In the back of a tiny Huntington Beach storefront, Lee Miller and Michael Aquila are giving young artists a lift.
Tucked between Yvette's Bikinis and a vacant shop on Main Street is Finally A Unicorn, a coffee bar/gift shop/nightclub developed by Miller and Aquila as a launching platform for aspiring musicians, singers, actors, and visual artists.
"We're wide open to any kind of entertainer," said Aquila, who acts as producer, director and general manager of the club. "It's a place where artists are free to try out new material and where visitors can enjoy a good variety of entertainment. We want people to walk out the door with smiles on their faces."
It's been more than three years since Miller, a former actress and businesswoman, achieved a lifelong dream of opening a cafe as a haven for local artists ("This is something I've wanted to do since the 1950s when I was hanging around the coffeehouses," she said, "back when I used to get thrown out because I was under age"). The menu was simple (just espresso and a few baked goods), and entertainment was limited to a weekly performance by a friend with a guitar.
And crowds were not exactly beating down the door. "Believe me," Miller recalled with a grin, "there were nights when the only people in here were the musicians and the employees."
Today, the Unicorn has taken wing. There's live entertainment four nights a week, ranging from rock 'n' roll and R&B to poetry readings and improvisational comedy. Original theater productions, most of them by Orange County playwrights, are produced each month. Gallery shows and impromptu performances take place at odd hours. And more often than not, the crowds spill out onto the street.
But fame hasn't swelled the Unicorn's head.
From the curb, the club still looks like a home-grown snack shop. There are no names in lights, no box office, no bow-tied ushers at the door.
Inside, an espresso bar and ice cream counter fill one side of the room; the other is jammed with an eclectic display that includes custom and antique jewelry, ceramics, espresso sets and an ashtray from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. But the club's real heart is way in the back, beyond the rows of metal folding chairs--a small three-walled stage where talents can be showcased for all the world (or at least Huntington Beach) to see.
Finally A Unicorn was born on April Fools' Day 1984, when Miller opened a small gift shop next to the current space. After a few months selling antiques and small collectibles ("I save everything!"), she took over the neighboring storefront and expanded her operation to include coffee, snacks, and handmade jewelry and crafts.
Aquila joined in October, 1986. His first move was to "put up a better stage, bring a band in, open the doors and turn the volume up."
Aquila--whose career has included stints in the Army and the Topeka police, and work with the Kansas foster homes system--fell into the entertainment business almost by accident. While working as a machinist in Huntington Beach, he was asked by a friend to substitute as projectionist. The job became full time and he was soon feet first in the entertainment industry, working with several Hollywood film studios, even appearing on camera in small roles in "Rocky II," "Rocky III" and "Fast Break."
Eventually he helped Miller bring live theater to the Unicorn. "You might say we erupted with live theater," Aquila said. "Our first production was called 'Volcano,' an original work by Roosevelt Blankenship and Kevin Darne. We got standing ovations the first night. That told us that, yes, theater belongs here."
The Unicorn's combination of new plays and rising young performers has prompted some to compare it to the Golden Bear and South Coast Repertory in their early days. Aquila and Miller are pleased with the comparison but are quick to point out their club isn't patterned on either.
"We've never planned our growth on either the Golden Bear or SCR," Aquila said. "We have our own ideas for the future." Aquila hopes to expand to a second facility with a larger stage and more seating, and an adjacent restaurant, while continuing the work of the original Unicorn.
The Unicorn clientele is as varied as the entertainment. Cover charges are low, there is no dress code and no alcohol is served, so on a given night the crowd could include laid-back types in Birkenstocks, Polo-clad yuppies, middle-aged businessmen in three-piece suits, and teen-aged kids.
"I suppose there is a kind of a European or Greenwich Village feeling to the place. We have a lot of people from the East Coast and Northern California, and a few Europeans too, who feel right at home here," Miller said. "There's a very relaxed, supportive atmosphere--you might walk in here and see senior citizens talking with kids with purple spiked hair. Everyone gets along well.