Interview: Mark Flanagan Celebrates Largo at the Coronet's First Year at Its New Location
When over the rainbow's too far, go to lar-go to lar-go to Largo...
In Los Angeles, being a Largo person is much like being a Mac person—those who experience it can't help but buy into its philosophy and talk about it to everyone they know. Under the watchful eye of Belfast-born owner Mark Flanagan, this music and comedy venue has evolved through the years, with each iteration nudging it closer to Flanagan's ideal. One year ago, Largo moved from its previous location on Fairfax to the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega. The historic theater, which features both a large and a small stage, fulfilled the remaining items on Flanagan's Largo wish list.
Largo artists often refer to the venue as a family environment, and it's an apt description—from Guillermo, who has been sweeping the floors of Largo since its inception, to artists such as Jon Brion and Sarah Silverman, who love the place so much that their residencies can be measured in terms of years rather than weeks. LAist sat down with Flanagan earlier this month to talk about the amazing month-long lineup planned for Largo's anniversary in June, the history of the Coronet Theatre, the Largo film, and his favorite motorcycle routes in Los Angeles.
LAist: What led you to move into the Coronet Theatre last June?
Flanagan: Things just felt like they were winding up at Largo on Fairfax. I could've stayed there for another three years or so, but I knew there was a demolition clause and that they'd eventually be knocking down that whole side of the street. Jon Brion, Paul Thomas Anderson and I had been looking at places as far back as six or seven years ago, because we were kind of frustrated with the limits of the old Largo. Then I heard that they were about to flatten the Coronet Theatre and turn it into an Urban Outfitters. I started talking to the owner, and when I saw this room, it just felt perfect. We were able to save the theater, and from the moment Aimee Mann and Paul F. Tompkins took the stage during our first show, I thought to myself, "This feels right."
Was the history of this place the thing that drew you to it?
Honestly, the vibe was what drew me to it, but then when I found out about the history, I thought, "Well, that makes sense." See that photo over there? That's Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton rehearsing here in 1947.
Last year, Will Ferrell did "You're Welcome America" here, so I had him reenact the Brecht/Laughton photo with director Adam McKay. I promised him I'd hang his picture by the ladies' restroom, so keep an eye out for that in the next few weeks. (laughs)
In another photo hanging on the wall over there, you can see the Coronet entryway, and there's Angela Lansbury, Charlie Chaplin, Eugene O'Neill and Jimmy Stewart.
This photo is of Charlie Chaplin, with his fourth wife, Oona. We're going to try to find out the number and make this the Charlie Chaplin seat.
I've just been through all the Hearst and LA Times photo archives and I have tons of stuff. I've found that the lobby here was truly beautiful in its early days. In 1947, Vincent Price lined the wall with works by Chagall and Picasso. And when the theater was first opening, Igor Stravinsky and his wife helped paint the lobby.
So the Rite of Spring guy showed up with a paintbrush?
Yes! He lived here around the same time as Brecht. I'm sure that kind of thing was commonplace here in the 40s and 50s—people like John Houseman and Orson Welles were doing stuff here all the time.
How has the theater been used since then?
In the 50s, this place was a great silent movie theater where Buster Keaton's career was revived because they showed The General every Tuesday night. In the 60s there were a few great plays, then in the 70s it was more or less closed for a decade. In the 80s, 90s and early 00s, they had stuff like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Vagina Monologues and Puppetry of the Penis.
And doesn't the Little Room have quite a history as well?
Yes, it was the original Troubadour—people like Woody Guthrie used to play there. This legendary singer named Judy Henske has been playing the Little Room once per month. Jackson Browne had been telling me for years, "You have to get her to play Largo; she's amazing."
She'd been retired, but she came to check out the big room and she said, "I don't know, this might be too big for what I need to do." So I said, "OK, if you want to gradually get back into it, let me show you the Little Room." I walked her into the Little Room and she said, "This room feels familiar…this was the Troubadour! I played here in 1961." It was incredible.
