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Unveiling an Experiment in Progress

The Knitting Factory Hollywood isn't just the edgy New York club transplanted. Its impresario has big plans. Think: festival.

September 17, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is the Times' jazz writer

Standing in the middle of a chaotic Hollywood Boulevard construction site six months ago, Michael Dorf, CEO of KnitMedia, was filled with visionary descriptions of his new Knitting Factory Hollywood.

Despite the chaotic construction, the concrete subfloors and the spare girders surrounding him, he insisted that a sparkling new state-of-the-art performance space--a showcase in the rapidly improving Hollywood Boulevard corridor between Highland and La Brea--would open in June.

Six months later, Dorf, a small, compact man in his late 30s, recalls his earlier optimism with a rueful grin. "Little did I know the kind of construction problems that were going to come up. But we couldn't stop. We had to just keep trying to hit every single thing on our dream wish list."

In the process of fulfilling the wish list, construction glitches kept delaying anticipated opening dates, which crept back from June to July to August and eventually into September.

And Dorf, now happily surrounded by a high-tech splendor that fulfills every one of his earlier depictions, can only smile again when he is reminded of the rocky road that led to the Knitting Factory Hollywood's VIP grand opening Monday night.

"It hasn't been easy," he says. "We've made a sizable investment. The delay--at this point I prefer to call it a hiccup--meant that we had to pay a lot of artist guarantees, even if they didn't play, and we had to push a lot of shows to other rooms.

"So obviously there was no way to get close to the money we would have made in our own house, and we're out hundreds of thousands of dollars making sure we maintained our relationships with artists and didn't burn any bridges in the community. And I'd be lying if I said that, during those check-writing exercises, with no income coming in from Los Angeles and no clear sense of when we were going to open, I wasn't questioning what the hell we were getting ourselves into."

Dorf started the tiny, original Knitting Factory in Lower Manhattan in 1987 as an art gallery-performance space. The name, according to his first press release, reflected "our aim to weave strands of art mediums into a congruent whole. . . ." Since that initial beginning in 2,000 square feet on one floor of a four-story walk-up, he has never hesitated to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges.

In 1989, he founded a New York City jazz festival--now known as the Texaco Festival--in direct competition with the venerable, well-established JVC Jazz Festival, which was produced by the man who virtually created the notion of jazz festivals in Newport in the '50s, George Wein. There was almost universal consensus that it would be a flop. But the Texaco Festival is now one of the country's most vital jazz events. Not stopping there, Dorf last year added the Bell Atlantic Festival in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

"Michael has a way of doing what he says he's going to do," says Wein, who is on friendly terms with Dorf now that their festivals are scheduled in complementary rather than competitive time frames. "He's very into the Internet, very into what's happening today in the so-called Media Age. And I think that's very important to the people who invest with him." Dorf's determination to expand to Los Angeles, however, was modified by his recognition that he would be moving into a vastly different market.

"New York is New York," he says. "It sort of opens its arms a little bit more to the eccentric. Los Angeles, on the other hand, tends to set some standards for the commodity culture. So we knew, from Day One, that we were going to have to program things that are a little more commercial, a little more pop-oriented, a little more digestible--certainly for the Main Stage--to pay the bills. We also knew that, unlike New York, we would be doing a lot of parties, so we designed the space to function for those kinds of events.

But Dorf also recognized that the franchise associated with the Knitting Factory has emphasized its role as an important performance arena for edgy experimentalists of every stripe.

"That's why we insisted upon creating a second room--the AlterKnit--as a more intimate performing space," he explains. "We knew that the AlterKnit would be critical to support a lot of what maybe is considered our signature--support for experimental, avant-garde music. We need to make sure we stay in touch with that, and the AlterKnit allows us to do it. We'll do play readings, poetry readings, experimental theater, as well as more traditional jazz--all the things we've always done in New York."

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