loves the fact that the acoustics at the theater are so good that she and her band can completely unplug and play unamplified acoustic music.
Lighting is also important to her, and the footlights make for a beautiful setting.
Another key ingredient is that The Lost Church isn’t a dive bar where the focus is on drinking.
You can get wine before and after the performance and at intermission, but drinking is not the focus; it is all about the performance.
Emch played the dive bar scene long enough to know that sometimes in those venues the “jukebox has more dignity than the performers.”
What is particularly special for her is the intimacy. She uses the small space to try out new material or to introduce new members of her band. And she remembers that as an audience member, she has had moments of intense musical experience at the theater that might have just “washed over” her in a larger setting.
The Lost Church closed for nearly a year in 2014 to make the space more compliant with San Francisco’s codes, raising more than $40,000 from an Indiegogo campaign. When it reopened in 2015, it continued to attract a wide range of performers.
Live acoustic music is the most frequent offering, but the theater has hosted comedy, open mic nights, poetry readings, magic shows, spoken word performances, live music karaoke, tango, among others. One Halloween, the theater hosted a “musical séance.” Sometimes people will rent the whole space for a private performance or a wedding.
Michele Kappel, a drummer in Cindy Emch’s band, wears a lot of hats at The Lost Church. Before COVID threw its foggy paws over the city, she was the booking manager, communications director and worked on fundraising. She also published the Bulletin, an outlet for news of the theater.
Before COVID, she had the theater booked seven nights a week, with a matinee performance on Sunday. A number of the performers have become regulars.
One who stands out is Brad Barton, a magician with a comedic flair who bills himself as the “Reality Thief.” His mix of mentalism and performance magic is a great fit for the small space. Some nights, he will involve almost every member of the crowd in the show.
In one trick, he will distribute a deck of cards to the audience and go through the crowd, a person at a time, calling out their card to dumbfounded looks and cries of amazement.
Ned Buskirk is another regular. He hosts the unusual and powerful event called “You’re Going To Die,” which despite — or perhaps because — of the macabre title, regularly sells out the house.
Buskirk explains that the show is “an open mic that I’ve been doing for over 10 years now, creating space for people to gather in the conversation of death and dying and mortality and grief and loss, but also how all those things inspire life and our aliveness.”
He says that “people get onstage at The Lost Church and feel not just the safety of the community that’s running it — me and the people that are putting the event together — but also the space itself.”
Because it is close and intimate, taking the small step up onto the tiny stage to the microphone is less intimidating than in other settings.
Buskirk says that people are always saying, “‘I’ve never done this before, but this is the time to do it.’ It’s time to talk about my dead mom or the grief that I’m feeling over my pet’s death or the hard way that it feels to get through a day in general.”
He goes on to say that the event gives them space “to be heard and witnessed, and The Lost Church is the container that allows it.”
Buskirk hasn’t performed at The Lost Church in the year that COVID has darkened the stage. He tears up as he explains, “I have moments where I miss that space so much and have shed tears like this more than once, thinking about it, missing it and hoping to get back there someday.”
The theater has been dark since March 12, 2020, and given its size, it can’t reopen until the capacity restrictions are lifted. Unlike larger venues, there is no practical way to spread the audience 6 feet apart and still bring in enough people to pay the house and performers.
With no earned revenue, The Lost Church survived on a Small Business Association Disaster Loan and some funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. Those infusions were crucial at the beginning of the long dark year, but the theater couldn’t have stayed alive without a grant from the Hellman Foundation. According to Cline, the Foundation has traditionally funded Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and with the festival’s 2020 cancellation, it redirected some funding to small shuttered venues like The Lost Church.
With the many competing miseries suffered by people and organizations throughout the city and country, it has been difficult to get attention to the plight of small theater venues.
As the pandemic gripped San Francisco, two groups formed to help.
Independent Venue Alliance is a group of small performance venues, primarily devoted to fundraising for the closed stages.
