It’s not too often that something that has weathered nearly 100 years’ worth of aging would manage to find new life in the course of a few months’ time, but Santa Ana’s historic Yost Theater will reopen this year sporting some major cosmetic improvements. We should all be so lucky at that age, right?

Under the helm of owners Dave Leon and Dennis Lluy, the theater in the heart of Orange County is looking to make big waves in the Southern California live music and entertainment scene. A multi-purpose venue that Leon hopes to see host everything from conferences to weddings, the venue’s primary function will be to offer an alternative theater-sized venue for musical acts in the Orange County market, away from the more densely venue-d areas like Anaheim and Hollywood. What’s more, Leon, an OC native himself, feels the venue’s reopening is just the start of the revitalization of both Santa Ana and Orange County as a whole.

“A lot of Orange County people go up to L.A. for entertainment, we want to bring the L.A. experience to Orange County,” says Leon, who has high hopes for all of the new development happening in the area, not just his own production.

“People like to call Orange County a ‘cultural wasteland,’” he says with a laugh, adding, “So when there’s a real downtown happening with historic buildings and this theater coming to life, it’s exciting.”

Built in 1912 as a theater for Vaudeville performances, the Yost hosted a plethora of musical greats over the decades and underwent numerous function changes between owners, having served as a church before Leon and Lluy took over in 2009.

“It was an absolute dump, it needed so much work,” says Leon of the venue’s condition when he first found it. “We transformed this place, but it’s been a long journey to get it there as a labor of love.”

“I’ve been in the music industry here for about 20 years,” he says. “I started off playing in bands, I’m a club promoter and I’ve run a national marketing company for 15 years that specializes in entertainment, so this was a perfect project for my skill set.

More than that, though, as a veteran of the SoCal music scene, both on stage and behind the scenes, Leon has a personal investment in the city and its music culture.

“I used to live in downtown San Diego 20 years ago when it was a slum, and now it’s a thriving bar, nightclub and entertainment district, so hopefully Santa Ana can go that way as well and be the downtown of Orange County.”

In addition to needing a structural facelift, Leon and Lluy opted to pull out all the stops with lighting and sound equipment to make the Yost one of the most sonically and visually advanced venues in the SoCal market.

“We’re the oldest theater with the newest technology, that’s our slogan. We really tried to get the newest stuff and be on the cutting edge with all the technology,” says Leon.

That said, the team was also aware that they were taking on a venue with a whole century of history, and that for some things, they were better suited to go classic.

“We tried to hold on as many of the original lighting and architectural fixtures as we could,” says Leon. “We went with a kind of Spanish gothic meets French bordello, with a twist of art-deco, if that makes sense. We’ve added some new features too though, and you wouldn’t even know they weren’t original.

Containing both a main large concert stage area and a more intimate club area that still puts the venue’s size and aesthetic workmanship on full display, Leon is looking to corner the market on large bands and the hottest DJs to bring into Orange County.

“We’re kind of the mini-Avalon for Orange County, following their business model of shows ’til 10 followed by club nights,” he says. “DJ culture has gotten really huge lately, and there’s not a lot of venues that can house those big DJs out here in Orange County.”

And with a current capacity of 1,100 show-goers, Leon and Lluy already have plans in place to take on the property adjacent to the Yost to double the venue space inside, meaning the venue’s reach is likewise only going to get bigger by the scheduled 2013 completion.

For all his talk of expansion, however, the core of Leon’s motivation is a true love for what he’s doing and what the venue stands for.

“Even if I was retired with a lot of money, I’d still be doing this project,” he says. “I’m emotionally attached to it. I have two kids, and hopefully they’ll be running this place when they’re older.” Even if his son isn’t old enough yet to even play an instrument, “He’ll get there,” he laughs.

Already selling out shows with fellow OC natives, Thrice, before the doors have officially re-opened, the venue is already making a name for itself in the local music scene. And with the venue opening just in time to celebrate its 100th birthday at the beginning of next year, Leon promises that locals can look forward to something big to honor the venue. Though he wouldn’t divulge any specifics, Leon does have his own dream shows that he’d want to host someday.

The very top of that list? “I’d love to see Prince here at the theater.”



The Yost Theatre is located at 307 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana. For more information, visit yosttheater.com.