Saint Rocke silenced, legendary Hermosa Beach music club for sale
by Mark McDermott
The same marquee that heralded some of the biggest nights of live music in recent South Bay history is now announcing something entirely different: “Saint Rocke is for sale.”
The club, on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach, is the first iconic South Bay venue to fall victim to pandemic economics. Owner Allen Sanford, who founded Saint Rocke in 2008, said the recent surge of novel coronavirus cases that caused a new round of state-ordered business restrictions doomed the club. He predicts many more businesses will follow and says the community may not yet understand how profound a shift is about to occur.
“I’m the first domino,” Sanford said. “If the first guy publicly comes out and says, ‘This is a really hard puzzle. Economically, this doesn’t make sense,’ maybe people will start to listen.”
On a social media post announcing the club’s closing, Sanford recalled Saint Rocke’s origins.
“Nothing lasts forever, and as our friend Kenny used to say — ‘You gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.’ So much has happened and it’s so far from being over, that four childhood friends just couldn’t figure out how to make the music last through this pandemic,” Sanford wrote on Facebook. “We’ve had thousands of shows here, and whatever moves in next will never take those memories away.”
Sanford founded the club in 2008 with three partners, the Philia Group, which included his brother Jed Sanford and lifelong friends Brian Macias and Robert Bogdanavich. That same group, then in their 20s, had successfully launched the Union Cattle Company restaurant and nightclub in downtown Hermosa Beach in 2002.
Though they remained partners, Allen Sanford was the main force behind Saint Rocke, and ran its daily operations. His intent wasn’t just to establish a profitable business but to follow his passion for music, and in doing so give the community a world-class venue and help build a stronger local music scene.
“It was the first time I put together a business with passion,” Sanford said.
Saint Rocke succeeded. The club gained a regional if not a national reputation as a venue that outpunched its weight class. The club had a seating capacity of only 290, yet managed to bring in legendary artists, such as Bush, Cypress Hill, Toots and the Maytals, Lee Scratch Perry, Rebelution, Dirty Heads, and Amos Lee. Its success transcended the club itself when Sanford and talent buyer Adam Spriggs took over the Hermosa Beach Summer Concert Series and last year brought the biggest music festival ever to occur locally, BeachLife, to nearby King Harbor.
Response to Saint Rocke’s closure has been emphatic, including 675 comments on Sanford’s Facebook post, most reminiscing about their favorite shows and expressing outright sorrow.
Sanford said he doesn’t regard the sale of Saint Rocke as a failure.
“It’s interesting. People have called me to offer their thoughts and apologies on the business failing, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “Saint Rocke isn’t a failed business — there are hundreds of restaurants competing in the South Bay, and one live music venue. It was and is truly one of a kind, and is an otherwise healthy business. Being shutdown during this pandemic is like being at bat with your hands tied — you have zero percent probability of success. Within our partnership, we decided that paying rent, utilities, insurance, and all the other things that don’t stop coming while hoping that live music returns just wasn’t feasible anymore…and I fear that our economy isn’t ready for longer term consequences of what is happening today.”
“Businesses that are good businesses are failing and going to fail,” Sanford said. “Not because people are quitters, or weren’t financially smart. Because they are playing against a loaded deck.”
Spriggs, who joined Saint Rocke as talent buyer eight years ago, marvelled at what the club was able to achieve.
“We’ve had a small ragtag group tasked with filling six nights a week, so coming to the end of Saint Rocke, I look back and know we gave it our all,” Spriggs said. “From Scott Weiland kicking off his final tour at Saint Rocke to William Shattner to Rufus Wainwright to Timothy B. Schmidt from the Eagles…Leon Russell rolling into the club and going, ‘Nope, I’m leaving’ before a sold out show and Mickey Hart doing the same thing….We did some really good stuff there. I feel like we squeezed out every ounce of rock ‘n’ roll from Saint Rocke we could.”
Spriggs is hopeful someone else can keep the flame alive.
“I’d love to see it rise from the ashes on the other side of this pandemic,” he said. “Saint Rocke had a great run. I feel it had kind of run its course. It’s time for someone new in the South Bay. There is definitely a demand here. It’s just going to be someone else who carries that flag.”
Local musician Gavin Heaney, lead singer for Latch Key Kid, expressed gratitude for what Saint Rocke did for local music and musicians.
“Saint Rocke is a beacon of hope for the South Bay music scene,” Heaney said. “It is the only venue that brings national and international touring acts to my hometown in an intimate setting. It has given my band amazing opportunities to perform locally for our fans, and to play alongside legendary artists who have been an inspiration to me as a musician…Thank you, Allen, for keeping the torch lit. I know you won’t let it go out.”
Sanford is far from done in the larger music world. He’s opening a venue in Venice Beach with a partner who owns the property and is thus able to ride out the pandemic, and BeachLife Festival has announced dates for 2021, May 21 to May 23. He does worry, however, about the ramifications for independent music venues, such as the revered Troubadour in West Los Angeles. If the big players in the music industry are the only ones left standing after the pandemic, Sanford says, music lovers will face diminished choices.
“If you think it through and the big box guys win in music, they are going to decide what you listen to,” Sanford said. “That is just brutal. Music is one of the only things that everyone thinks, ‘Hey, I have a choice. I have a say.’”
Sanford is hopeful that the right buyer will step forward to keep the Saint Rocke name alive, but he’s also wary. He observed what happened when another legendary music venue, Cafe Boogaloo, was purchased from its original owner Steve Roberts. The character of the business was lost and Boogaloo was out of business within two years.
“I consider Steve Roberts one of the most important figures in music in the South Bay,” Sanford said. “What he did down there was really underappreciated. I’ve learned from what happened — someone can take your brand name and destroy it pretty quickly. They really tarnished it and effectively killed all those years of goodwill he’d carefully built. I would rather Saint Rocke live in people’s memories and live on only in that way than for it not to be treated right. I am going to be very careful. Unless it’s the perfect person who I think can be a steward for the name, I’m going to learn from Steve, and not make that mistake.”
Sanford also hopes that the community realizes the implications of Saint Rocke’s sale — that is, that the same economic forces that led to this one iconic small business’s demise are threatening to wreak havoc on the very fabric of the community.
“If I can add a little bit of education so that people who don’t understand start to get it, that small business is really in trouble,” Sanford said, noting that handling the sale more privately would have been easier. “If my decision to talk publicly about it can help open people’s eyes further, both within the community and among some politicians locally, that small business isn’t situated well to survive what we are going through — that the places they know, where we go get coffee in the morning, where you see a show at night — are really in trouble, than it will be worth it.”
A GoFundMe fundraising campaign established on behalf of Saint Rocke staff can be found by searching for “Saint Rocke staff” on GoFundMe.com. ER
Photos by JP Cordero
by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com