Mercy Baron 4:30 p.m., May 25
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Life on Downtown's Grindhouse Theater Row 1978 - 1982
LAST OF THE ALL-NIGHTERS - MY LIFE ON DOWNTOWN'S GRINDHOUSE THEATER ROW IN THE 70s and 80s
I spent my first night in San Diego sleeping in the back row of the Cabrillo Theater.
In that pre-Gaslamp, pre-multiplex downtown of 1978 or so, half a dozen wonderfully eclectic – if mildly disreputable – late night movie houses operated within a few blocks of each other. Each grindhouses was a colorful oasis, plopped down in the middle of a seedy urban sprawl perfectly suited to the sailors on shore leave and porn aficionados that comprised much of its foot traffic.
A couple of bucks got you a double or triple bill, screened ‘round the clock in cavernous single-screen movie theaters harkening back to Hollywood’s golden age, rich in cinematic history and replete with big wide aisles and accommodating balconies. Horton Plaza had the Carbillo and the Plaza Theater, both operated by Walnut Properties, whose owner Vince Miranda maintained a suite at the Hotel San Diego (which he also owned).
The Aztec, Casino, and Bijou were also part of the chain, 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, DVR, and whatever the newest BFD is.
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.
I’d just arrived on the left coast courtesy of Greyhound, nineteen years old with armpit length dark hair, wearing a sleeveless Led Zep T-shirt and stone washed jeans and carrying a knapsack towards what looked to be the center of town.
When I reached the grassy plaza with its anachronistic fountain, street preachers and unspeakable restrooms, I encountered a Hare Krishna, head shaved except for a small ponytail, who told me in one long run-on sentence of the eternal glory of lord Krishna and about a nearby temple where I could sleep and eat for free if I wanted.
This sounded pretty good to a hungry kid fresh off the bus from rural New England with not a lotta duckets in my pockets and no idea where to go or what to do next.
But then I glanced past Zippy the Pinhead’s dandruff-free shoulder and spotted the Cabrillo, bathed in the flickering rainbow glow of a thousand faux-Vegas neon flashers, its facade plastered with multi-tiered film posters, the marquee fired up with enough candlepower to confuse planes landing at nearby Lindberg Field.
As if in a hazy dream of my own fancy and construction, I was inexorably drawn toward that oasis of hypnotic lights, spurred on to even greater haste by the chimerical promise emblazoned across the marquee - “Bruce Lee Triple Feature.”
This, I soon found, was typical fare at the Cabrillo and the Plaza. Same for the Aztec and Casino theaters a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Action, horror and softcore sexploitation movies, matched with two or three older films and sometimes packaged as theme-specific “marathons” - a day of Clint Eastwood westerns or four “Planet Of The Apes” films shown back to back, for instance, the sort of lowest common denominator marketing that still filled a lot of moviehouses back in the day.
All four businesses were operated by Walnut Properties, a company specializing in second-run theaters. During the early '80s, Walnut also ran the historic Balboa Theater on Fourth and E Street, as well as an X-rated moviehouse just down the same block, the Pussycat.
The day after my all-night kung fu-a-thon (some of which I slept through), I found a place to live at the Palms Hotel on 12th and Market, paying $70.00 a month for a leprechaun sized windowless room with barely enough square footage to fit a twin size mattress - I had to open my door and step into the hallway to get out of bed.
(I took these pics of the Palms Hotel 25 years apart – 1979 and 2004. In the late ‘70s, it was across from a DeTox center and thrift store – today, it’s across from condos and the trolley runs past it down 12th)
While ostensibly job-hunting downtown, I became a fixture at Walnut’s theaters, catching at least two or three triple-features a week. I mentioned to the manager of the Casino, a short Filipino guy named Freddie Bantug, that I was looking for a job and he hired me as an usher, ticket taker and snack bar clerk.
