Vanguard, Los Angeles



Vanguard’s glam: massive trusses and video screens in a 25-foot high shiny-ceilinged main room.

Hollywood goes big.
By Hobey Echlin
Photos by Ben Rose Photography

Hollywood’s newest star is a gorgeous, glamourous, well-endowed nightclub. Vanguard epitomizes the Tinseltown aesthetic: Everything about the venue is bigger, brighter and better. But things at 6021 Hollywood Boulevard haven’t always been so gloriously extravagant.

Since opening last August, Vanguard has become one of the city’s hottest nightspots. Several years ago, however, it was a very different story. Back in 2000, Vanguard CEO Jordan Birnbaum, a self-ascribed “hip nerd,” decided to drop out of the dot-com boom and enter the entertainment industry.

“My idea was to find a space where I could produce low-cost-media for TV and film with writers and actors during the day, and use it as a club by night,” Birnbaum explains. “I hired a bunch of ex-music industry executives who told me there was this huge, under-served market of rave kids, so against my better judgement we went ahead and opened a rave house without a liquor license. It was a complete failure. We didn’t have the revenue from just the door to get top DJs, and top DJs didn’t always want to play a place without a liquor license.”

Liquor’s Quicker
By 2004, Birnbaum gave up on the rave scene and went about securing a liquor license. He also replaced the club’s happy-hardcore-loving ex-music execs with more reality-minded LA scene veterans. Promoter Pasquale Rotella, whose Insomniac production company had put on the West Coast’s famed Electric Daisy Carnival and Nocturnal Wonderland events, came onboard as talent booker.

Birnbaum’s biggest revelation has been Vanguard Creative Director and Director of Special Events Johnny Jos, a former movie set designer who had become well-known for producing successful events at Sundance, Cannes, Ibiza, Bali and Los Angeles superclub Giant. “We met Johnny originally to be a one-time project designer, but he’s become part of the management team and a partner in the whole operation,” Birnbaum explains. Jos’ production experience with special events has allowed the club to make the most of that particular revenue stream, while his design instincts have influenced every aspect of Vanguard’s distinctive personality.

Right Lights
Patrons enter into the huge main ballroom, which is visually dominated by Grand MA-controlled lighting and Edirol-controlled video installations, both of which were designed by Steve Lieberman of SJ Lighting. As Jos explains, Lieberman’s lightning design was instrumental to the club’s re-design as both a DJ and live music venue. “We needed a practical overhead grid for rigging and had to consider sightlines for both live shows and DJ nights,” he begins. “While on one hand we wanted technological innovation and style, we also all knew that cutting edge was only avant-garde for so long. Soon after implementation, even the fanciest state-of-the-art becomes obsolete.”

Jos had met Lieberman at Miami’s Winter Music Conference, and had worked with him on other LA club projects. “When we started, Steve had already done a handful of designs,” Jos explains. “The space was little more than a black box and a roughly-fabricated five-station bar. The handful of rooms were painted in embarrassing purple and blue stripes and lit by about 15 bent and twisted par cans and a couple banks of bare fluorescent bulbs. Steve presented several options from Sound Investments.”

Now, a mixture of fixtures from Robe and Martin Professional adorns the custom trussing over the dancefloor, while a semi-circle of video screens flank the stage. “The screens were designed to give the stage more visual focus,” Lieberman explains, “especially for acts like DJs that could use the screens to create more of a stage show.”

The dancefloor itself is similarly surrounded by booths. “Crowd flow can’t be underestimated,” Birnbaum says. “There’s a lot of people-watching even if the dancefloor’s not full, and when it is, between the bar and booths, there’s this ongoing circular motion of people.”

The main ballroom is huge, with 17-foot side walls and a 25-foot apex. A balcony overlooks the dancefloor with two large bay windows that feature closeable fire doors. The doors, along with a separate entrance at the south end of the building, allow the upstairs to function as another club room. To the north, reachable through either of two doorways, is an additional back lot bringing the on-site parking to over 400 valuable spots.

“We started by discussing stage placement and what to do about the single stainless steel counter top that acted as a bar,” continues Jos. “The space behind it was nothing more than pasty white drywall curved awkwardly around the men’s room. The floors were black linoleum squares, half of which were warped and bubbling up where water had leaked in from our annual month-long rainy season. None of the paint on any wall matched any other and the carpet throughout looked like it hadn’t been changed through five years of spilled beer and gum stains.”

“After a handful of sketches, Jordan and I picked a direction. With opening night only a few months away, I had to take the fast track with architectural changes and draw on my film background resources. Steve sent over his latest truss layout and I built the club in Alias Maya, a 3D modeling program with a photorealistic texturizer. Set Masters, props and scenic fabricators from Sun Valley, Cali., incorporated a series of stone patterns into fire retardant vacuform sheets to line the walls. Just before Steve’s lights went up, I threw down a cushioned hardwood dance- floor in two-toned cherry, the striped panels forcing perspective toward the main bar.”

An L.A. sunset, with ETC’s help, keeps the patio’s famous buddha glowing.

