I became a Lost Church disciple back in January, when an invitation to see local alt-country idol Paula Frazer came with the additional intrigue of watching her perform in a mysterious venue. Something about the place being named The Lost Church gave the space a theatrical flair in my mind, and when I walked off cracky Capp Street and through the unmarked door, I felt like I was entering a scene in a David Lynch film.
Once I got up the steps and into the main room, I noticed naked lightbulbs glowing all old-timey in a bright line from the small stage, and red velvet curtains framing Paula and her cohort Jesse Jackson. The words “The Greek Chorus” twinkled in gold glitter on an arrow hanging down the wall, and below tiny rose-colored lights were sprawled like ivy. The room was so intimate, holding just 50 people, it was like I’d crashed someone’s (supremely awesome) house party as my friend and I took the last two folding chairs available. We were front row, a couple feet from Paula and Jesse.
The affable tattooed guy who’d taken our money at the door double-timed as the emcee (he’s also, I learned later, one of The Lost Church’s co-owners, Brett Cline). He made announcements between acts with the dramatic delivery of a sideshow barker, and I almost expected Tom Waits to snake out as the headliner – there was that wacky kinda vibe in the room. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a different rock ’n’ roll character, Jonathan Richman, taking the stage. The former Modern Lover curled over his guitar as part of an acoustic trio, making funny faces the whole time. (How could I not notice? I was perched close enough for shy eye contact.)
By the end of the night, I’d been baptized by a new underground venue that made the evening as much about the space as it was about the people on stage. I proselytized to my friends about The Lost Church until I’d brought back a dozen new converts for the next big gig – Sonny Smith’s zany spoken-word musical about being a broke dude and banging aliens. And, I should add, that show was awesome.
I was twice sold on The Lost Church after that gig, and had to learn more about how this unassuming building, just off the 16th Street bustle, had arrived on the ol’ discreet venue scene. It turned out the place has a long history with the arts.
Brett and his wife Elizabeth were happy to give me the backstory. They’re a very San Francisco couple, by the way, having met over a fire pit at Burning Man in 1999 and then eloping 53 days later. They’re also very sweet together, in that finishing-each-other’s-sentences kinda way – in their case, she adds the punctuation to his very enthusiastic rambles. He’s a self-proclaimed spazz, but his energy is infectious.
They told me the building originally came to life in 1979, the creation of famous local conceptual artist David Ireland. He’s the one responsible for the geometrically-shaped windows, angled for ideal moon viewing, and the second floor bridge that winds across the room and doubles as a balcony during performances. Four years later, it became The Capp Street Project, an installation gallery, until Brett took it over in 1997. The space pretty much stayed out of the public eye until 2011.
The Clines are now creating what they call a “greenhouse for the arts,” a general description for big ideas that include plenty of cool multimedia happenings. Since opening to the public as a “theatrical production house” last February, they’ve hosted numerous plays, musical performances, and variations on those themes. The music they book is mellow pop, folk, and alt country. Elizabeth tells me the band she and Brett play in, Juanita and the Rabbit, is too loud for a Lost Church show. It’s a bit ironic, since they want to book their band on a tour of small theater shows. But they care about keeping good relationships with the neighbors.
The Lost Church wasn’t created to be some kind of divey rock ’n’ roll haven. There are plenty of other Capp Street lofts and warehouses catering to that demographic, and the Clines’ backgrounds diverge into other areas. Elizabeth is an on-set tailor for Levi’s and Old Navy, among others, and she is quite the seamstress, creating napkin dresses and The Lost Church’s curtains. Brett earned his stagecraft chops as a sound and lighting engineer at many of the city’s major theaters.
The couple, who live in a building just behind The Lost Church, wanted to create a venue for grownups who support the underground scene. They were thinking of folks who have kids or who crash out well before the booty-calling hour. So while The Lost Church atmosphere is definitely punk – and playful – in spirit, it’s also pretty damn adult. Take, for instance, the case of one guest at a Sonny show who noticed $45 under a chair and actually tried to find its owner. Not gonna happen at your typical basement show.
That respect comes in part because, right off the bat, you know who is hosting you. Brett is there taking your money, and Elizabeth is serving refreshments at a bar area decorated in family heirlooms handed down from the couple’s aunts and grandparents. Stately portraits of Brett’s parents hang cheekily along the staircase. And just as it would be if you were a guest in someone’s home, the bathroom is actually clean.
As for the name The Lost Church, Brett tells me it has nothing to do with religion. He goes off excitedly about being part of life-enhancing rituals before explaining that he just wanted to create a space that’s “good for the soul.”
I’ll add to that description by calling The Lost Church a haven for adventurous souls hungry for new thrills in unexpected settings. I mean, really, where else am I going to see Jonathan Richman one weekend and a sing-songy drama about “love, sex, drugs, spaceships, paranoia, and hallucinations” the next?