Arts community goes gung-ho for ‘NoHo’

The seeds that sprouted London’s famed Soho district and New York’s more fashionable SoHo gallery enclave may now be taking root in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

Over the past couple of months, a group of businesses, theaters, restaurants, and gallerys have banded together in North Hollywood to create the “NoHo” arts district. Within a short period of time, the idea has quickly begun to flourish.

“What we’re doing is trying to make theater come alive in the Valley,” said David Cox, artistic director at the American Renegade Theater and one of the brainstormers of this project.

With a lot of available commerical space and cheap rent, the NoHo district — running north to south from Camarillo to Chandler Avenue, and east to west from Cahuenga to Tujunga — has become a small enclave for artists and their wares. Cox, a former New Yorker, was the first to coin it “NoHo,” named after the North Hollywood terra firma on which it sits.

“These things always start where rent is cheap,” Cox said. “And that’s what happened here. There had been a flight of businesses from the area and suddenly, with all this cheap space, artists began to move in.”

Currently there are nine theaters within the district’s boundaries, including Cox’s Renegade theater, the Alliance Theater, the Group Repertory, the Acme Comedy Club, the Richard Basehart, the Limelight and Theater East, all Equity Waiver houses. There are also several cafes, galleries, the Lankershim Arts Center and some dance companies.

Actors Alley, one of the oldest Waiver houses in the area, will eventually be a legit centerpiece of the area as the company moves into the 1926 El Portal movie house. The plan is to build two theaters in the building, a 199-seat Equity house and a 99-seat Waiver venue.

The North Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency has been enthusiastic about the creation of the district, but — with the Los Angeles Theater Center financial debacle in downtown L.A. still a painful memory — has taken a tough stance in terms of financially helping Actors Alley into the larger venue. At this point, the CRA has approved a $ 200,000 loan to the theater and is giving them a $ 50,000 grant dependent on them matching it with another $ 50,000.

“Knowing the history of the LATC deal (the city of L.A. invested nearly $ 27 million into LATC only to have the company go bankrupt), this project will naturally be subject to a lot of scrutiny,” noted Jerry Belcher, CRA project manager. “But we do think this is a great use for redevelopment money.”

The heart of the district is at the intersection of Magnolia and Lankershim, where the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is located. On the opposite corner sits the Eclectic Cafe, owned by Brian Sheehan (son of KNBC entertainment editor David Sheehan).

“I was restoring this old apartment building in this area and got to know the neighbors,” Sheehan said. “And they kept telling me that the neighborhood was changing. That a lot of actors and models, musicians and painters were moving in. And that’s what inspired me.

“I thought, what a great place to open the kind of cafe I had always wanted to do,” he said. “A kind of eccentric place.”

Currently there’s movement toward officially designating the district with signs and banners. Area theaters are also talking about bringing in street performers.

This June there will be a two-day NoHo Arts Festival, which Jim Mahfet, executive vice president of the Universal City/North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, believes will be the event that puts the area on everyone’s cultural map. And this past week, the very first edition of the “NoHo News,” a 16-page cultural magazine, was published.

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