Miranda acted as Walnut's public face, frequently mentioned and quoted in the local press by theater critic Welton Jones (a close friend), while Tate was rarely seen or referenced. According to Whitehead, "Tate liked to stay in the shadows. He was always so secretive. There were those of us who wondered if it wasn't really Tate who actually owned the company, and Miranda was just a figurehead. The rumor was that Tate's real name was George Munton and he'd been in some serious trouble having to do with child molestation and couldn't legally own those X-rated houses. That rumor never went away and was told to me by two people who'd known him for many years."
Whitehead mentions someone ideally qualified to provide additional details about Tate's allegedly checkered past. "I'm in touch with Mr. Miranda's godson, Tim David," he tells me. "His mom worked for Miranda in a cafe he owned in his younger days. In fact, she was in love with him. Miranda became Tim's godfather at her request."
When I contact 41-year-old Tim David, he informs me that "Mom went into labor at Walnut's downstairs office at 5445 Sunset Boulevard. She and V.M. were working late as usual. He made Mom finish the filing prior to taking her to the hospital. Mom has told me I spent the first few months of my life in that office. She converted a desk drawer into a bassinet."
David's biological father was Miranda's half-brother, Robert "Bobby" Mattias, though he says, "V.M. was the closest thing to a father I ever had. He did not lead a life that would allow me to spend more time than I did with him. But he sent checks to support me every month of my childhood, spoke to me often with words of encouragement with school and life...He would come to my school in a limo."
David says the rumors are true about Tate's prison record and the Munton surname (a name that does turn up in legal proceedings related to Walnut's eventual dismantling). "I just called my mom to ask about this; she was there for all that and remembers it quite well. [She says] he was convicted of child molestation and served his time in a California prison. She can't recall which one, but she did remember he was released in late 1965 or early 1966."
Miranda and Tate wanted to be downtown's biggest -- if not sole -- grindhouse operators. Walnut purchased a 22-year lease on the Balboa and bought the Casino outright, but the Russos, for a while, held on to the Aztec on Fifth Avenue. In 1973, two independent operators -- Charlie Smith and Wesley "Andy" Andrews -- purchased the property so desired by Walnut. Whitehead ended up quitting his job working for Miranda and Tate to spend a few years as the Aztec's daytime projectionist.
"The concession stand had a counter open to the public sidewalk," says Whitehead. "Andy and Charlie kept the snack bar stuffed with food and candy, and they even bought a pizza oven and served individual slices of pizza. They had chili for a while, and those wrapped sandwiches you heated in an oven. A lot of downtown hookers and hustlers used the Aztec concession stand as their diner."
The competing theater operators eventually warmed toward each other. "Even after I went to work for Andy at the Aztec, I spoke often with Mr. Tate at Walnut," Whitehead says. "I introduced Andy to Tate in 1974, and they became fast friends. Andy leased the Commodore Hotel at Third and F from Tate sometime in the mid-'70s and moved his office there. He was always doing stuff for Walnut. In fact, Andy ran the Hotel San Diego for them for a while." Other downtown inns snapped up by Miranda and Tate included the Clark Hotel and William Penn Hotel on Fifth and the Hotel St. James on Sixth.
Whitehead went back to work for Walnut as the chain's head San Diego projectionist in 1978. "I had a real mess on my hands. The head projectionist had done a lot less than he could have, as far as routine maintenance was concerned." He says the frequent post-shift "drinking parties" with Miranda resumed ("He really liked to drink").
Walnut finally managed to buy the Aztec Theatre, running it as a sister operation to the nearby Casino. The Casino, in the middle of the block and across from the Savoy Theatre (later Walnut's Bijou), was around a half-century old at the time. It was in decent repair, with a full-length balcony that was actually open most of the time. "They ran a little restaurant built onto [the theater] called Loren's Q," remembers Whitehead, "and they had some delicious barbecue. They also served these teeny, tiny little hamburgers they called Q-burgers."
Over at the Balboa on Fourth Avenue, Walnut used the grand olde girl to screen the same exploitative fare as its other grindhouses, marking what is to some an ignoble period for the one-time crown jewel of downtown theaters. "I was always fascinated by the Balboa and was determined to do my best by her," says Whitehead. "The first thing I did was go over every inch of her, from the roof to the basement."
The Balboa's tile dome, set four stories above the entrance alcove, contained one of two huge fans that circulated the house's air, with the other located in the basement, just to the right of the orchestra pit. The basement included a cedar-lined room where a furrier had operated for a time. The theater's original Morton organ was no longer in place during Walnut's tenure, having been removed and taken to the nearby Fox Theatre (eventually renamed Copley Symphony Hall).
Among the Balboa's most distinctive features were the waterfalls on either side of the room. "They were in enclosed chambers," says Whitehead. "The one on the left had a little entrance door you got to from the hotel, while the one on the right had no entrance unless you went and got a ladder. The switch that turned them off and on was in the projection booth. I hooked it up to the automation system so they'd turn on when the curtain closed and turn off as soon as the show started. The chambers filled automatically with a ballcock assembly filling up the pool at the bottom, just like in a toilet tank. A recirculating pump fed the water up to the top, where it cascaded back down."