At first, I mainly worked the Casino, at 643 Fifth Avenue in the middle of the block, and at the Aztec, which rounded the southeast corner at G Street. Already a half-century old at the time, the Casino was in decent repair with only partially threadbare carpet in its spacious lobby and fresh paint covering what little wall space wasn’t taken up by posters of “coming attractions.”
In the auditorium, most of the seats, while oft-repaired, were intact, with seat cushions tenderized to perfection by decades of happily planted derrieres. It had a full-length single-balcony that was actually open most of the time, unlike at other all-nighters where they’d been declared unsafe by the city and/or where insurance failed to cover balcony-related claims.
Originally, the theater had a small restaurant built onto it as well, the Casino Café (see above).
However, by the late '70s, the adjoining enterprise was a porno emporium called the Foxy Theater where a guy behind mirrored glass slipped you a ticket to see X-rated 8mm and 16mm silent film loops continuously screened in an airless room full of folding chairs and several furtive men seated in a way that put as much distance between them as was physically possible in the confined space.
On the corner of Fifth and G, the 500-seat Aztec Theater was part of a structure originally called the Bancroft Building, opened in 1905 as a meat market but remodeled and rechristened “The California Theater” in 1919.
In the thirties, the name was changed again, to the Fox Aztec and then eventually just Aztec. Its corner location afforded added space for multiple banks of movie posters, displayed in interconnected tiers of glass showcases wrapping around the building and lining the entranceway all the way up to the turnstyle at the door.
The posters promoted the current double or triple bill, next week’s coming attractions, “sometime in the future” attractions that may never actually play the Aztec (if the poster was particularly cool, like, with lots of blood or cleavage) and, just for the hell of it, maybe what’s playing down the street at the Casino, Plaza or Cabrillo. Permanent letters on the front of the marquee proclaimed "First Run Till You've Seen It."
Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, the seats were decrepit and cramped and there were ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony so it had a much less “old fashioned” feeling than the Casino. And it was more prone to trouble, for some reason. Perhaps something to do with the claustrophobic atmosphere and a tendency to specialize in back-to-back slasher flicks.
Not to mention endless screenings of Cheech And Chong’s “Up In Smoke,” which always brought out a crowd who, while doubling our snack bar sales, tended to change the air quality of the theater in a way that undercover police (but never fellow patrons!) objected to.
The same ticket takers and clerks worked all the downtown theaters, wore the same red uniform tops with black trim and dark pants, and some of us spent shifts covering each other’s breaks by walking from locale to locale. Management was identical at each place, we swapped the same prints between different theater projectors and all the Walnut-run operations shared the same aging, tacky, low rent, held-together-with-chicken-wire-and-glue porno vibe, whether you were trying to avoid sitting in someone’s ejaculate at the Pussycat or taking in a James Bond marathon up the street or around the corner at one of our (only slightly) more respectable theaters.
Movies screened around the clock, or at least nearly so. I soon noticed patrons who showed up just about every day – aimless, jobless and often homeless, seeming to subsist on little more than (real butter) popcorn, candy, coffee and soda or whatever they’d snuck in under their clothes, sleeping in the back rows and sometimes even bathing in the men’s room sink unless asked to leave or when the theater closed for cleaning.
They’d return a few hours later, with or without fresh clothes, to sit through the same movies again and again, day after day, often migrating from theater to theater. My boss Freddie called these guys “the regulars,” and by that he meant they were at the theater regularly, not that they were regular people, because there’s nothing regular about a guy like, say, “Wolfman.”
Wolfman (that’s what everyone called him, and what he called himself) was a little over six feet tall, pasty complexion, the front of his hair shaved into an Eddie Munster “widow’s peak” and hirsute to the point where it could be said he had a full-body beard.
As if he weren’t distinctive looking enough already, he filed all of his front teeth into sharp, spiky fangs, giving him a fierce demeanor that scared people, even – especially – when he smiled. Wolfman’s monthly SSI check never seemed to cover the rent at even the lowest priced flophouses. I don’t know what qualified him for SSI, he didn’t seem particularly disabled, physically or mentally. Well, maybe mentally, as things turned out.
