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A cross-culture remix that's not so Hollywood

It's a populist passion as Sam Lanni again sets out to redefine the club.

September 01, 2006|Kevin Bronson | Times Staff Writer

In two tenures as a nightclub owner, Sam Lanni has been at the center of a lot of things -- counterculture, controversy, maybe even contretemps.

On a recent Tuesday night, Lanni, 51, stood in the middle of a throng of youthful scenesters on the patio of his Safari Sam's, a 4-month-old restaurant-nightclub precariously situated at the midpoint between two Los Angeles worlds, Hollywood and Silver Lake, and somewhere between harsh financial reality and its namesake's dreams.

The crowd -- hip, musically inclined and dressed down just so -- might be the envy of any club owner. While grateful for this early success, Lanni, whose first foray into clubland 20 years ago in Orange County has become the stuff of legend, envisions a venue that serves up more than rock bands and DJs and drinks.

He is a man, after all, who likes to refer to his club as a "cultural events center," whose original Safari Sam's was a place where you might see Social Distortion or the Minutemen one night, Beckett's "Endgame" another and performance artists giving each other a yogurt facial on a third. Music, humor, performance art, theater and spoken word: All were on the menu at Safari Sam's, until the city of Huntington Beach shut him down in 1986.

Now Lanni has resurrected his club in the Little Armenia district of east Hollywood, on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard previously known more for its streetwalkers than any legal nightlife. Sam's new digs, unassumingly located across the parking lot from a 99 Cents Only store, once were home to a seedy strip club, Tulips.

"Sam's is not intended to be your hamster cage club," Lanni said. "A club is where disparate parts of the community come together, where ideas are exchanged, where art can live. Without the arts we'd still be scratching insects off ourselves. And I think clubs are just as important in some ways as Disney Hall or the Getty Center."

The execution of Lanni's high-minded philosophy has come with an equally high price tag. During the arduous two years between signing the lease and Safari Sam's April 13 opening, Lanni said, he sank more than $1 million into the venue, with investors contributing $200,000 more. He lost his Silver Lake house to foreclosure, asked the public for donations, relied on the goodwill of longtime associates and went public with complaints about a city bureaucracy that made getting permit approvals, in his opinion, needlessly hard.

"One problem was that the strip joint had no permits whatsoever," Lanni said, "so basically when we took over it was like having a building the city didn't recognize. Still, it shouldn't cost that much to open any business." For now, Lanni said, his wife, Cathie, has taken a job at a high-tech firm in San Diego to put bread on the table for the couple and their two sons.

From the outset, Lanni said, he had the support of L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti's office and of local police, who were happy to be rid of Tulips. Lanni bled rent money as his plans made their way through the labyrinthian Department of Building and Safety and other agencies. He still marvels, for instance, that he had to satisfy the Department of Fish and Game.

"I think it is the right place and the right time for this club," said Chad Forello, a minority owner whose relationship with Lanni dates to the mid-'80s, when his rock band, National People's Gang, gigged at the old Sam's. Lanni ended up managing the band. Forello conceded, though, that "any time you present yourself as a little avant-garde, it's going to take time."

So what has Lanni gotten for his money and his misery?

"If the House of Blues were to have sex with Spaceland and they were to birth a club, it would be like Safari Sam's," he said.

The club's dark, 450-capacity room, with original work by local artists on the walls, seems to merge the sensibilities of the Hollywood-Sunset Strip glitz and the Eastside's scruffy charm. The stage and sound system have earned plaudits from performers and patrons alike, and the layout, with a dining area on the venue's west wall, a mezzanine level wrapped around the back and east side and bars upstairs and down, encourages fraternization while not sacrificing sightlines.

And not to be underestimated as upsides are free parking -- 150 spaces' worth -- and the fact that because it serves food, Safari Sam's is an all-ages venue.

Yet as others in the business, as well as Lanni himself, point out, Safari Sam's faces a daunting challenge attracting national touring acts in the city's ultracompetitive club environment.

The musical offerings thus far range from veteran acts such as Tex & the Horseheads (who played opening night) and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys to up-and-coming rockers such as Hello Stranger, who sold the place out two weeks ago. Every Tuesday, the crowds have been big for promoter-DJ Franki Chan's "Check Yo' Ponytail" nights, and the Friday shows mounted by Kiss or Kill, a collective of garage and punk-rock bands, have a solid following.

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