The secret theater in East Austin was just what the doctor had ordered.
Beau Reichert, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was struggling to make friends, moved to Austin nine years ago to build an art studio so he could meet people in a comfortable setting. His doctor thought it would help with the isolation Reichert experienced as a result of his developmental disorder that is characterized by difficulties in social interactions.
The studio never got built. But Reichert, a 39-year-old artist, did plenty of work on the dilapidated condition of the vast 2-acre lot he had bought.
He started using the main building as his home and, as a form of stress relief, began tinkering with an outdoor movie screen in his backyard. When neighbors stopped by to compliment the work he’d done on the home, Reichert would show them his outdoor movie theater. Soon, they were coming to the theater every Saturday night.
As word got out about the theater, Reichert became well-known in the Austin arts scene and eventually played host to an unofficial South By Southwest neighborhood party, charity events for nonprofit art groups, weddings and even a few memorial viewings. For a few years, Reichert said, he was having the time of his life.
But the future of the secret theater is now up in the air.
This year, Reichert began hearing complaints from neighbors in a subdivision adjacent to his backyard. Since March, Austin police have received 10 calls for noise complaints at his home. But Reichert says he has never been issued a citation and that these are “fictitious complaints” called in anonymously by neighbors who moved in recently and are unaccustomed to living in a neighborhood full of artists and creative types.
“I haven’t really been able to enjoy anything in the last six months,” Reichert said. “This used to be where I could go to relax and meet people, and half the time I’m too uncomfortable at my own house now.”
Recently, anonymous complaints also started coming in to the Austin Code Department that accused Reichert of running an illegal business out of a residential home in violation of the city’s land use rules.
Reichert said the theater is not a business because he doesn’t charge for events. People often make donations because they know how much he spends to host the events, Reichert said, but he doesn’t set a price.
“This is not a business model; this is a community,” he said.
Reichert said he goes through pains to keep the theater under the radar, even spelling the word incorrectly — Sekrit Theater — on a sign at the entrance. And although others have started websites for the theater that has gained an international reputation, Reichert says those are unaffiliated with him.
The events at his home are private, mostly for his friends and by invitation only, he said. When he holds musical events or screens movies, Reichert said, he makes sure to adhere to city code requirements and noise ordinances.
But after another complaint on the Fourth of July, the Code Department executed a search warrant on Reichert’s property and found several violations, including one for a gazebo without a permit in his backyard, another for the “movie theater wall” and one for not keeping the property in sanitary condition, due to overgrown grass from gardens he’s created.
Since July, Reichert said he has desperately tried to appeal and address the violations. A lawyer representing him said he’s spent an estimated $250,000 to comply with the city code.
Reichert estimates that he’d have to pay several hundred thousand dollars more and that it would take years to obtain his permits because he would have to rezone his property. Even then, he thinks those who take issue with his theater wouldn’t let up.
In a last-ditch effort to seek a resolution to Reichert’s situation, his sympathizers, which include neighbors and fellow artists, sent a letter to City Council members Thursday asking them to intervene on his behalf.
But Reichert has grown discouraged. He sees the complaints against his backyard theater as another example that Austin is no longer the artist haven it once was.
“My life is turned upside down because I don’t have a grounded place anymore,” Reichert said, noting that the symptoms of Asperger’s have returned in recent months and he has broken out in hives as a result of the stress. “I think I have to go look around other states and try to find a new place to move the theater to.”