I don’t think he drank, at least I never saw him drinking and he didn’t reek of Thunderbird like some regulars. I don’t know his real name or what he did and where he kept his belongings when he wasn’t spending days at a time living by the flickering light of the movie projector. It would seem that he just decided one day to live at the movies.
He especially loved horror flicks (duh, dude called himself Wolfman!), lived for them, lived WITH them, absorbing obscure minutia and memorizing endless trivia about the objects of his obsession which he’d spout at the slightest provocation. He frequently got into arguments with theater employees or other patrons, usually over something to do with the movies, sometimes becoming downright violent, but more on Wolfy in a moment.
There wasn’t much to the job itself, any drone could put on a red suit and sell tickets, fill containers with popcorn and soda, count money, sweep carpets. But everyone I met who worked there, day and night and overtime for a measly $3.50 to $4.50 an hour, seemed to really love their jobs.
In my case, I occasionally got to flirt with a pretty girl (sneaking her a free coke refill was a good opener). And there was, I guess you’d say, a mild and probably pathetic “power trip” involved, wearing a “uniform,” swinging around that big black flashlight, entrusted with the keys to the snack bar and money till, access to all the nooks and crannies in the projector booth, the back rooms, behind the screen.
And we were empowered to – if faced with an extreme situation – “refuse admittance,” just like it said we reserved the right to do on the cash register. We even had the power, if not always the ability, to eject customers from the premises, at least those patrons who weren’t doubled over with laughter from being asked to leave by a guy in a red suit waving around a big black flashlight.
The main thing we loved about the job was THE MOVIES! Walnut employees could sign in for free at any of the theaters to see any movie, any time, and were encouraged to do so, to be up on all the circulating features. Most all of us were devotional film buffs, the kind of JuJu Bead junkies seduced by the sound of mammoth Simplex movie projectors and its big spinning reels, who had no problem sitting through five, seven, ten or more features a week.
I think most of us genuinely felt we were “in the movie business” and it was a serious and solemn part of the job, to personally view every single new feature (or old feature, or feature we’ve already seen a buncha times but it’s just so doggone cool and maybe that girl I gave the free soda to will show up again, this time without her bitchy girlfriend…). Business was good, on weekends the house was often sold out, some decent movies were coming out in the late 70s and early 80s and all in all it was a pretty cool gig. Did I mention the big black flashlight?
Few things in my life can compare to the anticipation I used to feel on Thursday nights, in the middle of the a.m. - standing on a rickety ladder on 5th Avenue and putting up the Casino marquee letters announcing the new week’s lineup of features. Usually, I’d be back at the theater myself a few hours later, well off my shift, just to catch that first “virgin” showing, and most times there’d be half a dozen other Walnut staffers sprinkled in the crowd as well. By the end of the weekend, we’d pretty much all viewed the new flicks and were debating their merits or lack thereof in company quorums held behind the snack bars, between intermissions.
The mix of brand new films and older features was a cost effective way for Walnut to offer multiple bills, cheap and ‘round the clock, and even schlocky B-movies that had already been on TV were fun to see on a big screen, in that environment, with an audience. How can you say you’ve truly experienced “Planet Of The Apes” if you’ve never been deafened by a room full of people who erupt like socker hooligans when Charlton Heston growls “Get your sticking paws off me, you d*ed dirty ape!”
And not all the movies were 2nd run - we had a print of “Alien” on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo to the rafters for fourteen days straight, circulating it between theaters after that as a guaranteed draw and selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup features it was paired with (“Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” and “Battlestar Galactica” for instance, two re-edited TV shows that cost the company almost nothing to rent).
Sometimes, the feature bills were totally unplanned, just randomly matched movies that by rights should never have run back to back –
“The Muppet Movie” with Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” comes to mind as one odd pairing. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film “Mad Max” floating around, a dependably popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama “The Accused” and the farcical “Airplane,” among others.
