Miss Erma is The Lost Church’s resident little sister. At the theater, she’s in the musicals and performs solo with her guitar or with a variety of instruments in all kinds of combos – she even bartends. “The Lost Church is my home and my family,” Miss Erma said. “It’s a safe and warm place to share your art and have people really listening to the music you make because of the way Brett and Lizzie set it up.”
She has a voice that at once lilts and haunts her evocative, playful original songs and covered ditties; a style of playing strings that swings and falls, turning her unwittingly into a corps dansant.
Growing up in Satellite Beach, Florida, Miss Erma started playing piano at six, like her older sister, but it was starting the violin at ten that really hooked her. “It’s a social instrument you can play with other people – that’s what I like about it.” She headed to college with her violin, a music ed major at Florida State University. “I’m a highly sensitive person and music is a way to express that. In college, I fell in love with it and learned to respect music and learned to work hard for it. It became a goal. I liked the way playing music made me feel.” There, Erma also started writing music, playing more guitar and “doing the singer-songwriter thing.”
In 2010, Miss Erma left Miami, where she was teaching music, for San Francisco. She dove head first into the scene, melding her classical training with modern muses, happy to be playing different styles of music with a slew of different people. It was when playing violin with Roger Rocha & the Goldenhearts that she was first introduced to The Lost Church. “I thought, ‘Wow! I have never been to a place like this before.’ Then I booked a Miss Erma show there, back when I had a full band, and I’ve been deeply intertwined with The Lost Church and the Clines ever since.” She also plays there with her classical violin outlet Manzanita Quartet and with Seth Lael as the duet Seth & Erma, which is heading to SXSW in March.
Miss Erma was ecstatic that she could put her love and training in musical theater to use at The Lost Church in owner Brett Cline’s musicals. She’s been in seven of them, with the first one based on a song she wrote called “Weapons.”
For you fabulous LC musical theater geeks, here’s the list:
“I absolutely hope to be in more Lost Church musicals. Sign me up!”
Outside of The Lost Church, Miss Erma plays solo, heading a band, or with others, like in comedienne Margaret Cho’s band at the Castro Theater (she also recorded with her on the Grammy winning song “I Want to Kill my Rapist”). You also might have seen her at the Great Star Theater, Great American Music Hall, Bottom of the Hill, Café du Nord, Viracocha, Rickshaw Stop, Makeout Room, Poster Room at the Fillmore, and even Grace Cathedral, where she played with the Classical Revolution Orchestra. She also sometimes still plays in Miami and had a couple gigs in Cuba last year. “But I love The Lost Church the most!” Two years ago, she recorded her first full length album, Bambina, and she’s starring in Lost Church board member Richard Something’s film Hell!, coming out this year.
“The Lost Church is a place to share the music. There are a lot of places where it’s not like that – where the sound might not be good or there’s a game on the TV in the same room or the people around aren’t receptive and the audience isn’t listening. Too much time that’s the norm. Brett and Lizzie always make sure The Lost Church shows are special. We need smaller venues where people can share with one another – between musicians and between audience members and between musicians and audience members. It’s nice when the musicians can have a dialogue with the audience and allow them to come into the world of the songwriter a little bit more. Not just during the show, but before and after the performance, as well. The Lost Church makes communication very accessible, creating a sense of community. It would be great to have many Lost Churches!”
If you’re reading this, you survived 2016. And if you survived it, live entertainment made us glad we did. Experiencing something like live music or a comedy show not only provided a reason for us to get together but it was a salve for the smarting ache of watching some not make it. Wouldn’t it be great if we had more live music, more live performances of any kind in all kinds of spaces, and more reasons to feel alive?
Your or your favorite restaurant, café, art gallery, or store could support the live arts by getting an affordable and simple Limited Live Performance (LLP) permit. You could showcase music, DJs, poetry readings, and comedy if the purpose of your establishment is not entertainment, any performances will end by 10pm, and the area of space occupied by performers is less than 200 square feet. The application fee is $441 with an annual licensing renewal fee of $174. And the application is fairly simple and takes less than two months for the Entertainment Council to approve it. Diners could be listening to a jazz band, shoppers could be enticed inside and stick around longer to enjoy the DJ spinning in the shop’s front window, a gallery event could be made more special with poetry readings or musicians providing ambiance.
One of the things that makes our city so special is all of the live arts and it’s taken a hit as many places of entertainment lose their leases and many artists can’t afford to live here. The LLP was created in 2011 by then Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi in response to the number of venues closing in San Francisco. Here was a way for already established businesses to increase their revenue and support the live arts and local artists.
