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Recording Studio Is Phantom of the Teatro

Business: Behind the scenes at an old Mexican cinema, big-name stars have been producing albums.

September 27, 1998|NICK GREEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — John Travolta surreptitiously dropped by.

Drawling rock legend Bob Dylan quietly visited.

And punk forefather Iggy Pop was spotted strutting down the boulevard earlier this month.

Celebrity sightings on star-studded Sunset Boulevard?

Try modest Oxnard Boulevard in the rundown heart of the city slated for redevelopment.

The attraction: an abandoned Mexican movie theater converted into a recording enclave by record producer Mark Howard and his better-known partner Daniel Lanois--whom Rolling Stone magazine anointed as "the most important record producer to emerge in the '80s."

"Bob Dylan can walk down the street and nobody knows who he is," said the 34-year-old Howard, who has used the facility to produce new albums by Pop and Marianne Faithfull, the English rock diva better known for her liaisons with Mick Jagger and heroin than for her sporadic, critically acclaimed recordings.

"These people feel comfortable here," he added. "It's like a desert island."

Howard and Lanois, best known for his atmospheric work with U2 and Peter Gabriel, have succeeded in maintaining a low profile in the two years they have spent at Teatro producing everything from jazz artist Brian Blade's debut compact disc to the soundtrack of Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" to Willie Nelson's new album.

Understanding municipal officials have aided the disappearance of Lanois and his famous clients into the Oxnard shadows.

"We don't usually publicize that stuff," said Oxnard code enforcement officer Brian MacDonald, who said even he hasn't been inside the building since it became a recording studio. "We don't want people bothering that guy."

Lanois' manager, Melanie Ciccone--sister of pop star Madonna--notes that Lanois works in the unlikely environs of the predominantly Latino community precisely because it is off the beaten track.

Ciccone repeatedly deflected requests by The Times for an interview with Lanois, saying word has begun to trickle out about the studio and that unsolicited visitors are becoming an increasing distraction for the French-Canadian producer and his famous clients.

But Lanois hasn't exactly done his part to keep the studio a secret.

The theater's interior was displayed on the cover of Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album recorded in Oxnard last year, and the liner notes all but provided directions to the studio.

The exterior of the photogenic building with its historic marquee dominates the front cover of "Teatro," Nelson's latest offering.

And the country singer filmed a movie about the making of the album directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders during a two-day shoot in July that packed the adjacent municipal parking lot with tractor trailers bristling with camera gear and prompted locals to wonder what was going on.

"Kenny Rogers did a video over there," said Oscar Laburu, confused about his country stars. Laburu owns a photography studio across the street from Teatro. "I see they make music, they have a studio."

Humble Outside, Amazing Inside

The theater, which screened its last Spanish-language film in April 1993 after more than 80 years of operation, presents a deliberately decrepit facade to the casual passerby.

A makeshift gaudy blue tarp covers part of the leaky roof. Splotches of peeling green paint dapple a brick wall. And a padlocked, black steel gate across the entrance is intended to dissuade the curious from venturing farther.

Howard tells the nosy it's a biker hangout--a half-truth given currency by the gleaming expensive motorcycles Lanois and Howard likw to ride.

But it's the interior that is truly remarkable.

It's incongruous enough to imagine cutting-edge musicians and sometime recording artists like Travolta stalking the streets of the quiet agricultural community. Walking through the doors of the seemingly shuttered Teatro is an exercise in sensory contradictions.

This is no mere sterile recording studio: Think neogothic sonic sanctum.

Old movie posters of the risque Mexican comedies that once played in the cinema adorn the walls of the former lobby, now dominated by a large pool table.

The theater itself is a cavernous yet surprisingly intimate 10,000-square-foot space shorn of most of its movie seats, with a soaring ceiling and warmed by an eclectic decor.

A massive recording console taken from the New York studio where renowned producer Phil Spector once plied his trade bisects the theater.

Perched on the knobs of the 1977-era console is a black-and-white snapshot of John Lennon at the controls, an inspirational reminder that the former Beatle used the equipment to record "Double Fantasy" just before he was slain in 1980.

A dozen of Lanois' classic guitars sit on the few movie seats that remain. Six projectors flash images on the movie screen and a bank of monitors. Lining the walls are three drum kits and half a dozen pianos and keyboards, including a synthesizer once owned by Lanois mentor and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno.

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