Judging from appearances, Gary Folgner could be a comfortable denizen of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, an aging '60s throwback living the uncomplicated life in a haze of soft tropical breezes and lazily unfolding sunsets.
The creases jettying about Folgner's pale, blue-gray eyes look as if they were etched from squinting too regularly into the sun. His hair, long and fading from blond to gray, sweeps back in haphazard, floating wisps over the collar of that ever-present staple of his wardrobe, the Hawaiian shirt.
When Folgner speaks, the words run in quick, flat-toned streams, barely registering above a murmur. He is a 49-year-old bachelor whose constant companion is Bear, a 6-year-old part-golden retriever with understanding eyes and a disposition of almost Zen-like composure ("You never know it's there after a while. I've never heard that dog bark," says one of Folgner's closest associates). Folgner's longtime home is a two-room apartment in the back of a decaying, 1929-vintage motel in Dana Point.
These outward circumstances give no hint of what Folgner has become over the last five years: one of the most active pop concert promoters in Southern California; a restless, ambitious businessman who works 16-hour days and isn't averse to taking on risk and debt as he pursues a program of expansion into larger venues and bigger markets.
Folgner's biggest, riskiest venture will begin Friday, when Toto plays the first concert at the newly reopened Raymond Theatre in Pasadena. After establishing himself at two clubs that dominate their suburban markets--the 380-seat Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the 850-seat Ventura Theatre--Folgner is moving for the first time into the fiercely competitive Los Angeles County concert scene. Having bought the 1,925-seat Raymond and an adjoining lot for $2.5 million--all but $100,000 of it borrowed--Folgner is banking on finding sustained success where other pop promoters failed during the hall's previous incarnation as Perkins Palace.
Is there a void in the Los Angeles concert market, just waiting to be filled by a fixer-upper theater that began its existence in 1921 as a lavishly appointed vaudeville house?
"I think the fact the building has remained idle for a number of years answers that question," said Tracy Buie, who books the Wiltern Theatre (in other words, the smart money knew better). The 2,300-seat Wiltern, operated by Bill Graham Presents, figures to be the Raymond's toughest, most direct competitor in the struggle to land hot-selling attractions.
"It's a venue with a checkered past. I don't see what's going to be so automatic about it," said Alex Hodges, who oversees West Coast concert bookings for the Nederlander Organization, the national theatrical giant whose Hollywood venues, the Pantages Theatre and the Henry Fonda Theatre, also figure to compete with the Raymond for some bookings.
"Gary's obviously out there to build his own little empire, and I've got to give him some respect for that," said Ken Moon, who heads concert operations for Peppers Inc., a restaurant and nightclub chain whose recently opened Huntington Beach club, Peppers Golden Bear, is trying to mount a challenge to the Coach House's dominance in Orange County. "I don't think it's easy to go up against the big guys in L.A."
As he sat in the still-dusty balcony of the Raymond, with workers busying themselves below to refurbish the neglected house in time for its grand reopening, Folgner considered the key question: He is already well positioned in his Ventura and Orange County clubs, which he says average more than 35 concerts a month combined, so why pay $2.5 million--plus an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million in renovation costs--to go up against "big guys" like Graham, Nederlander and Avalon Attractions?
Folgner paused, then tilted his head back and smiled broadly.
"It's a large gamble," he said. "You've gotta have a little bit of life, take a chance sometimes. Don'cha?"
Concert promotion is a roller-coaster ride of a business, and Folgner isn't one to get queasy on the dips and bends, said Ken Phebus, whose job portfolio as concert booker for the Coach House and Ventura Theatre grew bigger and more challenging with Folgner's Pasadena purchase.
"When a show is a stiff, he's at his jovial best," said Phebus, who also books several other clubs that Folgner doesn't own. "When a show is a winner, he's very critical about how the operation went. It's the exact antithesis of what you'd think (a club owner's mood) would be. There's a lot about him that I can't explain, and that's one of them."
In any case, Phebus said, Folgner has never gotten upset when an act failed to draw up to expectations: "Gary's not like that, not one time. We'll sit down after the fact and philosophize about why it didn't work, and we'll try to keep from doing it the next time. He's resilient if he's nothing else."