DiPiazza’s gave live music a home in Long Beach by treating kids ‘like rock stars’

It was supposed to be a secret show.

True to his word, Mark DiPiazza had kept his lips sealed that Weezer would be performing at his new music venue, the Lava Lounge, inside Java Lanes bowling alley. But just the day before the band was scheduled to rage, over 2,500 people had flocked out front, wrapped around the bowling alley, praying they would be one of the lucky 700 to catch the show.

“Some people stayed all night long on the ground waiting to be the first one in,” Mark DiPiazza remembered. “So, that [show] kind of put us on the map, and then from there on it was just kind of crazy.”

To describe the career of Mark and Maralyn DiPiazza, owners of Italian restaurant and live music venue DiPiazza’s, as crazy, is not hyperbole. Aside from the all-consuming task of running a restaurant—the 18 hour days and sleepless nights—the couple have also spent the last quarter-century of their lives booking live music, five nights a week, inside their club.

Weezer, The Offspring, T.S.O.L, Gwen Stefani, Jane’s Addiction, Slightly Stoopid, The Vandals, Minutemen; not to mention the thousands of fledgling bands all across Southern California, have had their moment to play at DiPiazza’s. It’s not a question of who’s played at the all-ages venue, it’s a question of who hasn’t.

“When I first met Mark, you know, I’m like a 115-pound kid in a petticoat with cowboy boots and crop top. And you know, now I’m a chubby, middle aged teacher,” D.D. Wood said, and laughed. Wood teaches music and arts at Millikan High School, but back in the early aught’s she’d play DiPiazza’s with her cow-funk band Gypsy Trash.

“And I think the cool thing about Mark is, you know, he helped to keep us all connected. He and Maralyn really kept the music scene going for many, many years in Long Beach.”

But all good things must come to an end, and after 36 years, Mark and Maralyn are finally throwing in the tomato stained towel and retiring from the restaurant and entertainment industry at the end of the month. Their last day as sole proprietors to one of the most iconic and longest-standing music venues in Long Beach is February 29.

“We love what we do,” Maralyn said. “But this industry is tough man, it’s hard.”

“I’ll be 65 years old,” Mark added. “I’ve been working full-time for 51 years. I don’t wanna drop dead doing this. It’s time to get off the horse and ride away.”

Maralyn DiPiazza puts on some latex gloves as she preps for the night crowed at her restaurant and music venue In Long Beach Friday Feb.7, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Hundreds of friends, musicians and artists have reached out to Mark and Maralyn once news broke of their retirement plans. And all throughout February bands have mic’d up to perform one last time for them. On Friday, Feb. 28, long-time friend and legendary punk bassist Mike Watt will rip alongside one of Mark’s all-time favorite bands, The Ziggen’s.

“I’ve been working with Mark for 20 years,” Watt said. “Great guy, he’s genuine. He’s never put up a front.”

On Saturday, Feb. 29, the final of the goodbye shows, will be Gypsy Trash and a host of other special guests including bluesman Mike Malone, world-class guitar player Brophy Dale, Western duo Cowboy and Indian, singer-songwriter Lexi Lou, Chase Petra’s Hunter Allen and all of D.D. Woods’ kiddos.

Mark DiPiazza talks on the phone about a band wanting to perform at his restaurant and music venue In Long Beach Friday Feb.7, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Mark and Maralyn have sold their business and its name to Steve Guillen. In his early 20’s, Guillen worked as a bartender and club promoter. He would stand outside the Java Lanes bowling alley—the couple’s first music club back in the mid ’90s—and pass out flyers to sweaty concert-goers. Mark and Guillen wouldn’t meet until about a decade later in 2013 when Guillen bought Iguana Kelley’s bar in Zaferia District, just down the street from DiPiazza’s place on the edge of Park Estates.

“Mark was a mentor of mine in the early stages of my business career,” Guillen said. “When I opened my first business in Long Beach [Iguana Kelley’s] he basically introduced himself to me, unsolicited, and he really became my friend.”

It was a running joke between Mark and Guillen that whenever they’d run into each other, Guillen would say, “whenever you’re ready to retire, let me know first.”

