Written by Stephanie Bertholdo Photo by Joan Pahoyo
Visitors to the Whizin Market Square in Agoura Hills may notice an undeniable cool factor emanating from The Canyon, a club that’s been rockin’ the city for 14 years.
Owner Lance Sterling is the man behind the vibe, the savvy businessman who is so well connected to legendary rockers, comedians and personalities, that they agree to forgo bigger venues and perform in his more intimate, funky club.
Lance has showcased the talents of Pat Benatar, B.B. King, Jackson Browne, Eddie Money, Leon Russell, the Doobie Brothers, Tommy Shaw of Styx fame, America and many others. But with the opening of his second venue, the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, he’s booking legendary performers Paul Anka, Burt Bacharach, Wayne Newton and actor/comedian Jerry Lewis.
But enough about the star-studded acts. Lance may be a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, but his history down the entertainment path is as compelling as the acts he books.
A career takes root
Lance was born in High Falls, N.Y., a stone’s throw from Woodstock—yes, Woodstock, home to the 1969 outdoor music festival that turned out to be pivotal in rock ’n’ roll history.
“I was 7 years old when Woodstock happened,” Lance says. “After the concert, people never left. Todd Rundgren had a studio there. I was on his property a dozen times.”
After the musical extravaganza ended, Woodstock tickets were strewn everywhere, and young Lance had the prescience to pick up a couple of unused tickets and the original playbill and sock them away as souvenirs. He seemed to know on a visceral level that musical history had been made on his home turf. Even though he was too young to attend, peering at his tickets planted the seed of a musical Valhalla that he would cultivate later in life.
Perhaps it was in the stars that Lance would one day work in the music biz, or perhaps it was a typical career trajectory, but another fortuitous event propelled Lance down the entertainment road.
After Lance graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona, he landed a job designing billboards in Tucson. He used his tech smarts to write a computer program that identified every possible location for billboards in the city. Because he had targeted so many locations—200—the city banned billboards altogether.
“I worked myself out of a job,” he says. But the end of that job led Lance to his destiny. The billboard company launched a division that specialized in 20,000-square-foot restaurants and concert venues. Lance worked on the Wildcat House, a venerated college hangout in Tucson that closed in 2012 after more than 20 years in business.
By the time Lance was in his mid-30s he was co-owner of House of Blues in Hollywood. He was hired in 1994, during a financial crisis, to reinvigorate the business. The House of Blues ended up being so wildly successful that he and his partners built 12 more House of Blues concert/dining venues nationwide.
Lance credits his primary mentor, Isaac Tigrett, for opening his eyes to unique business and life strategies. Tigrett ran the House of Blues like a family. “He taught me to treat employees well. Isaac had a profound effect on me.”
Lance, 52, is also known around town for his generosity to the community. He donates use of The Canyon to children’s charities once a month, generally related to school events but sometimes to other nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders. His started a Pop Warner kids’ football league in the Conejo Valley this year with 200 players from Calabasas to Camarillo.
Lance and his wife, Karen, have five children, ages 14 to 27. The Sterling gang lives in Thousand Oaks on a sprawling avocado farm, complete with a sports field, which they loan to high school sports programs.
Lance says he and Karen first chose to move from Los Angeles to the Conejo Valley in 1999 because of the schools. But, the laid-back atmosphere here also helped them relax. They hadn’t realized that raising kids in the city had caused them so much worry. Life on the farm gave the family plenty of room to roam and a much less stressful life.
The elusive Tom Jones
Lance hopes to one day book singer Tom Jones at The Canyon or the Saban Theatre.
“I’ve been trying to get Tom Jones forever,” he says.
He may not have convinced the Welsh belter to play yet, but he felt the magic when he signed Paul Anka at the Saban.
“(Anka) wrote the songs for all the people you think are cool. . . . He’s just legendary.”
He’s is equally excited about booking Lou Gramm, the original singer of Foreigner.
Lance says plans to remodel The Canyon include flipping the entrance as well as including some other surprises. He is also investigating opening concert venues in Pasadena and Texas.
Like his mentors before him, Lance predicts he will never retire.
“I get paid for doing what I’d probably do if I weren’t getting paid.”