To me, some of the shows in the Little Room have been as good as anything at the old place.
I'd like to get into the Largo's history in general. Are there any components of Largo that resulted from your early experiences with the music scene in Ireland?
Well, the thing about Ireland is that everyone has this stereotypical view of great music and great poetry—accompanied by great drinking. And there is drinking, but there are also very specific places you can go to where there's serious music. In fact, when it comes to a lot of Irish traditional music, they often play in concert halls where you are only allowed to drink afterward. I was very drawn to that and singer/songwriters, such as Christy Moore, who is sort of like Ireland's Bob Dylan.
I've always appreciated people who can really tell good stories or write good songs. I had no interest in opening a bar or restaurant. The kitchen at Largo was the bane of my existence. I had to learn how to run a restaurant through 40 different chefs. My license was such that we had to sell more food than drinks, so at the end of every three months, there would be an audit and we'd have to show our receipts. But all I really wanted to do was just put Jon Brion and others on stage!
What led you to keep the name Largo when you purchased Cafe Largo from its original owners?
It was legal, so I couldn't change it. My options were, I could drop the "Cafe," keep it as "Cafe Largo" or just use "Largo." I said, "Fuck it, let's call it Largo." Largo is a musical term anyway, so I thought, "That works!"
What would you have named it if you'd had your choice?
I probably would have called it "The Residency." That was one of the things I thought of at the time, because it would let people know that there are acts playing on a regular basis.
It's been said that E from the Eels was the first musician to play at Largo. Who was the first comedian?
It was Greg Proops, who was amazing. The first show was David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Jon Stewart, with Greg Proops hosting. It was that caliber of stuff right off the bat. We also had Lewis Black, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Greg Behrendt and Mitch Hedberg. Then Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Karen Kilgariff were kind of the second wave.
In your initial articles about the new Largo, you said, "We can pull off stuff here that we just couldn't really do at the old Largo." Now that it's been a year, what's been one of your favorite aspects of the new place?
There's so much, but I'm really excited about Jon Brion's new show. He's doing something that we've been talking about for years. He's incorporating a new element that fans of his scoring work will really appreciate.
It seems like the new place has enabled many Largo regulars to really evolve.
Yes, it's like Sara Watkins said in her interview with LAist—it kept us from getting stagnant, and in this new environment, there's no way people can just phone it in. The old place was very tough because there were certain limitations to it. Cross-pollination was always good at the old place, but here it's even better, and people are really rethinking everything in a good way.
And we have so much more space. Now the likes of Will Ferrell or Flight of the Conchords or Margaret Cho can come in and rehearse a show. Or Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen can do a show with Paul Thomas Anderson.
I think we've worked out a lot of the kinks we had when we first started. And now that we don't have a kitchen, when the show starts, I can actually watch it. In the old place, I could never see a show unless I went behind the bar and just stood there. Even then, people would be trying to hand me CDs or talk to me about a show or ask me if the singer was seeing anyone. But here I can sneak into a back seat or the sound booth and just enjoy the performance.
Both you and Jon Brion lived in Boston prior to moving to LA. Were you there at the same time? Did your paths ever cross?
Our paths crossed only once. At the time, I was studying psychology and wasn't in the music thing at all, but I went to this Roger McGuinn show where Elvis Costello showed up as a special guest. Jon was there with Aimee Mann, and we all ended up backstage. So I remember seeing Jon at the time but I didn't know who he and Aimee were. About three years after that, we were both living in LA and a friend of mine said, "There's this musician from Boston who is unbelievable, and if you're starting a club, you should get this guy in there."
One night, after Jon and I had become friends, we got to talking about music, and he brought up Roger McGuinn and we remembered we'd met backstage. Paul Thomas Anderson was also living in Boston at the same time, and later on, he and I found we'd been at the same party and baseball game. It was crazy.
