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September 1, 2014

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Warren family backs Huntridge Theater and asks, ‘Who else wants in?’

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John Katsilometes

Jonathan Warren, at the “Thrilla Villa,” a supporter of the Huntridge Theater revival project.

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Jonathan Warren, in his office at the "Thrilla Villa," the onetime Michael Jackson residence in Las Vegas.

Jonathan Warren is of a family that appreciates, celebrates and preserves Vegas history, especially the city’s most famous structures.

But even understanding that familial quality doesn’t quite prepare you for a visit to an office Warren occupies in the core of the city. You are given the address, 2710 Palomino Lane, in Las Vegas.

This seems familiar, or does it?

You drive into that neighborhood and then you remember that those numbers and that palatial estate — dubbed Hacienda Palomino — as a Vegas residence of Michael Jackson.

This is the office of Mr. Warren, who also is the honorary Consul of the Principality Monaco, a position bestowed upon the Las Vegas native three years ago. Warren manages the property as part of the arrangement that permits him to conduct business in what has long been known as the “Thrilla Villa” (and which was the center of one of the craziest stories ever in Vegas a couple of years ago).

But this is not the most pertinent building in Warren’s world at the moment. His family and he are more interested in preserving Huntridge Theater, donating $10,000 to the current Indiegogo fundraising campaign.

That donation effort ends at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, and at this writing about $128,000 of a $150,000 goal has been amassed.

By the end of the year, the team that has built the Huntridge Revival operation (specifically Life Is Beautiful founder Rehan Choudhry, Downtown Cocktail Room and Emergency Arts proprietor Michael Cornthwaite and First Friday managing partner Joey Vanas) will need to raise $4 million to buy the building and property from current owners the Mizrachi family of Las Vegas.

Then the real fundraising work begins. It will cost an additional $10 million to return the Huntridge to the type of theater that can host an array of shows and concerts, as it did when it was opened in December 1944. The 1,600-seat venue, the first to offer air conditioning among Vegas theaters, was shut down briefly in 1977. The concert hall was rebuilt after a roof collapse in 1995, then closed again in the summer of 2004. It has been the home not to shows and performances but to stacks of mattresses and bed springs from the Mizrachi’s furniture business ever since.

But in the spring, the Huntridge Revival team began seeking investors, those willing to donate even $10 to those prepared to weigh in with tens of thousands, as a last-chance effort to save the theater.

“This is a way to raise awareness of who is interested,” Warren says. “We are the biggest cheerleaders of anyone who wants to preserve Las Vegas history. Now we need to know, who is interested? Who is coming out of the woodwork? I mean, we had the 'Pawn Stars' (the Harrison family, stars of the hit reality TV show) with $25,000 — this is a serious contribution, and it is just the beginning.”

More serious, even, would be if the chatter about a commitment (in funding and in operational vision) from The Killers, who played the Huntridge and happen to be from Las Vegas. Asked if the band would be involved in any formal way in the project, Warren said, “It wouldn’t surprise me. The history of the Huntridge is fascinating in and of itself, and if people remember it as a concert venue, that just gives it more ammunition for renovation. It was immensely popular, for fans and for bands, and many became global sensations.”

Warren is doubtless nostalgic about the Huntridge and protecting Vegas landmarks. His father is UNLV Distinguished Professor Emeritus Claude N. Warren and his mother is Dr. Elizabeth von Till Warren, director of the Old Spanish Trail Association. The family has fought to save the Old Mormon Fort, Big Springs (which is now where Springs Preserve stands), 5th Street School, Las Vegas High School and Goodsprings School.

“I remember my mom had bumper stickers saying “Hold the Fort,’ ” Warren says, recalling the effort that saved Old Mormon Fort from being torn down. “When they wanted to widen the freeway in the direction of Springs Preserve, she fought to stop that from happening.”

The connections linking the Warrens to the Huntridge are many. When Prince Albert II of Monaco appointed him Honorary Counsul of Monaco in Las Vegas, Warren learned there had been a previous consul in Las Vegas whom had been appointed in 1955. It was Henry Leigh Hunt, who was the son of empire builder Leigh S.J. Hunt.

Henry Leigh Hunt and his partners owned more land in Vegas than anyone at the time, and Hunt named the theater for his father, who died in 1933. That is why the building was dubbed Huntridge, as was the surrounding neighborhood. It is the largest of designer S. Charles Lee’s theaters, constructed during the height of World War II, when materials were scarce but the connections of Hunt — who was owed a few favors by the War Department at the time — made construction possible.

This is not the first save-the-Huntridge effort to involve Warren, either. A year ago, he held a mixer at Bar + Bistro to salvage the Huntridge under a nonprofit entity. “I put it out there just as an idea,” he recalls. “I had great support as far as the energy from the people who supported it, but there were serious detractors and those who wanted to see it demolished.”

The difference between now and then?

“This is the right generation of people to take the lead,” Warren says. “These guys are successes, they are well-known and fresh and pretty open about what they want to do. They are a pretty inviting group, and they are guys I had not known before this campaign but I do know are in it for the right reasons.”

To be addressed during renovations, if they are ever to be enacted, are concerns about the structural integrity of the building. “That’s a major argument from old-timers, and we have been hearing it for years, from the Old Mormon Fort to Springs Preserve to the Las Vegas Ice Plant (a renovation effort that fell short of restoring that history-rich building on Main Street).” The other argument is that there is not enough audience in the Vegas market for a theater the size of the Huntridge.

“This is hard-focused on people who live in Las Vegas,” Warren says in assessing the venue’s market viability. “It wasn’t built for tourists. Tourists are a bonus, and it still has the largest neighborhood in the city in its back yard.”

Warren remembers watching movies in the old Huntridge. He saw some classics.

“I remember I was 5 years old and we went to see ‘Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ there,” he remembers, smiling. “It was the first color movie I’d ever seen, and it was so popular, we were lined up into the parking lot.”

The future of the Huntridge is like a song from that movie, where pure imagination (and a lot of support) will defy explanation.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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