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Arts and Entertainment

Historic Hollywood Complex Theaters Could Close As Owners Plan To Sell

A large group of people, around several dozen, gather outside of theaters. A large colorful sign above reads "The Complex." A large building is seen in the background, along with a marquee advertising "Death Of A Mailman."
Theatergoers outside the Complex as the Fringe Festival played Hollywood's Theatre Row.
(Courtesy Hollywood Fringe Festival)
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The Complex Theatres and Studios in Hollywood hosts numerous small shows each year, bringing in thousands of theatergoers — but now it’s in danger of closing.

The owners told the Complex’s operator that they’re planning to sell the property, which the owners confirmed to LAist/KPCC. The venue, which offers a creative space for budding and established artists alike, has long been a central part of the local theater district. Now, those who work and perform in the Complex’s spaces have been left in limbo.

Complex operator Matt Chait issued a public update Tuesday.

“After years of assuring me that they would never sell The Complex, our landlords are now assuring me that they intend to do exactly that, and by December 31st of this year,” Chait wrote.

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While previous plans to save the Complex included rallying the public and putting pressure on the current owners, Chait writes that now they need to find a new owner who will keep the location as a theater.

“We don’t know if the people that would buy it would keep it as a theater, if they’re going to turn it into luxury apartments or whatever — we’re just not sure,” Royce Shockley said. He’s the managing director of the Pack Theater at the Complex, which features live sketch and improv comedy.

The Impact On Hollywood Performers

Hundreds of people perform or take classes at the Complex every day, according to Shockley. The structure takes up half a block, holding five small theaters and five rehearsal studios. It also hosts many of the shows staged each year as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Comedy writer Eric Moneypenny has spent years teaching classes at the Complex. He got started in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s first L.A. sketch comedy writing class back in 2005, which was held at the Complex.

“You can go over there pretty much every night and find something entertaining, creative, original, funny, thought-provoking, weird, or all of the above,” Moneypenny wrote via email. “I know thousands of local artists who have met future friends and professional collaborators while performing, rehearsing, training, or just hanging out there in some capacity. I’m one of those folks myself.”

Shockley got his start performing in the Pack Theater at the Complex, describing it as “my first theater home that I’ve ever had.” The large number of spaces within the Complex are a big advantage for independent performers, according to Shockley.

“[It’s hard] trying to find somewhere where, oh, there’s a stage we can rehearse at, and it’s not someone’s backyard, or someone’s living room,” Shockley said.

Actor Greg David Jones, who has been part of multiple theater companies that called the Complex home, agreed about the Complex’s importance.

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“You have to have that kind of secondary theater, the small theaters, that people can perform at,” Jones said. “I can’t rent out the Pantages to do a show.”

Both Jones and Shockley are among those who’ve put up their own shows as part of the Fringe Festival.

The Dream Of A Hollywood Theater District

Matt Chait said he has been in the building since 1982 and has had a lease since 1990. When he started asking about renewals in recent years, the previous owner’s widow and children were hesitant about what they want to do with the property. Now they’ve made their decision clear.

Theatre Row runs down Santa Monica Boulevard from around Vine to Highland, home to a string of small theaters that stage plays, comedy, and more. It was first established in 1992, according to Chait, and received a public dedication and official signage back in 2015. Theaters have often struggled in the area, due to issues including rising commercial rents, economic downturns, and the perceived safety of the neighborhood.

“It’s always on the verge of almost becoming a theater district — it’s always close and never quite gets there,” Chait said.

The Complex occupies a critical spot right in the middle.

“Without the Complex — if this were a storage facility, or I don’t know what it would be — it would no longer be a row,” Chait said. “It would be a few theaters to the east of us half a mile, and a few theaters half a mile to the west, and that would be pretty much the end of that dream.”

Around a third of the strip’s theaters closed during the pandemic, according to Shockley.

“There are other theaters that have a significantly reduced schedule now,” Shockley said. “Everyone thinks of L.A. and Hollywood for movies and TV, but the foundation for all that is theater.”

The Post-Pandemic Theater Scene

Shockley worries that, without the Complex, there just aren’t enough stages in Hollywood for the Fringe Festival to make room for all the shows people want to put up.

“To get a brand new space, or to build one — we don’t have corporate backing. We’re not the Pantages or the Ahmanson Theatre,” Shockley said.

Chait retired five years ago, selling the business operations of the Complex to someone whose operation ultimately went under during the pandemic. With Chait’s name still on the lease, he resumed management earlier this year. The owners and Chait have also been in a dispute over whether back rent is owed for the time the Complex was shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic, which Chait said lasted about 18 months.

Moneypenny, the comedy writer and teacher, was puzzled about the timing of the plans to sell the property.

“I could maybe understand this happening in 2020, or even 2021, when it was really difficult to do live theater in front of an audience in a safe way due to COVID, or reasonable financially because of our local capacity restrictions,” Moneypenny wrote. “But it completely baffles me that this decision would be made in 2022 after things fully reopened in the city, and after the whole Theatre Row has felt so incredibly vibrant again.”

When reached by LAist/KPCC, the building’s owners declined to comment on their reasons for selling the building.

In addition to theater, the building hosts meetings for a church, a bartending school, and meditation classes, according to Chait. It also hosts the Theatre of the Arts acting school, which rents the building’s second floor during the week. The school has a hundred-year history, and they’re hoping to be able to stay.

Chait notes that, due to the age of the building, its existing use is grandfathered in thanks to theater being there since at least the 1970s. If that use changed and someone wanted to bring the theater back, they’d have to add a 50-car parking lot and other changes to bring the building into compliance — which could be tough to put together in the packed area.

Rallying Theater Fans

Chait found another operator willing to step in and take over the Complex earlier this year, but they weren’t interested if they couldn’t get an extension far beyond 2022.

“I have a plan to double their income from this building,” Chait said. “I have someone who’s willing to do what I’m doing for a long time in the future, doubling the rent that they get.”

The Complex solicited letters from the public, forwarding them to the landlord and the theater’s local council member, Mitch O’Farrell. But their efforts to get the owners not to sell have failed.

“We feel that the Complex has a long and important history, and I think it contributes a lot to this neighborhood. And it would be very deeply missed,” Chait said.

If the Complex closes, Shockley said that the Pack Theater would live on. But finding a new space could force them to leave Hollywood, which they’re looking to avoid.

Moneypenny said that he was optimistic that the people who perform, train, teach, and rent space at the Complex would find somewhere new — but that it wouldn’t be the same, as there are unlikely to be other places that can hold that many theaters in one building. He also presumes that any other spaces would likely be more expensive.

“I really hope that structure stays something of similar purpose instead of being turned into ultra-expensive apartments or commercial real estate that most local individuals and small businesses won’t be able to afford,” Moneypenny wrote. “I’d hate to see that building become another case of ‘what’s with all these seemingly empty buildings and stores I see driving around Hollywood right now since the pandemic.’”

Shockley’s hoping to see some support from the city and/or the state, along with historic landmark status that could keep new owners from replacing the theaters. Chait issued a call to the public asking for help finding a new owner that wouldn’t want to replace the Complex with something else.

“If you know of anyone, if your aunt or uncle knows of anyone, if you have any wildly successful college friends who may be interested, or who are already in real estate investment, please contact them and have them call me,” Chait wrote. “We will see if we can make a little magic happen.”

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