Talking about Largo in general, I'm sure you receive tons of CDs from artists hoping to play at Largo. Have you ever discovered one of your Largo regulars from a CD submission?
Yeah, I have, and there's been a bunch, actually. Tom Brousseau is one of the big examples. I heard a bit and I was like, "God almighty, this guy's great." And although it's totally different, he has this essence of Elliott Smith.
What are some of your favorite music/comedy pairings?
I would say Paul F. Tompkins with Aimee Mann is my favorite, or Patton Oswalt and Michael Penn. Those are the two immediate ones that come to mind. Zach Galifianakis and Fiona Apple are great together. And then another one I think is really fun is during the Watkins Family Hour, Dave "Gruber" Allen, who is 6'6", sometimes comes in to sing "Short People" with Sean and Sara Watkins.
Where did you find the Largo piano?
At the old Largo, we went through pianos like we went through chefs. The nicer old pianos just didn't last with Jon Brion playing stuff like "Walking Through Walls." (laughs) I was determined to find an upright grand, and one day I was looking through a Recycler magazine and saw an ad for that piano, which was being sold by a church. So Jon and I showed up at the church on a Saturday morning and the pastor came out to meet us. I didn't realize they had services on Saturdays, so we literally arrived just after they'd let out.
He led us down into this basement area where the piano stood, and to me it looked promising. The pastor proudly told us, "We just freshly painted it." The cover was on, and it just looked like a big brown box, but I thought to myself, "It seems a bit ragged for having just been painted."
So Jon walked over and placed his hands on the keys to play something. Suddenly, the pastor yelled, "Wait a minute!" As it turns out, they had painted the keys, and when Jon tried to play, his fingers got stuck! Apparently the pastor had thought, "This looks kinda shabby, and now that we're trying to sell this, we should paint it up." He'd painted all the white keys with white latex paint and the black keys with an oil-based paint.
But we still loved the piano, so I made a donation to the church and it was ours. It cost a fortune to replace all the keys though, because had to get actual-sized keys from a 1926 piano. In the end, the thing ended up costing a fucking fortune. Actually…I think Jon paid for it, so it's all good. (laughs)
Where'd you get the Viking helmet that sits atop the piano?
Ten or so years ago, one of Jon's Friday night shows fell on a Halloween. I never open for any holiday, but I just didn't notice when I booked that show that it fell on Halloween. So the week before, we realized the mistake but we'd already gotten a bunch of reservations, so it was too late to cancel. It ended up being really funny because Jon wore this oversized skeleton costume that made him look like a little boy in this big suit. And then our doorman, PJ, had this Viking thing with the fur on the shoulders and this hat. As the evening progressed he said, "I hate this thing! It's catching my hair and I'm sweating." So I said, "Well, just put it on top of the piano." And it's literally been sitting there ever since.
If someone has never been to Largo at the Coronet before, how would you describe it to them? What should they know before they attend for the first time?
I'd say to them, just be open-minded. One of the things I love about this place is that—hopefully this doesn't sound too cheesy—Largo at the Coronet is sort of a state of mind. It's a nice place to socialize before and afterward, but when someone's on stage, it's all about the performance.
Do you have any updates on the Largo film? I know a lucky few in LA got to see it at the LA Film Festival last year, but are there any plans to air it on TV or in theaters anytime soon?
It's at an interesting stage, and we're in talks regarding distribution. In the meantime, I've been thinking of putting a large screen in the big room and doing a Monday night residency with a live introduction by Jon Brion or Zach Galifianakis or other special guests each week.
We'll also be screening it at the New Zealand Film Festival in July, as well as other festivals we're currently in the process of scheduling. All the details will be on largofilm.com.
Are you going to be releasing it on DVD?
Yeah, we'll eventually do a DVD and there's a whole bunch of extra footage we’ll put on there as well. We may even include some footage from a TV show we shot a while back. There was a pilot we did with Jon for VH1, but there was also one we did with Paul Thomas Anderson a number of years ago. Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, Brad Mehldau and Jon all performed. Bette Midler happened to be working with this four-piece a cappella group in the room next to us at the studio, so they joined us, too. We filmed it all in one day and it was fantastic.
