San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, with its wild watering holes and less-than-pristine sidewalks, is also known for a series of razzle-dazzle entrepreneurs who regularly sink big money into the boozy entertainment district with distinctly mixed outcomes, leaving a trail of bankruptcies and vacancies in their wake.
Eateries and nightclubs come and go with the virtual speed of strobe lights, but the most obvious white elephant — vacant, unmaintained, and looming darkly over the quarter for more than one year — is the garish former home of Gaslamp Pacific Theatres, built in 1997 on the corner of Fifth and G Streets by politically connected mega-developer Morgan Dene Oliver and his firm, OliverMcMillan.
"This will knock your socks off,” the $15 million, 2906-seat project’s architect Tom Awbrey told the Union-Tribune some 20 years ago, but nearby drinking holes proved a better draw, and the 15-screen movie complex, which became Reading Cinemas Gaslamp in 2008, shut its doors in February 2016, remaining an empty eyesore ever since.
Oliver has taken a key role in the controversial push by a group of La Jolla–based hedge-fund managers to grab the city-owned 165-acre site of Qualcomm Stadium for a high-density commercial, residential, and professional soccer complex.
He’s also been busy on a contentious redevelopment project in Nashville labeled by one critic "an embarrassing urban design blunder," according to a November 2016 account in the Nashville Business Journal.
But the developer, who reportedly has plenty of high-flying Hollywood contacts, has found time to round up a new tenant for his darkened Gaslamp movie emporium.
An ex-L.A. dry cleaner who once aspired to being the biggest movie mogul in Hollywood before crashing back to Earth in a widely publicized financial debacle, Elie Samaha has suddenly emerged as Gaslamp's latest big wheel.
"Seven luxury auditoriums would have food and drink service, ordered by iPads embedded at each seat — and, according to Samaha, cashmere blankets available to keep warm. Two of the theaters might be combined to create downtown’s first Imax theater,” the Union-Tribune reported Tuesday.
Jimmy Buffett's Landshark Bar & Grill would beckon G Street nightlife seekers, with another 5000-square-foot drinking establishment planned for the roof, and a Sugar Factory restaurant on Fifth for the family crowd.
"There’s nothing like it in the Gaslamp Quarter,” Samaha told the paper. “It becomes a night out and not just a night at the movies.”
Samaha had similar dreams of glory in 1998, when he started Franchise Pictures, with the aim of undercutting Hollywood's biggest studios by offering low-ball deals to stars to produce their pet projects, including John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, based on the sci-fi novel by Scientology founder Ron Hubbard, a May 2000 New York Times profile said. Samaha, born in Zahlé, Lebanon, was a bouncer at New York's Studio 54 before moving to L.A. in 1982 and becoming a dry cleaner.
''I called my cleaner Celebrity Cleaners,'' Samaha told the paper.
"I found out that the studios paid a tremendous amount of money to dry-clean clothes. My idea was, in and out, fast service. I charged more, but I learned something: people will pay for service.’'
Then he began starting night clubs. "Charge the guys lots of money, the girls half price, add some celebrities and you have a club,” he told the Times.
According to the newspaper’s account, "Samaha developed a slightly questionable reputation. 'We live in such a bland world, it's nice when someone has a little color,' says a studio executive who went to Roxbury and now works with Samaha. 'But if Elie danced with the Devil, it's never affected his work.'''
At one point married to actress Tia Carrere (of Wayne's World fame), Samaha's fast-track life hit the wall when Franchise's pictures started flopping at the box office.
"Unfortunately, many of Franchise's films were huge bombs, including Get Carter, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Angel Eyes, Heist, and Battlefield Earth,” noted the Hollywood Reporter.
Then, in June 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into Samaha regarding allegations by business partner Intertainment that Franchise had cooked its books by inflating production expenses.
"If that's not a crime, it should be," Intertainment attorney Scott Edelman was quoted as saying.
Samaha's attorney, Brian Sun told the paper: "We are aware of the FBI inquiry and intend to fully cooperate. We are firmly of the view that this is a not a criminal case. This is a civil business dispute."
In June 2004, a federal jury hit Franchise with a $77 million fraud judgement based on Intertainment's civil court complaint.
"With constant quips and irreverent asides, Samaha certainly provided the most entertaining testimony of the trial, but ultimately, he did not play well with the jury," reported Variety.
"The Lebanese-born Samaha described his background as dry cleaner to the stars, club owner and B-picture producer," the account continued. "His one great talent, he said, was getting the celebrities who hung out at his clubs to work for cheap."
Franchise declared bankruptcy in August 2007.
Since then, Samaha has been doing a bevy of lucrative if contentious nightclub and theater deals, including the 2011 takeover of Grauman's Chinese Theatre with Tron producer Don Kushner.
In January 2013, the venue was renamed TLC Chinese Theater in a naming rights deal with Chinese electronics giant TLC.