I liked the themed packages best, these often brought out a colorful cult crowd who showed up in big numbers and ate a lot of expensive snack bar crap. “Phantom Of The Paradise,” a rock and roll camp classic from 1974, played on a triple bill with Ken Russell’s “Tommy” and the Rocky Horror semi-sequel “Shock Treatment.”
Recycled older prints, long out of theater circulation but too new for TV, were also part of Walnut’s short-lived secret for success. The more violent, the more seats sold. Some prints were such audience favorites that they turned up every few months, always drawing repeat customers and big appreciative crowds. “Rolling Thunder” (1977) was one such perennial, kind of a sordid precursor to the “Rambo” movies with William Devane as a POW who comes home from Vietnam, witnesses his family brutally murdered and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance.
“The Toolbox Murders” (1978) was another, about a handyman who savagely offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill and – gulp - a nail gun! “Dawn Of The Dead” (1978) sold out weekend AND weekday showings all the time, while “Friday The 13th” (1980) was so popular that, at one point, it was screening in three theaters at the same time.
The audience’s support and enthusiasm for such celluloid bloodbaths was disturbing, at least to me (certainly Walnut loved those customers, they kept us in business). From the lobby, we could hear them roar with applause at certain intervals and be able to say to ourselves “Oh, that’s the part where the guy burns the junkie’s balls off with a flamethrower” and then screams of delirious laughter where we’d know “that must be when he gives her the toothpick with the eyeball on it and says ‘beats a sharp stick in the eye.’”
When we screened Walter Hill’s surreal fantasy “The Warriors” (1979), about teenage gangs waging war in a fictionalized New York City underworld, everyone in the theater always chanted along with the villain when he taunts the “good guys,” ad infinitum in a nasal whine, “Warriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and PLAY!!!”
When the Warriors finally did indeed come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a collective cheer loud and sustained enough to nearly bring down the half-century old roof.
At first, talking to our customers and meeting so many fellow movie buffs was like finally finding myself a home on the island of misfit toys. That said, the sort of movies we usually showed attracted an oddball clientele and I didn’t always enjoy chatting up the patrons.
In 1980, we ran a cultish little flick called “Fade To Black,” with Dennis Christopher as a teenage movie fanatic who commits several murders by reenacting his favorite celluloid death scenes. It’s basically about being so obsessed with movies that you can’t distinguish them from reality. Christopher appears in one scene with half his face painted white as Dracula, his hair slicked back on one side only, while the other side of his face and hair is “normal,” just before he commits one of his most gruesome murders (wherein he drinks his female victim’s blood). The first time a customer arrived with his own face made up in exactly the same way, I considered invoking that “right to refuse admittance” sign on the register.
Then there was a guy at the Aztec, with a long beard and needle marks who I don’t think was a diabetic Hassidic, who got more and more amped up as he sat through something like twenty straight hours of “Blood Feast” (1963), “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) and “Color Me Blood Red” (1964), three infamously violent “splatter” films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis.
When he started shouting and swearing at the screen, and at other patrons, in some kind of increasingly deluded state, nobody wanted to be the one to ask him to leave, he seemed dangerous (though at least a dozen other customers ignored the commotion and kept watching the movies).
Someone called police but they never showed and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4am, announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, only to reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.
It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. There were weeks I couldn’t stand the thought of walking through the auditorium one more time to be faced with scenes from, say, “The Awakening,” a really boring 1980 mummy flick where the only drama is trying to figure out what’s moving slower – the plot, the mummy or Charlton Heston.
“Prophecy” (1979) by director John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”) was another one everyone hated - made out to be a horrific monster movie in ads and posters, it was instead a preachy tract on environmentalism where the audience never even got to see a BEM (Bug Eyed Monster).
Ditto for 1979’s “The Fog,” where the only monsters in the movie were bouncing around under Adrienne Barbeau’s sweater. And, despite my admiration for Bruce Lee’s prototypal oeuvre, it was hard to get into the badly dubbed copycat kung fu flicks we were usually saddled with (starring “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le” or “Bruce Lei” or “Bruce L. Eee”). Still, there was always something different unspooling down the street and, even if all those movies sucked, the marquees would soon be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.