Will there be a soundtrack?
Yes. There may be two soundtracks, and I'd like to actually do it on vinyl, too. One album would include the music and the other would be comedy. The hardest part is getting clearance—going through the publishing companies and contacting the artists' management.
Jon and I have also been talking about doing some of his live stuff exclusively on vinyl. We've taped every Friday night of his for the last 12 years and there's a lot of great stuff on there that he would never put on a regular album. So maybe we'll go the vinyl route!
I know you donated the Largo film proceeds to the Autism Speaks organization, and in the past, you've worked with autistic children. How did you first come to be involved with this cause?
When I began working on the Largo film with Andrew van Baal, my thought was, "If I'm going to do this, it's not going to be this slap on the back kind of thing." I wanted to find a cause to support, and I knew the artists would be on board with it as well.
I had spent three years in Boston working with families of autistic children as part of my dissertation, so it's just always been something I've wanted to get back into. A couple friends of mine, one of whom has an autistic child, told me that Autism Speaks is a great charity. It seemed like the right choice for the film proceeds. Right now, autism is beyond epidemic, and due to my background, it was something I could speak to if people asked me questions about it. So I contacted Autism Speaks and they were thrilled.
How did music help when you were working with autistic kids?
Music helps everybody. Even if it's a bad disco song, it creates some sort of reaction. These were violently autistic kids, and we had a therapy room where we played different music and exercised with them. If you put on Vivaldi's Four Seasons, they would become calm and tune into it—even if it was only for a few moments. It was amazing to see.
Many of them loved the experience of playing an instrument. They loved that they could just touch a button or a key and create something. Trying to draw might have been difficult, but they'd work with a drum machine or synthesizer and it would be very satisfying for them.
I've also worked in cancer wards where music has been used. I've never imposed music in any of the places I've worked, but if it's been there and people seemed to benefit from it, I was glad to be able to contribute to that.
I know our time is coming to an end, but it looks like Largo at the Coronet is going to have a pretty amazing schedule this June during your anniversary month. Can you give us a sneak peek?
It's going to be a great month, and some special guests will be dropping by as well. I'd recommend that people keep checking the schedule for updates [LAist has posted the most current schedule at the bottom of this interview], but here are just a few:
We're doing this Jeff Buckley charity event called Grace Around the World. Sony's releasing a DVD of him doing the songs from Grace on different TV shows around the world. They wanted to hold it here, and Mary, his mother, asked if they could do it as a benefit for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. So we'll be doing it in the big room and the Little Room that night.
On June 6, Donovan Leitch, who's an actor and a musician, will be performing songs from a gypsy musical he's written. Wendy and Lisa are going to do a night or two. The Section Quartet are going to play with a bunch of our regulars—Sam Phillips, Grant-Lee Phillips and possibly Jon Brion will do 2-3 songs each. Sarah Silverman will be here. She's had the longest Largo residency of anyone; I don't think she's missed a month in the last 11 or so years. We'll also have nights with Greg Proops, the Punch Brothers, Lewis Black...and Eddie Izzard may do two nights. You'll want to keep an eye on the schedule for that one.
And one more special thing about June is that we've just been approved for a beer and wine license, so the bar in the Little Room will finally be open on June 3!
Great! And for my final question, I was wondering—do you still go motorcycle riding in Los Angeles? What are some of your favorite routes?
Yes, I do. My favorite route is going to the top of Laurel Canyon then hitting Mulholland. Another drive I love is taking Wilshire or Beverly all the way downtown really early in the morning—like at 2 a.m. At night, all those buildings are fantastic.
Other times, I'll just take off and go in a general direction and follow wherever it takes me. An interesting-looking house or a set of trees may catch my attention and lead me down another road. And then a few minutes later, I'll be thoroughly lost. (laughs)