One day, he's a lauded real-estate visionary being handed the key to the city by Mayor Frank Curran. Then, he's battling city officials as they appropriate his downtown properties in the name of some barely imaginable civic Xanadu being dubbed "the Gaslamp Quarter." He entertained the rich and famous in his Hotel San Diego suite full of priceless memorabilia and was romantically linked to actress Rose Marie, though he was actually a closeted homosexual and co-owner of California's notorious Pussycat chain of porn theaters, whose downtown branch was no small catalyst in his becoming persona non grata among the same metropolitan moguls who'd once feted him.
Vincent Paul Miranda helped shape downtown for much of the '70s and '80s, back when the district still clung to its Wild West, sailors-on-shore-leave legacy. His company Walnut Properties ran a string of movie houses south of Broadway. For a time, he also owned a legitimate stage theater downtown (Off Broadway), as well as several local hotels, including the Hotel San Diego, where he maintained a posh part-time residence.
In 1973, the bright, flashing marquees of his Cabrillo and Plaza theaters faced Broadway from the south side of Horton Plaza, with the Aztec, Casino, and Bijou operating just as colorfully and tirelessly on Fifth Avenue. Films were grinded out almost nonstop, from 9:30 a.m. through 5:30 a.m. (hence the term "grindhouse"), with action, horror, and soft-core sexploitation movies, usually paired alongside two older films and screened for 99 cents. This sort of triple-feature billing still packed a lot of movie houses back in the days before cable and satellite TV, VCRs, DVDs, DSL, HDTV, and the newest BFD. Downtown's old grindhouse row now exists only in the memory of cinemaniacs old enough to recall a time when Jaws made you afraid of the water, Friday the 13th made you afraid of hockey masks, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture made you afraid of sequels.
Even the Balboa Theatre on Fourth Avenue was run by Miranda's company during its final operational decade, right up until the city acquired it via eminent domain and confiscated the keys in 1986, leaving the majestic building to rot for the next 20 years. At that time, Walnut was running several dozen movie houses in California, offering the same sort of lowbrow fare proliferating at drive-ins and urban grindhouse districts.
Projectionist Dan Whitehead worked at all of Miranda's local theaters for over 20 years, beginning in 1973. "Mr. Miranda was a quiet and energetic guy. We got to know each other during the many drinking parties we had at the main office and at the Hotel San Diego. He had a motto that he had engraved on his license plate frame — 'work hard, play hard' — and that's what we all did. You could tell he really loved show business and loved movies and that it wasn't just a way to make money for him."
Miranda — of Portuguese descent — was raised in Palo Alto, the son of Albert and Belinda Mattias. As a teen, his singing voice was said to be so exceptional that his nickname was "the Voice of Paly High." On reaching adulthood, his swarthy good looks, always-natty attire, and omnipresent grin added to his charm. Thin all his life and relatively short at around 5' 4", he told friends that his suits, while purchased in top-flight shops, often came from the children's departments. Though small, casual, and soft spoken, he would not have been perceived meek, such was the authority and assuredness he projected. Heavy smoking later took a toll on his dulcet voice, which grew coarser and more gravelly over time.
After serving as a Coast Guard cook in Hawaii, Miranda got into the restaurant business and took on a partner, a man known as George Tate. Physically, Tate appeared almost the opposite of Miranda, of solid girth and with the aggressive posture of a junkyard bulldog, whether standing or seated. He was known for wearing finely made executive suits, hand tailored to fit his monolithic frame. "Tate used to be a movie extra," says Whitehead. "They supposedly met after getting into a car accident with each other. The story goes that Tate had a theater and Miranda had a restaurant, and they had no money to cover the auto damage, so they just went into business together." Miranda and Tate were both considered the bosses at Walnut, though Tate was seen less by most employees.
Whitehead got to know Tate while training at the Cabrillo. "He had a silver tongue and could probably sell anything to anybody, almost like a snake-oil salesman. He probably could have made millions in religion. My feelings for Mr. Tate soured many years later, when the company was shutting down and Mr. Miranda was dead."
He credits Miranda for the local staffers' upbeat morale. "It was only because of him that the employees had anything at all. He gave us a retirement package, completely free, plus a vision-and-dental program. He put a few million of his own money into the company during slow times, and he wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and do real work. When we were getting ready to open the Bijou on Fifth Avenue [formerly the Savoy], he got down on his hands and knees and was scrubbing a floor behind the concession stand and cleaning out the bathrooms, while I was up in the booth installing equipment. Tate would never have deigned to do such a thing. He might stand at the door and take a ticket or two, but that's about it."
Though not generally known, Miranda and Tate were live-in lovers. For over a decade, they shared a house they purchased together from Mickey Rooney, in Encino, at 17340 Magnolia Boulevard. They also shared a love for motion-picture exhibition, seeing an opportunity to gain a foothold in San Diego by buying or leasing downtown theaters in decline, beginning with the Cabrillo (leased) and then the Plaza (purchased). In the early '70s, several nearby houses were being run by Russo Family Enterprises (later known as El Dorado Enterprises), including the Tower, the Aztec, the Casino, and the Balboa. Miranda and Tate coveted all these locales (see "Walnut Properties" later in this story).