The Casino was my favorite place to work overnights. Up in the rear of the balcony was a door to a storage room where spare uniforms and “wet floor” signs were kept. The room had a small window facing outside the building, just over the top of the flashing marquee, and anyone paying attention could probably have spotted the evidence of how popular the spot was for clerks who liked to smoke a joint during their break, blowing the smoke out over 5th Avenue.
I got caught in there once, not smoking but making out with a teenage Hispanic girl I’d seduced with free Kit-Kats and Coke (in a cup, not on a mirror). The manager wasn’t so mad about the girl in the room, but I nearly got fired because I hadn’t paid for the candy yet (they counted inventory between shifts and we were responsible for every last nougat and bon-bon).
The Aztec at the end of the block always seemed to host more trouble than the Casino, as I speculated on before. In 1981, during a showing of “Pink Flamingos” (1973) and “Polyester” (new at the time and showing in “Oderama,” with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of well over a dozen flamboyantly dressed men, most in drag, weren’t even in the theater yet when a violent battle erupted between them on the sidewalk.
Freddie always referred to it after that as “the fifteen fggt fight,” barely able to control his laughter every time it came up. It was an astonishingly cartoon sight and sound, all these guys screeching insults and flaming at their hottest, slapping each other and crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it went on forever while we waited for the cops to come break it up. The fifteen fggt fight is etched in my memory far more clearly than anything from “Pink Flamingos” or “Polyester.”
I never minded being sent to work the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features like 1981’s summer biggie “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (albeit backed with yet another yellowish print of “Mad Max”). Usually, though, they were screening schlocky also-rans like “The Day After Halloween,” not a sequel to the John Carpenter hit “Halloween” but an unrelated Australian movie originally called “Snapshot” and later retitled in order to cash in on the other film’s fame.
I remember fielding refund demands from angry customers over that one, which usually only happened when the films broke, didn’t screen on time or were shown with the reels in the wrong order (this happened more often than you might think).
Occasionally, I manned the snack bar at the Balboa, on the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and E street. This once-majestic 1,500 seat theater was built in 1924, designed for stage and screen with a single-balcony, ornate chandeliers, an orchestra pit and whimsical twenty-eight foot tall vertical fountains built into the walls on either side of the stage which used to operate at full force during intermissions.
The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s and then was used almost exclusively to screen movies after 1932, through Hollywood’s most golden era. Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into hard times and disrepair in the fifties, until it was almost demolished for a parking lot in 1959. Russo Family Enterprises bought the building, remodeled it and the theater was run by the blue chip Fox chain until being leased to Walnut in the late 70s.
Many of us loved the moviegoing experience of going into that dusty, fantastical palace, though I realize not everyone can appreciate the guilty glory of stuffing popcorn down your esophagus beneath those monster sized chandeliers while grooving on a Blaxploitation triple feature of “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones” and the all-time baddest of afro-mofo badasses “Blacula” (played by William Marshall, who would one day become the King Of Cartoons on Pee Wee’s Playhouse).
The Balboa was seamlessly absorbed into the chain and the clerks wore the same red uniform tops and black pants as at the Cabrillo, the Plaza, the Aztec, the Casino - and just down the block, at the Pussycat Theatre.
(4th Avenue Pussycat circa 1979)
The Pussycat was notorious for sidewalk posters that assaulted passersby with graphic (not quite explicit) images from triple-X features with titles like “Talk Dirty To Me,” “Taboo,” “The Budding Of Brie” and “A Scent Of Heather” (no, not in “Oderama”). The décor was immediately seedy, even seen from a distance - faded and cracked tile lit by flashing red and purple lights.
I didn’t like working at the Pussycat as much as I thought I would. The novelty of fifteen-foot tall genitalia wore thin after the first few hours and the non-stop moaning and groaning (usually listless overdubs recorded by bored, fully-clothed “thespians”) quickly grated on the nerves to the point where I could barely recall what actual, factual sex sounded like.
