The Spirit of the City and the Letter of the Law Collide at Sekrit Theater
Beau Reichert struggles with the city over his backyard arts complex
A welcome sign at the end of Beau Reichert's driveway greets visitors to Sekrit Theater. Down that path lie any number of interesting things: an old school bus, the basket of a hot-air balloon, a bathtub, an interrupted workbench littered with tools, what looks like a miniature Humvee with the hood propped up. Around the corner trees give way to an impressive, handcrafted pavilion with a bulging disco ball hanging from the ceiling.
This is Reichert's sanctuary.
From the street level, a line of trees hides most of the property from view. Past Reichert's house, which he is in the process of renovating by hand, the driveway leads deep into the heart of the property.
There's a wood-and-stone shed where he stores tools. He built the pavilion, he says, because working out in the sun – as he's prone to doing – gave him heat exhaustion. Another building houses his film paraphernalia, kept crisply air conditioned all summer to protect the projectors and the expensive bulbs that keep them lit. The projectors aim across the lawn at the movie-theatre-sized screen Reichert built to share his sizable film collection with friends.
Friends are what brought Reichert back to Austin. He was born here, but went to high school in Wimberley where he lived with his mother. Reichert has Asperger's syndrome and severe dyslexia, and his therapist suggested a way for him to break out of his shell would be to move into the city and forge connections. Build a community.
That he did. And then some.
Over the last six years, Saturday movie nights turned into Thanksgiving and Fourth of July potlucks. He started inviting local creatives to work in his space. Directors began asking to screen new films there. Artists and musicians from all across the country heard whispers about Austin's Sekrit Theater – one of the few magical places left in a city turning more and more corporate by the minute.
All that attention has brought Reichert equal parts joy and suffering. Conflict with the city over use of his property this summer brought the artist to his breaking point, leaving him wondering if Austin is still the place for this kind of magic. Now he's seeking out media attention he says he never wanted. He doesn't have time to let the theatre's troubles get around through word-of-mouth.
"I kept it secret for so many years," he says of his theatre. "Now I've got to make it famous. So it can stay."
Show and Tell
In 2007, the theatre and everything else on the property was still trapped inside Reichert's head. Driving around one day looking at properties, he happened upon the two-acre plot by chance. He was already familiar with the neighborhood, having frequented Armadillo Clay for his projects.
"It was always a neighborhood I felt comfortable with," said Reichert, "and what I liked about it was it was kind of like living in the country but still close to town. It was kind of no-man's-land over here."
Other parts of Austin never provided the artist with enough privacy for his liking, but the two acres in East Austin at the time didn't have many neighbors, and it was the perfect size for Reichert to be able to comfortably build the art studio of his dreams. He had extensive plans for a barnlike structure to hold all his materials, because the glass castings he makes require constant supervision. If his plans could be realized, he could comfortably work on his projects, which he says were in high demand in 2006.
Comfort, above all else, is what's important to Reichert. "When I'd get super anxious and stressed, my house was the place I went to to feel good," he explained. "And I felt good at my house, so [I'd] invite my friends over. I like showing what I built. It's like show-and-tell. It gives me something to be proud of. People would come every week to see what I'd done next."
The foundation of it all was an expansive collection of films from the Southwest Texas State archive Reichert bought at auction. When he moved onto his land, he built the theatre and started inviting people from the nearby Groves neighborhood over on Saturday nights to watch films. He guesses he's seen maybe 5% of the collection in the last eight years. In that time, Reichert went from needing his counselor's prodding to move into the city to having more friends than most people would know what to do with.
"I have no idea how this happened, but I became a community leader in my neighborhood," Reichert said. "This is a community hub. It just kind of all happened."
The theatre's reputation didn't come about overnight. Reichert never built his barn-inspired studio due to issues with Code ("They said I couldn't have cattle," he explained wryly). The kilns and other equipment he uses to make his glass castings have been in storage since 2006. "I almost sold the property like four times," he said. "My counselor said, 'Stick it out. It'll get better.' But it really didn't get better."
While the city was concerned with structures and permits, the neighboring subdivision became, as the Sekrit Theater grew, concerned about the scale of Reichert's activities. No longer was he just hosting casual movie nights and community potlucks. Bigger, ticketed events became more commonplace, and with them all the traditional problems (parking, litter, etc.). And while Reichert has an especially broad definition of the word "friend," anonymous complainants began accusing him of running an illegal commercial venue.
The SOL subdivision was planned in 2007, shortly before Reichert bought his property. It's denser than the Groves neighborhood across the street. Modern, blocky homes with minimal yard space stack nearly on top of each other.
