It’s easy to look at a venue like the City National Grove of Anaheim and take its greatness for granted if you don’t know its history. The mammoth movie studio-inspired structure anchored by a water tower on Katella Ave is a stone’s throw from of venues Angels Stadium and the Honda Center. It’s a part of Anaheim culture that now feels like it’s always been there. While 20 years for a venue to exist these days might as well be an eternity, few venues have encapsulated the culture of Orange County and given us great performances from immortals like George Carlin, Jamie Foxx, Willie Nelson and Prince.
“Getting Prince was one of the happiest surprises of my career,” says talent buyer Mike Goldsmith of who’s worked with the venue’s promotion company Nederlander Events to book the Grove the last seven years. Landing the Purple One and his backing band Third Eye Girl was one of those you-had-to-be-there concert experiences (partially due to the late icon’s well-enforced cell phone ban at shows) “When I was able to go to [Nederlander CEO] Alex [Hodges’] office and tell him I think we got Prince to come to come to the Grove for four shows in two days. It was amazing that we could put it together, it was just a perfect storm.”
These kinds of moments that toe the line between unlikely and unforgettable have defined the Grove’s history from the moment it was built. In 1998, the 40,000 square foot venue was originally opened as an award show themed restaurant called Tinseltown–a project that failed almost as quickly as it began. Chalk it up to a cheesy concept and the fact that Disney tourists don’t drive to Anaheim for the Hollywood experience.
“There are people I’ve talked to who worked on the venue at the time who told me ‘I told my boss in the parking lot after the first night that this was gonna fail and I almost got fired,’” Hodges says.
After the swift demise of Tinseltown, the building was renamed The Sun Theater for a short time before becoming the Grove of Anaheim. In 2002, Nederlander took over the venue in a partnership with the city of Anaheim and started booking marquee acts that drew attention from music fans all over OC starting with Styx. Over the years the Chicago classic rockers continue to make the venue one of their SoCal strongholds and return to the stage this Friday as part of its 20 year anniversary celebration.
“Styx is a terrific example of Orange County and the Grove being a second home,” Hodges says. “They have so many markets where they’re strong, they’re from the Chicago area where they’re incredibly strong and one of their favorite venues is the Grove.”
Over two decades, the venue brought countless acts from all genres to Anaheim from death metal to DJs, classical to hip-hop and everything in between, not to mention the slate of world class comedy shows, theater productions and the late OC Music Awards. Part of their ability to pull all of this together was due to the flexibility of the room, an absence of fixed seating and the tiered floors that allow them creativity in the layout without sacrificing sightlines for attendees who wander into its ’50s style, art deco designed structure.
“I hammer this all day long into agents and managers because it’s great to remind them of the level of sophistication put into this building versus other places that just pop up a theater without thinking everything through,” Goldsmith says.
Kicking off a brand new year with brand new General Manager Jordan Harding, Hodges says the mix of longtime veterans and bright new talent on staff is what helps make an operation as big as the Grove’s 1,700 cap room run so smoothly.
“Between sales, catering, full banquet, a big kitchen, dressing room, sound, the building is a live with activity and it takes a lot of skill to pull that off on a daily basis and I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team,” Hodges says.
One of the venue’s biggest boosts came when it teamed up with City National Bank in 2011, following the agreement of a five-year, $1.25 million naming rights deal. A longtime partner with several major cities in the world of music, sports and the arts, City National has been a supporter to the entertainment equation in Anaheim for a long time and have a unique relationship with the Nederlander company and the Nederlander family. Not to mention the name City National Grove of Anaheim just has a nice ring to it. “I think many venues across the country wish they had cool name like that, because sometimes they’re not the most flattering names,” Hodges says. “In this case it’s a fit. City National Grove of Anaheim is easy to say and they’ve been incredibly great corporate partners. It’s part of the growth and the standout nature of the venue and you can’t secure a great partner like that if you’re not delivering.”
Part of the growth of the Grove is their willingness to take on interesting bookings that often run counter to their established rep for bringing in recognizable names in music. Recently, bookings for live a podcast presentation of My Favorite Murder or the Digitour featuring a lineup of teenage YouTube and viral social media stars and a full slate of family friendly shows have helped increase their profile in OC.
“With VidCon [at the Anaheim Convention Center] being ground zero for a lot of this stuff, agents look to us to have a hard ticket venue in the market because of the flexibility of the market and its location,” Goldsmith says.
Another part of the venue’s success will be its connection to all of the newly minted apartment buildings and condos popping up all over the area. Reaching out to their closest potential patrons and booking the types of events they want to see has become a major priority for the Grove. The venue is also looking to host more outdoor events including the recently announced SWANFEST on March 30, featuring Dance Gavin Dance, with special guests Periphery, Crown The Empire, Don Bronco, Veil of Maya, Intervals, Volumes, Hail The Sun, Eidola, Covet, Strawberry Girls, Thousand Below, Wolf & Bear and more.
Though they’ve established they can bring plenty of long time greats to the stage, part of what they continue to do is look for the future stars they can develop relationships with for years to come. The culture of cultivation is what helped the Grove survive and continue to thrive today.
“You could look back and say how obvious it was that this would be a concert venue but it could’ve been taken over by a different group, it could’ve just say there underused or demolished for some other project,” Hodges says. “One of the interesting things that our team does is look beyond the history or the obvious, sometimes you think of a concert venue and you can name all the artists that would usually play there and the next thing is to look outside the box.”
Styx perform at the City National Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700, www.citynationalgroveofanaheim.com, Fri. Jan. 18, 8 p.m., (Sold out), all ages.