L.A.'s Greek Theatre: Behind the Scenes of a Political Frenzy

Greek Theater Overview - H 2014
Robert Mora

Greek Theater Overview - H 2014

At stake is a twenty-year contract on the venue and about $100 million dollars in revenue for the city.

This past Oct. 23, packed hearings, held by L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks at the city's Friendship Auditorium, were anything but friendly. Before the commission were two proposals, put forth by world's two largest promotion companies: Live Nation, and a joint venture between Nederlander and AEG. Both were arguing for the right to run LA's iconic Greek Theatre.

At stake is a twenty-year contract on the venue, and about $100 million dollars in revenue for the city. Hundreds of partisans, for and against the proposals, lined up to testify for a minute each — an emotional minute for some — on such heady topics as minimum revenue guarantees, capital improvements, traffic congestion and landscaping.

When the Dept. of Recreation and Parks announced its support for Live Nation's proposal, there was an audible shock in the room. Many thought these hearings could drag on for months. The decision was based largely on a review of each company's proposal via an independent consultant, the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG), which scored Live Nation's plan significantly higher. At that point, one would have logically concluded that Live Nation had a lock on the Greek. But with politics, much as in sports (sorry Seahawks) and the Grammys (sorry Beyonce), anything is possible. And on Wednesday, when the L.A. City Council meets to consider whether to support the RAP's recommendation, all bets are off.

"This process isn't one that just stops at the end of one meeting," says Rena Wasserman, the Greek's current gm and vp operations for Nederlander. "It's a long process." With that in mind, and a political gauntlet that requires the L.A. City Council and Mayor to sign off, Nederlander began an intensive relations campaign, concentrated upon those bastions of democracy (and uncomfortable folding chairs) which influence so many a decision: neighborhood councils.

"In this instance, we felt the neighborhood councils within a five-to-ten mile radius of The Greek were the ones most affected, so those are the ones we concentrated on," says Wasserman. This included Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Greater Wilshire, Studio City and most importantly the Los Feliz neighborhood in which the Greek resides.

Since Oct. 1, when the independent consultant announced its support for Live Nation's proposal, Nederlander has hammered home its message at every possible turn. The company decried the lack of an "apples-to-apples comparison," its mantra and a shorthand for inferring that SAG and Recreation and Parks failed to judge the two proposals by a single standard. (SAG did not return Billboard's requests for comment.) Nederlander also claimed that the panel had failed to take community input into consideration, and waged a vigorous social media campaign with its "#WeAreTheGreek" hashtag.

Last fall, if someone logged onto the Greek Theatre website to find out what time a show started, they were first confronted with a rather invasive pop-up window exclaiming "#WeAreTheGreek" which linked to a petition that has now received over 30,000 signatures. To some, using what is essentially a public utility for a political campaign seemed inappropriate, if not against general guidelines. Even now, if one logs on to the Greek site to know when The Decemberists are playing in May, they will be bombarded by the private company's political agenda.

In making its case to the council, Live Nation (unsurprisingly) agreed that the two-year, $250,000 Recreation and Parks process was fair, impartial and transparent. "It continues to be clear that Live Nation turned in the proposal to manage the Greek that was superior," Live Nation COO Joe Berchtold tells Billboard. "The question at hand now is how the ultimate decision gets made and weather the process that was laid out for two years is followed."?

According to a report in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, Live Nation and Nederlander/AEG each spent nearly $200,000 on lobbying between October and December of last year.

"Not concur" was how a City Council committee worded its Jan. 26 recommendation to reject the Dept. of Recreation and Parks's endorsement of the Live Nation's proposal. The five-person, wonderfully named "Arts, Park, Health, River and Aging Committee" was tasked with doing the City Council's heavy lifting — conducting hearings and reviewing RFPs — before giving its final recommendation to the full City Council. The vote was ultimately 4-1 to reject Recreation & Parks' recommendation for Live Nation.

"It's politics at it's finest," lamented City Councilman Joe Buscaino, the committee's lone dissenting vote. Busciano, whose 15th District lies far south of the Greek, cites Live Nation's larger capital improvement plan, revenue commitment, community fund and ability to attract talent as reasons why he supported the initial decision in favor of Live Nation. "If L.A. was judging this year's Super Bowl," the outspoken Buscaino says, "it would have given the Vincent Lombardi Trophy to the Seattle Seahawks [which this year lost in the final seconds]."

But it is Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents The Greek's home turf of Los Feliz and whose vote traditionally carries the most weight amongst the council, who could tip the scales in favor of Nederlander. "In the best interests of the constituency that I represent, I thought they should reject Live Nation and select the Nederlander/AEG group," LaBonge says. Every morning the councilman hikes through Griffith Park, where he says he sees regularly evidence of Nederlander's community outreach efforts. In fact, LaBonge himself worked at the Greek in 1969 and recalled seeing such acts there as Harry Belafonte and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

As this process has become increasingly politicized, any position could have political repercussions. A vote siding with Nederlander to overturn Recreation and Parks' decision undermines a long and expensive process; a vote to support Live Nation will rile up several communities who feel they were not consulted, and could hurt a candidate's political future.

And then, even in this highly politicized and contentious process, there is the Beatles factor. "I got a call from Ringo Starr's representative," LaBonge says. "He loves the Greek Theater. Ringo Starr, who could pick any place in the world to play, loves it. I'm proud they come to the Greek and that's a big thing for me."

This article first appeared on Billboard.com.