The lots adjacent to Reichert's property were the first sold. Jakob Clark bought one on that stretch, and met his new neighbor soon after. "It was the middle of the night, I was burying my cat that I'd had for 17 years, very distraught," recalled Clark. "On my new property, before the house was built, because I wanted her here. [Beau] came over in the middle of the night with a shovel and helped me bury her. And that's the kind of guy Beau is."
Clark and Reichert became close friends – so close that their yards are connected by a gate carved into the artist's cement fence. It was built so that Clark's 7-year-old son and the family dogs could run back and forth. And when Reichert began having issues with some of the SOL homeowners earlier this year, Clark was tapped as an unofficial liaison between the factions.
Not everyone in SOL coexisted with the Sekrit Theater so peacefully. Some households have taken issue with the foot traffic, noise, and parking issues created by some of the bigger charity events Reichert began to host, such as Fusebox and Black Fret. Homeowners speaking under the condition of anonymity said events held during this year's South by Southwest Festival were the tipping point. "Nobody had issues with it when it was at the neighborhood level," one neighbor wrote in an email to the Chronicle. "Many people from SOL enjoyed it. When it started getting bigger and having bands and very large crowds ... is when it became a problem, especially for neighbors that border the property."
Clark said that faction of neighbors doesn't reflect the subdivision's overall feeling toward Reichert and the theatre.
"There's, I think, four houses, ultimately, that complained," said Clark. "There's 40 houses here."
Clark and his wife recently put their house on the market, a decision Clark said has more to do with the lack of space in the subdivision than anything that's happened at the Sekrit Theater. "I hate what's going on," Clark said. "Ultimately, I want Beau here. I moved to Austin for a reason. I want to keep it weird for my son."
Reichert said he initially had trouble securing the property because of issues Code had with the previous owner. After he bought the property, he had run-ins with the department over expired permits and other violations in 2010 and 2011, which were resolved. Then, in October 2014, Code received a complaint from a caller who "believes that the person at this property is running [a] movie theatre and possible nightclub."
The inspector conducted a search of the property and found nothing to substantiate the claims. The case was closed.
But more complaints would bring Code back. Reichert's dyslexia has made it hard for him to digest the extensive paperwork. Code has very specific guidelines to determine what a "structure" is and how it should be maintained for safety reasons. That doesn't work for Reichert, whose architecture projects ("accessory structures," in city language) are living, breathing works of art that he maintains on a daily basis.
"A lot of the property is a sculpture project," he said. "Trying to craft a place where you can walk around and where people feel joy and happiness. That's what art does. It inspires people. People are inspired when they come here. [The city] seems to think the things I've put together are of poor quality when it's nothing of the sort."
One complaint from June 20 read that neighbors 300 feet away (a football field) from the property reported being able to hear music and sound from inside their home. "His events are posted on Do512 and Facebook, so there are records of these events he hosts," reads the complaint. "Last night he had 5 bands play and took donations for a nonprofit, but no 501c3 was listed."
Reichert said he has no business card or website. He said fans of the theatre have established social media accounts for it – without his permission. He is addressing the issue, and insisted he's not running a commercial venue.
As the complaint (and numerous others called in this summer) indicates, eventually the secret got out and the artist's social circle ballooned. Reichert received request after request for fundraisers, meetups, concerts, and film screenings. Soon couples started hosting weddings at the theatre. Tensions with his neighbors increased.
On July 7, Code served a search warrant and found that Reichert was building without permits, had five existing "buildings" without permits, and had not secured a permit for the pavilion or theatre, in addition to a slew of other issues. In a letter to Reichert dated July 20, the department laid out the extensive work Reichert is required to do to bring his place up to code. Clearly, it's not as simple as filling out the paperwork. It takes money and time to maintain that many permits, which Reichert doesn't have – having already invested an estimated $250,000 in the last year and a half in noise-canceling accommodations for the theatre and permits. And he isn't willing to demolish his structures.
The other sticking point is the events. Reichert flatly refuses to discontinue the movie nights or community potlucks with his friends from the Groves neighborhood. He said his fundraisers for groups like Black Fret wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary at a private residence in affluent West Austin. And Rebecca Farrell, a lawyer helping him navigate these issues, said Reichert must be allowed to continue hosting weddings on the property to keep the place going through donations.
Code Department Assistant Division Manager Robert Alvarado confirmed that Reichert is on his way to being in compliance. He said Reichert must pull permits on all the remaining structures. As for the events, Reichert and the city are at an impasse. Even the birthday parties and other community events can get him into trouble, because while Reichert sees most of the area as an extended family, Code views it as him running an unofficial – and improperly zoned – event center.
