Centennial panel considers $1 million to help save aging Huntridge Theater

Countless stories have been written about saving the historic Huntridge Theater, but there’s never been a happy ending where it’s actually saved.

In the latest effort, the Las Vegas Centennial Commission is considering spending $1 million to buy land under the theater built in 1944 at the corner of Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway.

That would just pay for a plot of land, a one-third acre island really.

The actual job of saving the theater itself would be in the hands of private investors, who would have to raise another $3 million to buy the rest of the surrounding land, then raise $8 million, and probably far more, to renovate the theater so it would be able to function.

At this point, the theater is gutted, seats have been removed and the inside has a sad, abandoned feeling about it. However, a coat of white paint last year made it look cleaner and more hopeful.

Joey Vanas, who lives in the Huntridge neighborhood and operates the First Fridays, dreams of reviving the tired theater. So does Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Beat Coffeehouse and Downtown Cocktail Room, who used to live in the ’hood. They made their pitch to the Centennial Commission on May 5, but commissioners had unresolved legal questions, so they postponed the vote until a special meeting at 3 p.m. May 19.

The theater definitely had glory days and is a memory bank for hordes of Nevadans who went there to see movies, live theater and concerts.

The tower is 75 feet high and was originally built in a style known as “streamline moderne.”

Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin, who grew up and still lives in the Huntridge neighborhood, is behind the push to spend $1 million as part of historic preservation.

He serves on the Centennial Commission, which was created to celebrate the city’s 100th birthday in 2005. Funding still comes from commemorative license plates, which raise about $1.6 million a year. The money is spent on restoration and rehabilitation of historical sites and projects related to the history of the city of Las Vegas.

The state has already put $1.5 million over a five-year period into saving the Huntridge. The roof collapsed in 1995 shortly before a concert and the state stepped up to make the building safe.

Cima Mizrachi, daughter of the owner, had plans to save it. So did her brother, Eli Mizrachi.

The Mizrachi family owns both the theater and the building next door which housed their mattress store. While the door to the shop has “open” scribbled on it, on Thursday it appeared mostly empty and locked with a chain.

Other would-be saviors include Richard Lenz, who sponsored concerts there in the 1990s. The city put in $150,000 in 1994 at his request and he suggested the city should take over the theater as a cultural center. Didn’t happen.

In 2001, the saviors at that time said the state wouldn’t need to put any more money into the Huntridge, after accepting a $100,000 grant from the state Commission for Cultural Affairs.

In 2002, the theater closed, but Eli Mizrachi planned a renovation that was supposed to include a club, a restaurant, lounge, comedy shows and an open mic night. Didn’t happen.

In 2004, he planned another renovation. Didn’t happen.

In 2008, he spoke of changing the property to a mix of retail and offices. Didn’t happen.

In 2012, Cima Mizrachi sought to open a secondhand store. Her father, Aron Mizrachi said if things didn’t work out , he planned to tear down the theater, although the state restriction that accompanied its money prevents him from doing that until 2017.

At the daughter’s request, the city put in $19,000 in a 2012 visual improvement grant and granted the family a license to operated adjacent buildings as a secondhand store. The council overruled the Planning Commission which agreed with neighbors who compared it with a pawn shop.

The theater is listed on both national and state registries of historic sites. In its early days, partial owners included movie stars Loretta Young and Irene Dunn. Two Nevada politicians — former Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa and former Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt-Bono — were ushers at the theater as young women.

The theater is also a symbol of desegregation. Former owner Lloyd Katz refused to segregate the theater when the practice was common.

Now the latest saviors, Vanas and Cornthwaite, with the strong backing of Councilman Coffin, hope to succeed where others failed. They need $3 million to buy the three acres surrounding the theater. The city’s portion would be the one-third of an acre.

Vanas said the plan is to create a performing arts venue that would show art-house movies, off-Broadway shows, high school productions, concerts and live music.

The idea is supported by Bill Arent, director of the Las Vegas Development Agency, who said the solution to saving the Huntridge is to consider this public-private partnership. And if it never comes to reality, the city would own a piece of land. He said the purchase would include some sort of street access, although that parcel is currently landlocked. The city would work with developers, using city resources to obtain tax credits.

“We want to be involved,” Arent said.

Commission members were warned that spending $1 million would leave about $500,000 in their ending fund balance.

Commissioner Bob Stoldal, who remembers all the other resurrection efforts since 1990, asked bluntly, “Why is it going to work this time?”

Commissioner Tim Cashman also worried they might have nothing to show for the $1 million.

“If you own the hole of the donut, you control the donut,” Coffin answered.

Councilman Ricki Barlow raised questions about whether the city would own the land or the commission, which is forbidden from owning land, and whether this was an allowable expense under the commission’s governing regulations. Those questions delayed a vote.

Vanas said that in previous attempts, the focus was on the theater. In this plan, the next-door buildings would be used for other things, such as a coffee shop and things that would be useful for the neighborhood.

“I’m confident we will get the remaining money we need,” he said.

“Have you raised the other $3 million?” Stoldal asked.

“No,” Vanas said. He believes investors will come forward if the city shows its commitment to invest.

Contact Jane Ann Morrison at jmorrison@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0275.