Seeing Stars
Vanguard’s signature backyard Buddha garden was somewhat easier to realize. “Lucky for us, Vanguard had plenty of parking already, so the back lot was an easy conversion. Multiple walkways, stained concrete, elevated levels, waterfalls, customized bungalows and daybeds turned the place into an Asian-themed patio,” Jos notes. L.A.-based event designer Ronen Mintz of Kinetic Sculptures took on the job of the outside ambient lighting. “We threw up truss towers, downlit with leaf patterns from ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARS, showcasing architectural elements,” adds Jos.

“My 40 GB iPod provides music for the back patio, where the centerpiece is an 8-foot reclining Buddha, hand carved by sculptor Stacy Amouck out of my home studio. He’s turned out to be quite popular as starlets and Hollywood players pose for photo after photo reclining in his arms or rubbing his rotund belly. If his permanent smile is any indication, he’s got stories to tell.”

Sound Value
“These different spaces give us a lot of freedom to experiment,” adds Birnbaum. Rotella, for instance, plans to start a small mid-week drum ‘n’ bass night upstairs in the penthouse. He can start small; if it grows he can move the party first into the restaurant space, and ultimately into the big room. Eventually these rooms could function as separate clubs with their own entrances. “Just last week, we had a rock concert, a trendy Hollywood night club, and hosted a party for T-Mobile,” explains Birnbaum. “But while we’re hot and trendy, there’s more money being a big Hollywood club.

“The key to our success is being able to serve a different range of people,” Birnbaum adds. “When we sign talent, we get bodies.” The essential element in that successful equation is the venue’s premium Funktion One Resolution 4 sound system, which attracts both top DJs and discriminating music enthusiasts of all persuasions. Already popular overseas, Vanguard is the first West Coast club with a Funktion One system. “It puts us in terrific company,” Birnbaum says.

Investing in a Funktion One installation was a crucial part of the venue’s extreme makeover. “Installing the right sound system would give us access to best DJs and bands,” Birnbaum says. “Booking takes more than money, and having the right sound system was a very key decision, as far as how we are embraced by the talent industry.” Jos heartily concurs: “Vanguard needed a system that could handle its score of live shows and then transition into a powerful DJ-driven night. It was a no-brainer. The cost could be offset by the market-ing value alone.”

“We put a sizable investment – about two million – into sound, lighting and video,” Birnbaum adds. “We redid every inch of the place, literally. But we really didn’t have any sticker shock because we had been operating and had a liquor license so we could get 6,000 people through the door a week; even by conservative projections, we were going to be in good shape.”

Besides all of the technical innovations, Vanguard has also enjoyed a certain amount of good karma. While Birnbaum’s original vision of a Hollywood studio by day and club by night wasn’t meant to be, the venue serves a higher purpose. Instead of simply producing media, Vanguard interacts with its Hollywood neighbors in a more community-spirited way.

“Getting the right to sell liquor to 1,400 people is a big responsibility and the community should be in on that,” says Birnbaum, “So we went out and met the neighbors, the young couples starting families, the old ladies who’d lived there for thirty years. We put double-pane windows on their houses so we could keep the noise level down. We paid for a gate in front off a free clinic nearby because they were having a problem with homeless traffic. We donate a tree, we donate to the Police Athletic League, we donate the room for a children’s hospital function. We’re just trying to communicate to the community: What’s good for me is good for you.”


The loungier side.

Designed and installed by Steve Lieberman for SJ Lighting
130 LED Fixtures (truss toners and washes)
28 - ETC Source Four PAR fixtures
13 - Martin Professional Atomic 3000 strobes
10 - Robe ColorSpot 250 AT fixtures
8 - Robe Wash 250 XT fixtures
6 - Robe ColorSpot 170 AT fixtures
4 - ETC Source Four fixtures
4 - Robe Scan 250 XT fixtures
1 - MA Lighting grandMA lighting console

4 - BenQ PB7210 video projectors
2 - Toshiba SD-K750 DVD players
1 - Edirol DV-7PR video presenter
(w/Edirol PCR-50 Midi controller)
1 - Edirol V-4 video mixer
1 - Marshall VJ 563P triple display monitor

Main Room
16 - Funktion One F-218 subwoofers
16 - MC2 Audio E45 amplifiers
12 - MC2 Audio T-2000 amplifiers
8 - Funktion One Resolution 5 speakers
4 - Funktion One Resolution 4 speakers
4 - Turbosound TQ-310 ceiling speakers

DJ Booth
3 - Biamp Nexia digital processors
3 - Crest Pro 8001 amplifiers
2 - Custom 18-inch subwoofers
2 - Custom monitors with JBL Hi-Mids and P Audio compression drivers
2 - Pioneer CDJ-1000MK2 digital vinyl turntables
2 - Technics SL-1200MK5 turntables
(with Stanton 680HP Cartridges)
1 - Allen & Heath Xone: 92 DJ Mixer

2 - Turbosound TCS-56 speakers
2 - Turbosound QLight TQ 440SP Hi/mids
2 - Turbosound QLight 425-SP subwoofers
1 - Crest Pro 6001 amplifier

2 - FBT MaxX 5A active monitors
2 - Turbosound QLight 425-SP subwoofers


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Copyright 2006 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2006 TESTA Communications