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A long-term extravagance

The new Conga Room at L.A. Live thinks big in every way. 'This is a legacy project,' founder Brad Gluckstein says.

December 07, 2008|Reed Johnson | Johnson is a Times staff writer.

At the new Conga Room -- call it Version 2.0 -- the guiding philosophy seems to be the opposite of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum that "less is more." At the revamped, relocated incarnation of the popular Wilshire Boulevard Latin music venue that went dark 2 1/2 years ago, the owners are hoping that more will be more.

"My kids are growing up. I just turned 47. So if not now, when?" said club founder and principal owner Brad Gluckstein, explaining what inspired him and a co-owners group that includes Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez and Clippers guard Baron Davis to reopen a bigger, splashier Conga Room across from Staples Center in downtown L.A.

"This is a legacy project, not just for my family but for the city," said Gluckstein, a native Angeleno, real-estate developer and self-described "inherently Jewish" guy "with a corazon Latino" (Latino heart).

It's a high-profile gambit that could tap into the synergistic energy surrounding the neighboring Nokia Theatre and the rest of the massive, $2.5-billion L.A. Live complex as well as the just-opened Grammy Museum around the corner -- or fall flat in the current southbound economy. That would be an embarrassing blow to AEG, the Los Angeles development company run by billionaire Philip Anschutz that controls L.A. Live and has an exclusive talent-booking deal with the Conga Room.

But Gluckstein's big words are not without basis. The old Conga Room, squirreled away in a former health spa, served as a prototype for the new club. But the difference in scale and ambition between the venues is roughly akin to the difference between Kool-Aid and a caipirinha.

For starters, the new club, with 15,000 square feet and a capacity of about 1,000, is nearly three times the size of the funky, elbow-bumping old club. (Basic cover charge for the new venue ranges from $18 to $25.) Gluckstein said the concept for the Conga Room "outgrew" its old location, which was hampered by poor freeway access and by being on the edge of a primarily residential neighborhood.

When the new Conga Room officially opens Wednesday evening, long-time patrons also might be surprised by the expanded musical menu. The offerings naturally will include heaping portions of salsa and merengue, the club's signature sound. But there also will be a tapas bar's worth of World Beat, tropical, rock en Espanol, jazz, mariachi, Brazilian and alternative Latin sounds, all under the guidance of the Conga Room's newly appointed musical director Oscar Hernandez, leader of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and collaborator with the likes of Paul Simon and Ruben Blades.

Hernandez will direct the club's house band, hand-picked, crack musicians who Hernandez vows will be not only danceable but as listenable as any concert-hall ensemble. "My vision is to basically create the perception that this is an elite team, this is an elite ensemble of musicians."

Hernandez, who moved to Los Angeles from New York two years ago, said he's grateful to have the chance to "put a stamp on the West Coast" and bring to Los Angeles audiences "some hard-core, real-deal salsa." One key challenge for the club's owners, he believes, will be to create a congenial space that's equally accommodating to the hoi polloi burning up the dance floor and the velvet-rope crowd stashed away in Barcelona chairs sipping cocktails in the VIP lounge.

Many influences

Between its February 1998 opening and the start of its hiatus in May 2006, the old Conga Room gradually had evolved from primarily a salsa dance spot to a pan-Latin and world music venue. Accordingly, the new club's interior design is meant to mirror that pan-Latin/global sensibility.

"This is a really hybrid space up here," Gluckstein said. "Philippe Starck we're not."

From its perch on a noisy, light-swept public plaza where on any given night there could be thousands of Lakers, Clippers or Kings fans plus mobs of concert-goers and tourists milling around, the Conga Room also must strive to maintain an atmosphere that's both intimately human-scale and cosmopolitan. "It's a deliberate balance to really keep it elegant and sophisticated in a setting that would want you to be more like a sports bar," Gluckstein said.

Architect Hagy Belzberg said that his idea was to take a number of Latin American design motifs, gleaned from the Caribbean to Buenos Aires, and "create an iconic experience." The acoustically engineered ceiling, made up of two-paneled sections that resemble white footprints, is an abstraction of a triangular salsa dance-step diagram. The floral-looking wall pattern behind the club's main bar is a stylized butterfly, repeated over and over like a musical refrain.

Belzberg, who moved to Los Angeles from Israel as a child, said that the club's design echoes the growing Latinization of Southern California and the way that different Latin cultures are being woven into the regional fabric. "We are the environment," he said. "It is a constant part of our lives."

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