In creating new spaces for live performance, it’s crucial that we do it in a way that protects the safety of the performers, the audience, and the establishment’s staff.
You can get more information and apply for the LLP permit at the Entertainment Council’s website sfgov.org/entertainment, plus the EC has a site, nightlifesf.org, that takes you through being a part of the live arts community.
Walking into The Lost Church is like coming upon a scene from a Barbary Coast dream. The lights are low, the walls are wooden planks or draped in burgundy velvet with gold-tasseled accents, the paintings loom large with absurd realism. The excitement and warmth of the host, bartender, audience and talent make the intimate room come alive. Then comes the exquisite sound, rich in being cozied with natural objects. A unique and real situation is happening…
No wonder owners and proprietors Brett & Elizabeth Cline are working so hard to make the 50-seat performance parlor located at 65 Capp Street in San Francisco the blueprint for a number of other Lost Churches in and around the Bay Area, and hopefully, beyond.
The The Lost Church was established in 2011 after the Clines decided to leave life on the road behind, find a permanent home for their band Juanita & the Rabbit, and start a family and small performance space in the living room of their home in the Mission. The space was really just for Brett to produce his musicals, but soon the theater’s size, aesthetic, and sound quality filled up the calendar. Eventually, the Entertainment Council came around and The Lost Church had to emerge from the underground and get up to code with permits. Crowdfunding and an eight-month closure got the theater started on the proper permits, and got the Clines looking around to see if there would be spaces more permit-ready to move The Lost Church. “We began looking at other spaces and started realizing that there was a way to use this business model to create these in-demand performance spaces and that there were rents that we could afford with this business model,” Brett said. “We got an education in how this city works and in spaces and what you need to do to make spaces legal. It would be possible to have other small 50-seat theaters using our business model and to keep our current location.” They also knew that in order for the organization to survive and properly serve the community, it had to become non-profit.
Turning The Lost Church theater into a non-profit, having that theater be the seed for many more Lost Churches, and raising the capital to do it all was more than the Clines could handle alone. They began getting to know and assembling a group of people over the course of a year from the artistic, non-profit, tech, and business communities, many of whom approached Brett about getting involved after hearing his eloquently spouted vision in between acts. From that group, they chose people to be on the board of directors who had the skillsets to propel The Lost Church into a non-profit that would create, sustain & defend spaces for live performance.
The non-profit is THELOSTCHURCH.ORG and its immediate goal is to raise funds through community and city arts grants, and through local corporations to open a new space in San Francisco in the next year. It has a three–five year goal to have five performance parlors in the Bay Area. The spaces would all have the same warm, intimate aesthetic as the original theater. The Lost Church would handle the business end of the theater; leaving local artists and promoters free to focus on hosting and curating each evening’s performance. The next step would then be to connect a network of these intimate venues that artists could play and tour.
The other goal is to use the website THELOSTCHURCH.ORG as a tool and robust online platform that could be used to help promote and support other small performance spaces, as well as the artists who use them. “This is a bigger issue than one little space. The dream would be to do something like what the YMCA does for personal fitness, but say for, artistic fitness,” Brett said. “ A chain of little performance parlors could act as a greenhouse for the arts and could support the community and artists in a way that 1,500 seat theaters just don’t. There is an intimacy and a direct connection that happens in a small space, that becomes diluted the larger the space becomes… and besides, there are far more artists that can fill a 50-seat theater than can fill a 500 seater!”
“It’s good to remember, the internet is awesome, but reality is way the fuck better.” - Brett Cline
Remember the I-Beam? Leg-en-dar-y. How about Club Cocodrie? The Sound of Music? The Fab Mab? The Kennel Club? I snuck into my first punk show at 13 – my first live show ever – at The Deaf Club just before it closed in 1980. All gone long ago. Don’t forget the more recently vanished Sub-Mission, Viracocha, Red Devil Lounge, Yoshi’s, and Pound SF. Or the endlessly harassed Bottom of the Hill and Elbo Room. And what the hell is up with Café du Nord? All memories, or soon to be, of places where I’ve seen live performances or played live shows at in San Francisco. We could get sucked into the bitterness of things that only exist in the past or mourn what hasn’t left us yet. Or… we could try and figure out how to create venues to replace the ones we’ve lost. And to make sure these are around for generations to come.