And Mark, true to his word, finally did.

“He felt that I was the right person for the job,” Guillen explained over the phone. “He knew that I would take care of the place and put the same love and family feeling into what he’s done over the years.”

Guillen’s plans for DiPiazza’s will focus on technological improvements. He’s going to update the website and logo and have a stronger social media presence. He plans on slimming down the food menu but incorporating new craft cocktails. He’s also going to start opening the restaurant earlier—11 a.m. A few weeks ago, Guillen installed in a new high-definition sound system. He says he plans to continue booking local bands, just like Mark and Maralyn have always done, but he’s setting the stage for bigger acts too.

“The legacy and the history is the most important thing to how I operate,” Guillen said. “It will be my version of DiPiazza’s.”

Mark and Maralyn DiPiazza at their restaurant and music venue as they prepare to retire from the business in Long Beach, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

It’s hard to imagine a space like DiPiazza’s without stage lights and speakers, but live music wasn’t a distinct characteristic of the DiPiazza brand right away. The couple opened their first restaurant in Belmont Shore not far from the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in 1984. The Long Beach natives and Wilson High graduates were young and not yet married, but they shared a common dream of opening up their own Italian restaurant together. So they took a chance, converting what was formerly a drive-thru donut shop into a cozy Italian eatery.

They gutted the place, spruced it up and decorated it with odds and ends from flea markets and garage sales—they didn’t have much money back then. They hung oil paintings gifted by their friends and family on the walls. They lined the patio facing the ocean with flowers. The chairs didn’t match, the decor didn’t match, and the service didn’t wear matching uniforms.

“It was a hodgepodge,” Maralyn remembers. “ It was the ‘80s and no one got it. It wasn’t cool then.”

Food was their focus, and they experimented with their favorite family recipes and introduced a lot more fresh ingredients.

“Prior to that, Italian restaurants in Southern California were just opening cans and cooking dry pasta,” Maralyn explained. “We were going to the farmers market and buying basil, making pesto and using fresh garlic and all these other ingredients that in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s they weren’t really doing.”

Business was good, and so several years later they opened up a lunch location on Anaheim Street. Not long after, the couple was approached by the owners of Java Lanes, the iconic bowling alley just up the hill from the traffic circle. Business had cooled for the alley. In its glory days, during the ’60s and ’70s, Java Lanes was known as the quintessential baby-boomers recreation spot.

JAVA LANES for LB POST

“We went in there and looked at it and went, ‘Oh my God, this kitchen is bigger than our whole restaurant,’ Mark said. “And they made us an incredible deal, we basically couldn’t pass it up.”

They took over the kitchen inside Java Lanes, turned the dining room into a fine dining Italian restaurant, and set about the task of feeding the bowlers and their loyal clientele, who followed them to the bowling alley once the couple closed their other two locations. But Mark and Maralyn saw potential to do more.

“There was this giant room that they were using for meetings for the bowlers,” Mark said. “It used to be an old nightclub in the ‘60s, and they still had the license for it but it was dormant, nobody ever applied to start it over again.”

“So, we said let us turn it into a nightclub, like it used to be. Take the wall out, and make it into a giant room. The [owners] said ‘No, no we’re not gonna do that.’ About a year later, they took all the smoking out of LA County, so you couldn’t smoke inside. The bowling alley’s profits just dived,” Mark said. “They were desperate, so they said ‘OK, do what you think you can do to make us profitable again.”

“And boy did we,” Maralyn said.

Once word got out that Java Lanes had opened a club again, which they named the Lava Lounge, the calls came flooding in.

“I had 50 bands a day calling me, going how can we get in, how can we play?” Mark said.

They started rock and roll bowling, with bands playing on the concourse behind the bowling lanes. Anyone who paid to see a show was given a complimentary round of bowling which would pack the lanes until the early morning hours.

The final form of the Lava Lounge was renovated to look like the inside of a volcano: dim lighting, rock walls. The elevated stage was designed with built-in crevices, illuminated with red lights and filled with dry ice which made the stage look as though it were steaming. They even built a 12-foot retractable catwalk so musicians could run out into the crowd. The splendor of Mark’s vision lives on through KROQ-famous Lit’s music video for their single, “My Own Worst Enemy,” that was filmed at Java Lanes in the late ’90s.

