By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There are almost never employee meetings at the Lounge, the 19-year-old bar nestled within the lobby of the Inwood Theater. There has never been much need for such formal get-togethers, because families--and that's what the bar's nearly dozen employees, from bartenders to bar backs, consider each other--know what's going on beneath their shared roof. As far as one bartender, Carly Miller, can recall, there have been but two staff meetings during her three-year tenure at the Lounge: There was one a month ago to discuss renovations owner Theresa Alexander planned on making to the venerable hangout. And there's the one currently in progress on this Friday afternoon, just an hour before the bar is to open at 5 p.m.
The staff members, most with lit cigarettes smoldering in ashtrays before them, are sprawled across black sofas in the bar's back room. Miller made the joke when she walked in that maybe someone was getting fired, but the staff was not prepared for the subject of today's meeting. Later, bar manager Carlos Flood, who started washing dishes at the Lounge in 1988, will say it's like "learning of a death in the family." The Lounge, he will say again and again, "is home." Just not for long, the way things look today.
At 4:08 p.m. August 10, the staff at the Lounge came to work only to discover that on Sunday, October 7, they will very likely be out of a job. That's because only two days before this meeting was called, Alexander was informed by Landmark Theatres--which runs the Inwood Theater and controls the Lounge's lease--that she had 60 days to get out. The eviction notice, sent on Landmark letterhead, was succinct and businesslike: "This letter constitutes Lessor's sixty (60) day written notification of termination of [lease]."
Alexander opened the bar--designed it, in fact, replacing a brick concession stand with a sleek, art-deco counter and glass-brick wall and drizzling fountain--in October 1982. Almost to the day, she will turn over the keys to Landmark and say farewell to her landmark.
"The staff was stunned when I told them," Alexander says, glancing over at her little family. "There was dead silence. Who expected this? It was only two weeks since I was given any notice, and they hadn't told me they were willing to negotiate."
She walks throughout the bar, pointing at all the renovations she and her partners made when former owners of the theater asked her in 1982 if she'd be interested in obtaining a liquor license and starting a bar in the lobby. Back then, her name was synonymous with fine booze: She'd been there at the opening of the Stoneleigh P and the Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill.
Paul Richardson, president of the Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres, which emerged from bankruptcy last May when Dallas-based Silver Cinemas sold its stake in the chain to Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management L.L.C. for $40 million, says the company's decision to raise the rent was merely a pragmatic one. He insists it was never Landmark's desire to drive out Alexander, but merely to raise the rent to something more on par with market value. In 1982, Alexander says, she was paying $400 a month for the space. Nearly 20 years later, it's up to $3,250, which, Richardson says, is merely a fraction of what the property's worth.
"We didn't plan on terminating the lease," says Richardson, who insists he's still willing to negotiate with Alexander, which will come as a surprise to the bar owner. "Landmark is not in the business of being a landlord, and we've been very negligent in keeping rents up to date with the bar, and we just took a look at it and need to get closer to the market value. We had local Realtors look at the space and give us comparable values, and we took the absolute lowest number and said, 'We need to get into the range of this number to keep this operation there.'"
According to Alexander, she had been trying repeatedly to discuss the Lounge's lease with Landmark during the chain's bankruptcy, only to be put off until the company was in a stronger financial position. The bar had been operating on a month-to-month basis "for a long time," Alexander and Richardson say, and she was eager to resolve the tenuous matter. Finally, she received a call from Landmark's local attorney, Paul Ledbetter, who asked to see the Lounge's financial records, which Alexander says she turned over in June. At the end of July, she says, Ledbetter informed her that Landmark had finally arrived at an annual rent figure: $65,000--or $26,000 more than she was currently paying.
Alexander told Ledbetter she could ill afford such a steep increase, since the bar is barely making enough now to cover the current rent.
"I said, 'Does that mean you want my business?' Will you negotiate?'" Alexander says she asked Ledbetter. She says she was told Landmark wasn't interested. When they spoke the middle of last week, Ledbetter told her "he had bad news for me," Alexander recalls.
"They wanted $65,000 and didn't want to talk about it," Alexander says. "The only ugly thing I said was, 'Are you going to make any improvements to the Inwood?' I think it's a mess, and I am terribly sensitive about design. I felt as a landmark in Dallas, the last of the operating movie palaces, it should be handled in better fashion. Anyway, he wasn't interested in that and didn't tell me if they were going to do anything, because I am sure they're trying to involve our space in their plans, which has to do with the Angelika having a café." Alexander pauses, and there's a hiccup in her voice. "I'm about to cry," she says.