I am optimistic this can be done. I know it’s easy to bitch and moan about the many changes we’ve seen our beautiful city undergo – I do it quite often. However, I am ultimately optimistic because there are people with romantic enthusiasm for that indescribable, undeniable spark that takes place between performer and audience. I call this optimism The Lost Church. The Lost Church is a lush 50-seat theater in San Francisco’s ground-zero for economically and culturally changing times, The Mission. It has been hallowed ground for five years for performers of every ilk sharing their talents with appreciative and enthusiastic audiences. It stands as beacon to all that is sacred and absurd in baring your soul live, or bearing witness to someone doing so. We need more of these.
The Lost Church was founded in 2011 by Brett & Elizabeth Cline after years of touring as Juanita & the Rabbit and deciding to return to SF. They put down roots by starting a family and turning part of their home into an intimate theater where Brett could produce his musicals (he’s done ten so far), and their talented friends could play or curate shows. Less than a month after opening, there was already a waiting list of people who wanted to play the beautiful performance parlor.
San Francisco and the Bay Area has plenty of venues with capacities in the hundreds and thousands, but the Clines found what the community desperately needed was smaller spaces. When they looked around at other real estate in the city, they found there were numerous small spaces that were stand-alones or part of restaurants that could be turned into self-supporting 50-seat theaters. Ultimately, there could be a chain of Lost Churches run as a non-profit. To make this a reality and to ease the cultural blood-letting, the non-profit THELOSTCHURCH.ORG has been established to help the live performance community and its supporters create, sustain and defend its spaces. There is so much money and so many resources in this city. There are a lot of people who want to do the right thing for the live arts. There is a growing backlash towards the dismantling and mangling of the city’s culture, economy, and identity.
The Lost Church Times within THELOSTCHURCH.ORG aims to examine what is going on with live performance spaces in SF, to spotlight individuals and groups performing in, sustaining or starting such spaces, and to show how you can take action to sustain, defend and create live performance spaces wherever you are. Mostly, it’s a forum where we can discuss, relationship build, and take action to claim and reclaim the spaces where the oldest art form is performed and enjoyed.
The Lost Church Performance Space Sets Sights On Major Bay Area Expansion
Inside the Lost Church. (Photos: Brittany Hopkins/Hoodline)
The Lost Church is the brainchild of Brett and Elizabeth Jones Cline. After touring the country with their punk rock band, the couple settled down in the irregularly-shaped house built by David Ireland—a renowned San Francisco artist whose other former Capp Street residence is now a museum—and started a family. Unlike most young families, however, they decided to turn their living room into an intimate performance venue, the perfect stage for immersive musicals that could expand on the "vivid" story lines built into their lyrics, Brett said.
Before the Clines pulled the curtains on their first musical, they had a backlog of musicians eager to take the stage, Brett noted.
Over the few years, while other performance venues struggled to stay afloat, The Lost Church has staged eight original live musicals and between each, a host of other events, including film screenings, book readings, magic shows, local bands and comedy nights ... and also raised over $40,000 to bring their under-ground theater up to code.
So, it's no surprise that they're taking this success on the road.
To do so, the Clines and their newly formed board of directors are in the process of forming a The Lost Church nonprofit. In addition to supporting existing performance venues through information sharing, the organization will lease spaces for future venues.
When they initially played with the idea of expansion, Brett said he visited existing venues and five immediately offered to hand over the keys. But as he investigated their businesses, he learned that they each had a major business model issue—from inconvenient locations to unaffordable rent prices. He also almost signed a lease on a space in the Tenderloin himself, but came to the realization that it's better to have a nonprofit organization burden the financial risk rather than one private individual.
The Lost Church nonprofit will operate sort of like the YMCA, he added. One core group of staff members will handle leases, bills, helping to book talent and other back-end logistics for all of the theaters. But events at each space will be run by community members.
The idea comes from The Lost Church's own successful business model. Having just one individual fire up the PA system, greet guests and introduce the performer during each event has kept the tiny venues in business, Brett said. He's been turning Saturday nights over to community hosts, and so far, so good. And while hosting events at future The Lost Church venue won't be a full-time job, it will be a fun way to make a little extra cash, he said.
As The Lost Church grows under this new organization, Brett said each space will be "whatever the community needs it to be." They'll each be beautiful and mysterious speakeasy-like venues that draw in people who wouldn't normally go to the theater.
Excited by a diverse board of directors that has formed around this idea, Brett said the goal now is to solidify the organization's core infrastructure, build a strong online presence at helostchurch.org and raise enough money to launch one new venue. And while a specific space hasn't been identified, their sights are set on opening the first spinoff in the Tenderloin, which is easily accessible from other parts of the Bay Area and already home to many property-owning nonprofits that may be able to help make room for a newcomer.
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?