All walks of music life would play the Lava Lounge, but the scene that slowly developed around the venue was young and punk.

“My brother Jack Grisham who sings for T.S.O.L., he played there,” D.D. Wood said. “We had a hardcore punk scene going on in Long Beach at that time.”

Bogart’s and Fenders Ballroom, the prior stomping grounds of the city’s hardcore punk scene, closed a few years before Lava Lounge emerged. Sure, there was The Foothill but the Texas swing bar stayed true to its country, honky-tonk roots and required valid ID to get it.

“Back then, there weren’t a lot of music venues in Long Beach,” Maralyn explained. “It used to be harder to get a music license.”

Java Lanes SignAfter a seven-year run of high-energy shows, immortalized by acts that sell out arenas today, unfortunately, Lava Lounge could not survive the Java Lanes demolition in 2004.

“It was four doctors who owned it,” Mark explained. “It was more of a write-off at the end, I don’t think they really cared about it. And so they pretty much just let it go.”

Sensing that their time was nearly up at Java Lanes, Mark and Maralyn bought the Captain’s Quarters steakhouse in 2000, where Lava Lounge later reemerged under the name DiPiazza’s. The venue was considerably smaller, less than half capacity size at Java Lanes, but it was all-ages and, finally, entirely their own.

It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions for the couple, though. Mark was still under contract with Java Lanes until 2002 and was stuck booking both venues for two years—260 bands a month. The neighbors bordering their new club in the manicured old-money playground of Park Estates weren’t too keen on the couple’s new venture either. They battled with keeping their entertainment license.

“He had a fight a lot of a lot of obstacles,” Jay Buchanan, said. Most might recognize Buchanan as the singer-songwriter from the blues-rock band Rival Sons. “At that time in the city it was really difficult to get a license and have live music and have that sort of club. Mark and I would talk about that and about how terrible that was for the arts and music community because we needed a place to go.”

They powered through, and for the next 20 years Mark carried on booking bands while Maralyn and their daughter, Melana, controlled the kitchen. Business never really slowed, despite Alex’s Bar popping up (shortly after DiPiazza’s on PCH opened) or after the wave of new bar venues emerged in the city’s music landscape: Que Sera, 4th Street Vine, The Federal Underground, The Prospector.

Mark DiPiazza seasons his flour as he and his wife Maralyn prep for the night crowed at their restaurant and music venue In Long Beach Friday Feb.7, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Mark and Maralyn had their edge; their venue was all-ages, the only consistent one in a 15-mile radius. It was also the only venue kids below the drinking age could actually go to. The key ingredient to any thriving music scene is a young crowd making those connections, experimenting, learning the ropes and hang-ups of a professional scene. DiPiazza’s was that launching pad, that vital step that took kids from playing from their friends backyards to a legit venue.

“It’s part of the progression for any band,” Jay Buchanan said. “It’s really crucial when you get to that point when you can actually play a venue, play a club, maybe do a residency. Creating [those] relationships when you’re young and you’re cutting your teeth.”

“Mark is one of those people that would teach you how to do things,” Buchanan continued. “And when you’re first starting out, it seems like the whole industry is just a bunch of grifters and opportunists that are just going to rip you off. He was just familial and kind to you. On that smaller level, when you are interfacing with the owner of the venue and they are really good to you. You don’t forget it.”

The legacy of Mark and Maralyn DiPiazza will likely not be forgotten any time soon, although, physically they’re going to disappear for a while. It’s retirement, comes with the territory.

“We just want to relax and enjoy each other,” Mark said.

Those who want to party with the godparents of Long Beach’s live music mafia for one last night, best come say their goodbyes this Saturday, Feb. 29 at DiPiazza’s.

The Long Beach Grand Ole Opry with Gypsy Trash and Guests Farewell Show is Saturday Feb. 29 from 6:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. at DiPiazza’s; 5205 E. Pacific Coast Highway. Cover charge is $7.

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Cheantay Jensen is an editorial intern who covers art and culture for the Hi-lo section of the Long Beach Post.
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