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Tales From Back of Bus : Ride Hasn't Always Been Smooth for Coach House--or Its Logo

February 07, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano is celebrating its 10th anniversary today. Mike Boehm looks back at a few tidbits, wrinkles, oddities and idiosyncrasies that have marked the history of Orange County's busiest pop venue.

Automotive Highlights, Part I: With the Coach House buried in a strip mall and not visible from the street, owner Gary Folgner acquired a red double-decker bus to park at curbside to serve as the club's landmark and logo. Folgner now owns three such vehicles and, unlike concert tickets', their prices have been falling: Bus No. 1 cost $25,000, its two successors $8,000 and $6,500.

One night after King Sunny Ade played at the Coach House, the Nigerian bandleader and his entourage thought it would be fun to ride one of the double-deckers back to their hotel near LAX. It lumbered up the 405 as far as Long Beach before it broke down.

"I got a call at 4 a.m., and we had to take my dad's motor home up there and pack 16 or 17 guys in there," Folgner recalls. The motor home also got a workout after Leon Russell's bus broke down at the Coach House: Folgner let Russell use the motor home to get to a gig in Arizona.

Folgner says that leaving the bus out on Camino Capistrano costs him more than $300 a year in overtime parking fines--but that it's worth the expense. "Our sign gets parking tickets," muses Ken Phebus, the Coach House concert director. "Go figure."

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Automotive Highlights, Part II: The sporty little red two-seat roadster parked on an elevated ledge inside the Coach House is a Singer, a British car that actually would run if its engine were not in Folgner's garage.

"That's decor," Folgner says with a chuckle. It originally was part of a street-scene motif (which also included a gas station, a bank and a jail) dating from the early '80s, before the Coach House became a concert venue.

"I traded $1,000 worth of tacos for that," says Folgner (the car's previous owner gave it to him in exchange for dining privileges at Folgner's Villa Mexican Restaurant in Dana Point). "I was looking for a Model A, but some guy came up with this thing."

The Singer proved an irresistible attraction to a few of the more combustible figures who played the club.

One night, the late Johnny Thunders clambered onto the car to sing a song, then couldn't get down. The club staff had to fetch a ladder before the show could continue. Darren McNamee and Warren Fitzgerald of a local band called Gherkin Raucous had no problem getting up or down from the car's perch.

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945 Pictures Worth a Few Words: Upstairs and down, the Coach House walls are covered with framed, autographed publicity photos of headliners who have played the club. Folgner began the custom in the early 1980s when the Coach House was still a minor venue, offering the occasional country act such as Janie Fricke or the Bellamy Brothers.

"It just seemed like a good thing to do. Better than painting the walls," Folgner says. "We've still got a lot of space. I could fit probably another 600 to 700 in here without having to get imaginative." He buys the frames in batches of 400.

"When you see young bands come in here, you'll see them standing in the lobby looking at the big names that have played this place. You'll see them just staring at the walls," notes Phebus. "It gives us instant credibility. [They know they are] in a building that's a real concert club. You see Ray Charles and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt up there, you know you're in a real place."

Marketing coordinator Nikki Sweet says only one star withheld his signature: Richard Butler of the English band Love Spit Love. "Gary was saying, 'I don't care, I don't want you to sign it anyway,' " Sweet recalls. She thinks it had something to do with Butler not liking the way his publicity shot had come out.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Folgner says English rockers generally have shown more "attitude" and have been harder to deal with than their American counterparts.

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Worst Case of Offstage Fright: One English band that momentarily lost any semblance of "attitude" was the Mighty Lemon Drops, who were setting up in the empty club when a mild earthquake hit. "Every single guy was under a table," Sweet recalls. "They'd never been in an earthquake before."

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Hospitality Counts: Soon after the Coach House started booking major shows, a down-on-his-luck musician named Calvin Hardy showed up at the door. "He came looking for a dishwasher job," Folgner recalls. "He was homeless and needed to get some rent money.

"He never got to be a dishwasher."

Instead, Folgner took the tall, courtly Hardy and named him the Coach House's master of hospitality, charged with looking after performers while they are at the club, making sure they get their meals and anything else they need, and escorting them to and from the stage. (In a pinch, Hardy, a splendid bass player whose pre-Coach House credits include stints with Etta James and Ike & Tina Turner, undoubtedly could sit in with the bands as well).

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