Oriental Theater up for sale

Just a year after taking over the Oriental Theater, the owners of 3 Kings Tavern have thrown in the towel and put the historic, 700-person venue at 4335 West 44th Avenue up for sale. Jim Norris, one of those owners -- and now also part-owner of the new Rockaway Tavern -- says they tried but couldn't quite it make it work. "I'll admit defeat," Norris confesses. "I couldn't figure it out one bit."

Scott LaBarbera, who owned the Oriental from 2005 to 2009, says he has the option of taking the place over, but is waiting to see what happens now that the venue is on the market. "I'm still pondering getting back in it and being involved," he says, "but I want to see what shakes out of this. I have a lot passion about that space. If I can't do it, I hope somebody can get it going again."

"I'd really like to see somebody who has some capital who can do some minor improvements in there," LaBarbera adds. "I think that it would take about $50,000 to get what I think needs to get done. The building is still in pretty good shape."

Built as a movie theater in 1927, the Oriental showed films daily for decades, but hit a rough patch in the '50s as folks started flocking to the suburbs. In an effort to boost attendance in the '60s, the theater was given a facelift with plush seating, new carpeting, fresh paint and a bigger projection screen. But the screen eventually went dark, and over the next few decades, the Oriental slid into disrepair.

A few attempts were made revitalize the space in the '90s, LaBarbera says, but none of the owners had the vision or staying power to capitalize on the theater's substantial assets. After LaBarbera took over the building in July 2005 with a team of investors, he gave the Oriental's interior an overdue facelift.

He also brought in an eclectic selection of acts, including blues legend Johnny Winter, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, Little Feat, Ivan Neville, Fleet Foxes and comedians Doug Stanhope and Todd Barry, among others. In 2007, Jay Bianchi came in as a partner and booked jam bands similar to those that performed at other venues in his Quixote's empire.

But that wasn't enough to keep the place solvent, and so he sold it to the 3 Kings partners. Now, at least while the venue is on the market, LaBarbera will be helping to operate the Oriental. Kentucky-based cellist Ben Sollee is slated to perform there Sunday, September 5.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon