"Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck."
Midsummer Nights Dream, Act 2, Sc 1
You can walk right by a time capsule without even realizing it, especially if you believe the cliche that Los Angeles has no history at all. Hidden behind a roll-up gate on a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard congested by tourists, there is a 102-year-old blackbox theater.
It looks nothing like the grand old movie palaces on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. There is no gothic facade or grand marque; the space is neighbored by tattoo parlors and shops selling chintzy bric a bric.
The space inside is still in remarkably good condition, however, and it is filled with theatrical props and tokens from several eras. It has housed countless productions through the years, including musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and Avenue Q, as well as more off-center shows like Fluffers: Give you Hard Comedy or All About Walken, which brought an army of Christopher Walken impersonators to the stage.
And sometime later this year or maybe next, it will be torn down.
But a spirit will take over the place for a little while before it goes to make room for a breezeway of all things. Mischievous by nature, this spirit, like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, appears for only a moment, and meaning no harm to anyone, plays a few pranks before disappearing again. For 90 days the space will be called the Hobgoblin Playhouse, a pop-up theater if you will, and become a venue for the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Jenn and Greg Crafts, a couple who call themselves Fringe Junkies and enjoy a solid reputation within the festival's community, created The Hobgoblin Playhouse after persistently and patiently pestering City of Los Angeles officials to give them the space. They both speak passionately about the project, frequently completing each others sentences and thoughts, evidence of a true partnership. They will be out by June 26, just a few days after the Festival ends.
"We've heard different things about when it will be gone," Jenn says. It certainly won't be the day after the Crafts leave the space, it possibly will still be around this time next year. But the city has made it clear – the space will definitely be demolished.
"There are pros and con to this," Jenn says. "It is very sad to lose a historical theater like that, and they are gutting it to make a walkway to parking garage, which is horrifying. But they are promising to put another blackbox theater near the space"--and if they do, the Crafts will make a strong pitch that they should be the ones running it.
"We're hoping our experience in helping and empowering other artists will make us a strong candidate for managing the property," Greg says.
Jenn was up late one night doing research when she thought of the name. "I was trying to think of a name that would go with that this space is a temporary venue, that it will disappear eventually," she says. She began looking for some mythical creature and serendipitously discovered that Hobgoblins are almost exactly the definition of what she was looking for: mischievous spirits that like creating chaos, but unlike poltergeists, are essentially good.
Jenn knew right away that she wanted the name – even if she approached Greg a little tentatively at first, like "hey, this might sound a little dorky, but what do you think of calling the space The Hobgoblin?"
Greg loved the idea, but being a huge Dungeons and Dragons geek, he thought of a Hobgoblin as an evil creature armed with a javelin that can only be defeated with the roll of an eight-sided die. He was even more convinced after Jennifer made him aware of the mythical history of Hobgoblins.
They may continue to use the name for other temporary venues they create, or perhaps if they manage the space again for Fringe Festival 2019. It depends on when the city finalizes plans with the developer and tears it all down.
The Hobgoblin's location, according to Escott O. Norton of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, actually did not begin as a theater. The Hobgoblin was built originally as a store in 1916 and it is unclear exactly when it was converted. Evidently it is also not considered a "historic theater"- the closest is right next door.
The neighboring space was opened by Mr. P. Tabor as Hollywood's first movie theater in late 1910 or early 1911, according to the Los Angeles Theatres blog. It was called the Idle Hour. You could have bought the space in 1912 for $800--a deal that an advertisement of that time warned "You will have to come on a run to get this." It is now home to a store called Stage Hollywood, whose sign advertises flirty dance-wear and fantasy costumes.
Perhaps most famously, the Hobgoblin once housed the Paul G. Gleason Theater, named for its founder and artistic director. Gleason performed in television, film and theatre, but was as much known for his teaching as his acting. The Hollywood Blvd. location was mainstay of the Los Angeles theatre scene starting in the late 90's. It was used as a venue for the inaugural year of the Fringe Festival in 2010.
After the Gleason folded in 2012, the space was vacant for about a year. The Cupcake Theater rebuilt the space, originally booking improv and comedy shows, but later they became known for musicals that made up with verve for what they lacked in budget. The Cupcake eventually outgrew the space as their reputation and fan base grew. They were the last to use it before leaving in 2016 for a new studio in North Hollywood.
When the Crafts first saw the space, the theater was still in remarkably good condition. It was pretty dusty and needed a good cleaning, but the Crafts were shocked by how workable the space still was. All the seats were still there. Costumes and set pieces had been left in the backstage area, which alone is probably larger than many theaters in Los Angeles.
There is a long wooden bar behind which are book shelves stocked with antique books from the 1930's – one title is Best Monologues from 1890 to 1900. There are boxes underneath the bar stacked as high as three feet with textbooks and scripts.
The front lobby is dominated by a painting of a pair blue eyes on pure white skin surrounded by a shock of red hair – a piece that wouldn't have seemed out of place in A Clockwork Orange. Two pianos are still in the space--a standup in the lobby and a Grand onstage in the theater, and there's a follow spot in the lobby.
They didn't get access to the space until just a few weeks ago--barely enough time to get the space ready before its first show last Sunday night. The Crafts have experienced this last year when they took over the Studio/Stage on Western, a former photo studio with a huge cyc background.
"There was a window that had been boarded up for years, and we were going to unboard the window at 10:30 on a Friday night cause we're stupid" Jen jokes, "but then we pulled down the first board and behind that there was fabric and styrofoam and wood--" and, Greg says, "fluff and layers of black mold." Studio/Stage was in worse condition than the Hobgoblin when the Crafts took it over early last year – there were no risers and the lobby was a mess – but nonetheless they had it finished in time for the Fringe Festival in June.
When the Crafts took over the Studio/Stage space last year, Greg says, "There were a few nights when I slept there, because we were working really late, and since we maybe had rental coming in the early a.m., I said fuck it and wouldn't go home – I wouldn't want to do that at the Hobgoblin." Hollywood Boulevard can be a crazy place on the weekend, and he says there was something a little "ghosty" about the theater when they first moved in. Maybe a spirit or two is lurking in the space, but so far, they haven't revealed themselves.
After a year running that space, they feel "supremely confident" as Jenn puts it, that they can manage a second Fringe venue – in fact, their eventual goal is to operate at least five under 99-seat houses within five years. Difficulties arise, but the Crafts take the perspective that any problem can be overcome – if you hustle hard enough to solve it.
The Hobgoblin is a simpler space than Studio/Stage, and lighter tech-wise, but still robust enough that people can get up on stage and tell their stories.
"There are definitely going to be some surprises at the Hobgoblin that we hadn't thought of, but we will figure it out. It's going to be fine." Jenn says. The Crafts, who jokingly suggest they might start a show called Theatre Rescue instead of Bar Rescue, have had no trouble booking the Hobgoblin. In the anything goes spirit of the Fringe, they've booked several productions with people they've never met who haven't seen the space in person.
Upcoming Fringe productions at the Hobgoblin include several solo shows, at least two Harry Potter parodies, and in what sounds like a work of pure genius, Cthulhu the Musical – based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft and performed entirely with puppets. Another show, a "theatrical jazz-rock fusion" called Love Takes a Stand, boasts a three-piece band and backup singers – and will undoubtedly put that grand piano to use.
It all goes along with the Fringe ethic, a non-curated event where anything goes and people are encouraged to put up that strange idea they've always thought about, be it an offbeat cabaret piece or a movie mashup musical just for the sheer sake of doing it. Experimentation is far more important than slick professionalism.
"What I like about Fringe is that you're not going to see a polished production of Henry V or Streetcar--" says Greg – and Jenn interjects, saying, "I don't want to see that at Fringe, If I saw someone doing Henry V at Fringe, I'd say what are you doing?--"But" Gregory continues, "I love watching people develop new stuff and have plays take their first steps at the Fringe before going on to bigger venues elsewhere."
Maybe some established theatre groups are wary of the Fringe because it kills off so much of June, Greg theorizes, but you can either hate it or embrace it. The connections the Crafts have made at the Fringe are like a supportive family to them.
There are so many artists in Los Angeles possessed by the desire to create works, and that can happen almost anywhere, whether in an old photo studio on Western or an abandoned blackbox theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Hobgoblin Playhouse may appear again when we least expect it in a space as yet undiscovered. Or it may disappear and leave us to wonder if we'll ever see anything like it again.