"Him having an event there is a violation, but it's only a violation when he's having it," said Alvarado. "It's not a violation until he has the event. Today he's not in violation of an event center, because he hasn't held an event today. If he holds an event and he's advertising or promoting or taking donations and all that other stuff – at that point he becomes in violation of prohibited use.
"If he wants to be a community center, he can go through a process of rezoning and be a community center," Alvarado continued. "At this time he is a single-family residential district."
Last Thursday, Farrell and others volunteering to help Reichert sent a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council detailing Reichert's plight and asking for help with the zoning issue. She said Reichert appears to have been "discriminated against by the city" because he wasn't given an Americans With Disabilities Act liaison, though he asked Code, comptroller, and APD officers for that when they served the warrant in July. In fact, he had someone film him doing so; see that video below.
Alvarado said he was not aware of Reichert's Asperger's until asked about it by the Chronicle. The city of Austin's ADA program coordinator, David Ondich, said the citizen is required to explain to the department what kind of disability they have and what accommodations – because they vary greatly between individuals – they need from the city. Code told the Chronicle that APD is in charge of executing the warrant and that its officers were only present to take pictures of the property. Reichert must go through ADA to formally request a liaison, which he was never able to secure back in 2009.
Sekrit Theater Code Violations: Beau Reichert, who runs the Sekrit Theater in East Austin, was served on July 7, 2016, with an administrative warrant to investigate allegations he was using his home as a commercial venue. Here you can see him describing his medical condition (Asperger’s Syndrome) to Austin Police Department and comptroller officers, and asking for them to read him the warrant.
Sekrit Theater Code Violations, part 2: Beau Reichert interacts with comptroller and Code Department officials, reiterating his request for an Americans With Disability liaison. The comptroller explains that they’re there to take pictures and investigate whether the property is being used as a venue, a claim Reichert vehemently denies. A Code spokesperson said APD was there to execute the warrant, and that Code officials have “ a legal obligation to execute the warrant at that specific time. We were there to take pictures.”
Cinema East, Aug. 24, 9pm. Around 300 people sit on sturdy iron lawn furniture and wooden fold-out chairs arranged in the pavilion and blink up at the screen. A few who brought blankets stretch out off to the side in the grass. The mood is relaxed with a noise level akin to the average backyard barbecue. Reichert says he issues tickets to some events – like this one – to cap attendance. If he offered free shows, "1,000 people would show up." Outside at the curb, an attendant shepherds cars away from the SOL subdivision streets toward Gardner Road and the Eastview Memorial High School campus.
"It looks different at night," offers Reichert.
While the place is certainly not hard on the eyes by day, at night the greenhouse illuminates the path to the theatre with a golden glow. The "Welcome to the Sekrit Theater" sign comes alive with light, too. The old school bus, marked "lounge," sparkles with Christmas bulbs.
In this situation, Reichert is in his element: adjusting speaker volume, answering questions, and, of course, watching the film, this time Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death by Audio, a requiem for the beloved music venue that shuttered in 2014. It feels particularly apt now that Cinema East has canceled its September dates at the Sekrit Theater as a result of Reichert's troubles with the city. How much longer can this artist's space exist? Does it belong here?
Reichert drifts up the path, talking with his hands. Outside in the driveway you can't hear any of the merriment tucked away in the theatre. Reichert explains with no small amount of irritation that a part inside his Humvee – actually a Mercedes Unimog global explorer truck – broke off while he was trying to prepare it for an upcoming trip. Barring any last-minute machinist miracles, his trip is delayed until he can get a new part fitted.
The problems with the neighbors and Code have taken their toll on him financially and emotionally. The stress has soured him on his sanctuary. For the last several weeks his focus has been on outfitting the utility vehicle so he can go on a cross-country trip to look at other places that may have a more flexible approach to zoning. One possibility is New Mexico. "Other cities are inviting me," he says. "'Come here, we will treat you right.'"
He's not the only one. Many of his artist friends have been priced out of Austin. The first group of friends he met here in 2008 have mostly moved on to places where the rent isn't as expensive and where zoning rules are kinder to creatives. His staunch allies in the Groves neighborhood are leaving, too, he says, priced out or evicted by landlords looking to capitalize on Austin's housing market.
A week earlier, during the initial tour of the property, Reichert lamented: "Birthday parties were the most popular thing to do at my house. Come over and watch a movie and have a birthday party here. The most popular parties now are going-away parties. Everybody's just like, 'You gave it a run. Your life would be so much better if you just leave Austin.' I'm kind of thinking they're right.
"Just because the place became famous shouldn't mean I have to tear it down," he continued. "This is what I thought the heart and soul of Austin was. And what I know the heart and soul of Austin used to be. And I don't know if I can deal with what Austin is now or whether it's worth it anymore."