SF Venue Coalition includes the small venues as well as larger outfits like Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Another Planet Entertainment. SFVC has been actively lobbying for government support.
The groups worked together to get San Francisco city government to recognize the decimation that pandemic has caused. They have had some success.
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney led a push to create a fund for the city’s shuttered venues.
In a December letter, 52 signatories asked Mayor London Breed to commit $48 million to the fund to help the venues survive through the pandemic and allow them to recover afterwards.
The letter begins with the proposition that “live music and events are a cultural cornerstone and the foundation upon which the soul of this city rests.”
The city responded with a pledge of $1.5 million — later doubled to $3 million — a start but far from the money really needed. None of that money has yet been distributed.
Mickey Darius is The Lost Church’s general manager, and before the pandemic, he was in charge of operations. He is serving as The Church’s representative to IVA and SFVC.
Darius sees the mission in stark terms: “We’re both fighting for the survival of part of San Francisco’s cultural heritage, I mean, if we lose enough rooms, that’s going to make San Francisco a less viable target for touring bands. There’s kind of this trickle down, and that means that San Francisco becomes less of an incubator for our own musicians and artists.”
Darius is appreciative of what the city has done so far, but he is frustrated that some of the publicity around the city’s funding commitment makes it sound as if the problem has been solved. “Without a significant amount of additional support, we are going to lose venues and that’s just the black and white of it,” he says.
He is disappointed that none of the tech companies have yet stepped up. He says that they should realize that their employees want to live in San Francisco because of the cultural life that is enabled by the live event space.
He is hopeful that with the city’s lead there will be more attention to the plight of event spaces, but at the minute, he says, “there’s been no contributions from major tech. There’s been no contributions from any other big business. There’s been no major contributions from any other districts or any other promises of additional funds coming from anywhere.”
There is supposed to be money at the national level through the Small Business Administration’s “Shuttered Venues Operating Grants.” More than $15 billion has been committed, though the applications are still not available, three months after the authorizing statute was passed, and program details are still being worked out.
Darius hopes that the federal money will get distributed quickly and in a “relatively equitable way,” but after months of work and worry, he says, “there’s just so much fatigue and anxiety, … it takes a bit of a masochist to stay in the fight day in and day out because it’s a fight of constant defeat. You know, it feels like you’re swimming upstream the whole time.”
The Adventure Continues
And if it would be easy to give up, Cline’s adventuresome spirit persists.
He knows that the operating principles that have allowed the Lost Church to survive for 10 years, and its performers to make some money along the way, can be replicated in other small spaces.
He has done this before. The Lost Church in Santa Rosa made its unfortunately timed opening on Jan. 3, 2020, allowing it only two months to operate before going dark with the pandemic.
That doesn’t deter Cline. The Lost Church is a nonprofit organization, and it has been using the year of darkness to pursue charitable grants and funding to carry the vision forward.
He remembers from his touring days what a “terrible state California is to tour. Our cities are too far apart. When you’re this little band making 50 to 100 bucks — if you are lucky — and you are spending 150 dollars on gas, that’s a fail.”
He says the mission is to create a string of small performance spaces or “parlors” up and down the California coast, almost like the way the old Spanish missions dot the coast in cities like Santa Monica and Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
He would like to see performers work their way up and down the coast playing small venues where the business model lets them take home some money at each stop.
“It’s not supposed to be easy to be an artist,” he says. “You need to grow. You need to feel the pain and suffering. … I just don’t think it needs to be this hard.”
He says he would love to retire in 25 years, having opened 15 small theaters.
“That would just be the dream,” he says, “to be the Johnny Appleseed of theaters.”
* The Lost Church – San Francisco is located at 65 Capp Street, San Francisco, California. The Lost Church — Santa Rosa is located on Ross Street between Mendocino Avenue and B Street, Santa Rosa, California. Learn about both current venues and future venues at https://www.thelostchurch.com/.
Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist reporting for the Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.