Attorney and musician Lara Lavi and her husband, Maurice Jones Jr., are on a mission to spruce up and revitalize the 1917 Columbia City Theater in Seattle. “This is not a club,” Lavi says. “It is a theater.”
“You know that movie, ‘We Bought A Zoo’?” Lara Lavi asked as we stood on a balcony inside the Columbia City Theater. “This is that movie.”
It was a fitting comparison. People were running up and down stairs and milling about on the main floor. There was a slight odor about the place — not unexpected after almost 100 years.
And there was wondrous racket coming from the stage, where comedian and musician Ahamefule Oluo and his orchestra were rehearsing for his show, “Now I’m Fine,” before bringing it to New York next month.
10 Million Rays of Light Benefit Concert
8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; $15 (columbiacitytheater.com).
If this is a zoo, then Lavi is the keeper with all the keys — most important, the one to the theater’s future.
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Last month, Lavi and her husband, Maurice Jones Jr., a multimedia educator who worked with the Central Area Youth Association, were brought in by theater owner Peter Sikov to manage the place.
“We had a four-hour conversation where (Sikov) really saw who we were as artists and grown-up people,” she said.
Lavi, 55, brings years of experience to the role.
She is a working attorney who became the managing partner of Death Row Records in 2009 after negotiating an $18 million acquisition deal.
She has her own production company, called Dreaming in Color Entertainment.
And she is an artist who fronts the Lara Lavi Band and has a new, five-song EP called “Finish Line” coming out next summer.
“We bring emotional acumen, business acumen and a true love of the arts,” Lavi said. “And I am a player. I am doing this.”
Settling into one of the well-worn couches in the theater’s office area, she painted a vivid picture of what she sees for the place.
A thriving theater, with bookings on par with every other similarly sized venue in town. An education program, where students can learn not just performance, but recording, stage management, lighting, sound tech, marketing and promotion. A recording studio, where artists can feel comfortable to create.
She also wants to launch something called “DICE TV,” streaming live performances and artist interviews.
“This would be a media spot similar to ‘Austin City Limits,’ ” she said, referring to the long-running televised concert series on PBS. “This is a perfect production house for this. We want to make sure that every ounce of this building is monetized.”
The theater, tucked between Columbia City Ale House and Tutta Bella Pizzeria, was built in 1917 and is the oldest vaudeville theater in the state.
During the jazz boom of the 1940s, it hosted Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. And in the ’50s, there were Saturday-morning movies for kids. Flash Gordon. Our Gang. It’s also rumored to be one of the first places Jimi Hendrix played. The ’80s punk movement passed through here, as did plenty of raves, when the theater was known as “The Lish House.”
Since it reopened in June 2010, the theater has made Seattle Weekly’s “Best of Seattle” list, and SPIN Magazine called it “The city’s finest-sounding room.”
Earlier this year, Wilco chose the theater to perform a benefit show for KEXP. These days, it hosts karaoke, burlesque and performers such as singer Audra Day.
“This is not a club,” Lavi said. “It is a theater. That stage doesn’t look like a club to me. Whoever is on it should be drawing sufficient people that it makes business sense.”
When Lavi and her husband first toured the theater, there were licenses to pay and renovations to do. They started by hiring a cleaner to attack the filthy carpet and the dusty office.
“There was a lot of stuff in storage that belonged to nobody,” Lavi said with a rueful laugh. They even found a $1,000 check written to the theater that had never been deposited. (It finally was, and it went through).
“People had been so overwhelmed,” she said, “they couldn’t get the place into pure function.”
Lavi and Jones have created The Friends of the Columbia Theater, a nonprofit under the Allied Arts Foundation of Seattle, to help with the restorations. Donors will be able sponsor a music series, pay to repair the roof or purchase lighting gear, and get a tax break in return.
“We are building a community here,” she said.
Lavi and Jones live in Lake Forest Park with their son, Cameron Miles Lavi-Jones, 17, a Shorecrest High School. He’s a senior who plays the cello at school and guitar in his own band, Gypsy Temple, as well as his mother’s. Jones plays bass.
The entire family will be onstage on Saturday, Jan. 9, for “The 10 Million Rays of Light Benefit Concert,” to bring renewable, solar-powered inflatable lanterns — called Solar Puffs — to those around the world living without electricity.
Lavi knows it all sounds like too much, a little crazy. Too many dreams.
But she recalled how her mother used to quote Robert Browning: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”
“I understand the perspective of an artist and what their dreams are,” Lavi said. “I want them to come true in this building. I want to help them get there.”