June 10th, 2012, 9:02 pm · · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The 550-capacity music venue off Harbor Boulevard on the southern edge of Santa Ana, which had hosted stars ranging from Beck to Little Richard, shut its doors after years of decline, prompting one patron to remark, “I’m surprised it didn’t fall down before it closed down.”
The Galaxy reopened the following year, but over the past 10 months the once-decrepit club has experienced a rebirth, with new ownership, a new name and a new knack for booking top up-and-coming acts.
Local businessman and Costa Mesa native Jon Reiser, along with partner Courtney Michaelis, took over the Galaxy last August. They rechristened it the Observatory in the fall, after undertaking a complete overall of the structure, including the installation of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sound and lighting equipment put in by the company that does light and sound for the annual Coachella and Stagecoach festivals.
Since then, the owners have repaved the parking lot, repainted walls, replaced floors, reupholstered booths and cleared out free-standing tables to provide better visibility of the stage. They also created a smaller venue-within-a-venue, a 300-capacity space with a substantial stage dubbed the Constellation Room, where smaller touring acts and local bands perform.
The marquee still reads the Galaxy Concert Theatre, though it is covered by a small banner with the new Observatory logo, Reiser says that is just one of many outside renovations yet to be finished. In the coming months the building, which Reiser and Michaelis are in escrow to purchase, will be repainted and its old maroon awnings will be torn down.
Despite the obvious physical changes in the venue, the biggest difference is the more robust concert calendar. After purchasing the business from former owner Gary Folgner, who still owns the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Reiser completely turned the quality of acts coming through the venue around by incorporating an eclectic mix of talent, whereas in years past the lineups had featured more cover bands than actual artists.
The first show under the new management took place on Sept. 12 and was headlined by Los Angeles-based rising indie act Foster the People, a band Reiser had previously helped develop in the area during his time booking talent at the 250-capacity Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa. Reiser had also been responsible for booking and giving a boost to Irvine-based act and current success Young the Giant early on in its career. The same goes for the Cold War Kids, Delta Spirit and Local Natives. He also brought down other budding L.A. acts such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and the Airborne Toxic Event – which at that time were barely filling Detroit Bar.
Once those band’s songs began to make it off of KROQ’s “Locals Only” list and into the regular rotation, Reiser realized there was no way that he would ever be able to book them again if he stayed at Detroit.
“I’ve noticed a shift as radio has started to play indie bands and breaking bands much more often, so the bands that used to tour and would play the 250-350-capacity rooms aren’t doing that anymore,” he says. “Like a band that’s from New Zealand, like the Naked and Famous, they get a hit on the radio and they’re able to skip doing those tours where they’re playing to those capacities and they’re playing 1,000-2,500-capacity venues on their entire tour.”
After taking over the Galaxy in August, Reiser immediately pressed on and booked Young the Giant for a couple of dates, brought back Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, was able to accommodate Silversun Pickups and even got Devo on board for a sold-out gig. Artists like Dr. Dog, Girls and Crystal Castles were also big hits as well as spectacles like new hip-hop artist Tyga and even breaking Coachella band Grouplove got a great reaction.
“From the perspective of the bands, we’ve gotten a pretty positive response and word has spread pretty quickly,” he said. “Edward Sharpe, who have played in front of 6,000-8,000-person rooms, they had such a great time and the feedback was so positive, part of that was the reason we were able to book Silversun Pickups. If bands weren’t having positive experiences here, we wouldn’t be having any shows. That’s just the way this business works.”
In the coming months the venue will see performances by an array of artists such as Jenny Lewis, Sea Wolf, Nipsey Hussle and the Meteors. On June 18-19, the Observatory will host the final two shows of O.C.-based rock outfit Thrice’s farewell tour, something Reiser is happy to add to the new establishment’s history.
“That’s what I was hoping we would build over time is some sort of legacy,” he says. “I think to do things that leave some sort of mark is great and we want to add value to Orange County and bring bands here that wouldn’t normally play here and allow people to have that experience in a venue this size and I hope that’s what we’re already doing.”
For OC Music Awards producer and ACE Agency owner Ashley Eckenweiler, having another well-run venue simply equals more opportunity for growth in the scene.
The more venues we have in O.C. and the more routed shows that are presented locally, the better it is for our local music scene,” she said. “It helps to establish O.C. as a live music and cultural destination rather than just a secondary market.”
With the added benefit of having the Constellation Room to host local band showcases or month-long residencies, with acts such as Railroad to Alaska, Hell or Highwater, Polaris at Noon and Jeramiah Red, Reiser says that he has numerous local artists reaching out to him, wanting to perform on the smaller stage.
“I really love it, to be honest,” said Wes Dickson, vocalist and guitarist for Jeramiah Red. “Every time we have played there it’s just got an awesome sound and they’ve booked some really great bands in there.”
Dickson, who grew up attending punk shows at the Galaxy Theatre, says he has fond memories of the old venue but is glad that it has received the much-needed facelift.
“It’s just a much more positive vibe now and it gives musicians another big venue to go to, to host CD release shows or to get the opportunity to open for a big act on the main stage,” he adds.
In the future Reiser says he hopes to purchase another venue to be more economically efficient.
“Ideally I’d like to own another venue in Santa Barbara or Arizona, somewhere that isn’t a major market like San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego,” he says, adding that running the Observatory itself is hectic but rewarding.
“It is stressful because you are working all of the time – loading bands in at 11 a.m., soundchecking, getting the lighting set up, getting people in the door – it gets to a point where the show is finally going on and you’re like ‘ahhhhhh.’ Fortunately for us, most of the stuff we’ve done is with people that we are really big fans of so when you actually get to the point where the band is playing, it’s pretty cool, this owning a venue thing.”
Photos by Ana P. Gutierrez, for the Orange County Register.
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