Plus, I hated handling money peeled from the sticky palms of sweaty looking men who smelled like a gangbang where nobody remembered to bring towels.
People literally hid their faces when they walked up to the Pussycat, and the first thing the manager said to me on my first night of training was “If you see someone you recognize, pretend they’re a complete stranger no matter how well you know them.” This was good advice and later that night, when I saw the guy who worked at a sandwich shop down the street, I resisted the urge to say “Hey, Scotty” even as I vowed never to eat a sandwich there again.
For awhile, the Pussycat had a swinger couple, in their early 30s maybe, good looking, who’d come in at least once or twice a week to watch a movie and then, well, put on a little show of their own. The clerks liked this couple and we found a lot of excuses to whip out our big black flashlight and do an auditorium walk-through.
Some things the other clerks told me about their own encounters with The Swinger Couple seemed even then to be the stuff of urban myth, but I did see the two of them in action, in the seats, and can attest that they were into public sex in a big way. They never talked to me, but I often saw them talking to other patrons, before or after (and at least once during) their private showtime, and usually the couple would leave with a patron or two exiting right behind, if not with, them.
This was not an aspect of social interaction I’d ever encountered before.
In the years since, I’ve spent an obsessive amount of time wondering what possible “pickup lines” were appropriate and effective in that particular situation –
“Excuse me, but it’d be a shame for that erection to go to waste.”
“The two of us are doing an in-depth survey on threesomes for the Kinsey Institute, can you help us out?”
“You know, my wife can do that with her hands tied behind her back.”
“Did you ever want to be in your own porno movie?”
Or perhaps, simply, “F*ck my wife…please.”
I only spent a few weeks at the Pussycat but, when I went back to the Aztec and Casino, the two 5th Avenue theaters were switching off showing X-rated features as well, serving a three-pack of porno at the Aztec one week and at the Casino the next.
Even the non-X features were getting increasingly nasty, as was the neighborhood at night – you can actually get a taste of this in the 1979 film “Hardcore.” One scene shows downtown San Diego at its Sodom & Gomorrha peak, with George C. Scott stumbling through wall-to-wall porno theaters and adult bookstores in search of information about his missing porn star daughter, barely concealing his disgust as he makes his way down 4th and 5th Avenues, dodging hunchbacked junkies and drooling perverts at every step. It wasn’t an unrealistic picture.
As things got sleazier, all the theaters, X and R, were closing earlier and opening later, even on weekends. Gang graffiti was becoming more common, as were altercations between patrons. Wolfman got taken out by police one night, along with a big bruiser he’d gotten into a fistfight with, and it took several weeks before he talked Freddie into letting him “move” back in. When he began coming around again, he was scary looking, even for him, strung out and hollow, like the denizens of the sidewalk exposed to the light in “Hardcore.”
One morning at the Casino, I was clearing out the auditorium for the cleaning crew and went to shake this bearded, homeless looking older guy, a regular who came around a lot, to wake him up. The guy slumped over, cold, blue and dead. It was some sort of seizure or attack I think, all I remember is someone saying later that he definitely died from “natural causes.”
Another night, Freddie and I had to bounce a drunk guy who dropped and smashed a liquor bottle on the cement floor under his seat – our bouncee showed up later, after we closed, standing outside the locked doors, swearing and waving a handgun around. Cops showed up within two minutes of us calling and he easily surrendered but these incidents were just two of many that had me wondering if I was really cut out to be “in the movie business.”
Things downtown were changing, getting more dicey, more dangerous. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the pay, which seemed to peak at $4.50 hourly for clerks and apparently little more for managers, judging from the high turnover.
Then there were rumors of the buildings being up for sale, or that the theaters were slated for closure as part of the new Gaslamp Quarter redevelopment plans (the entire district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980). A lot of longtime Walnut staffers were quitting to take jobs elsewhere, leaving barely enough employees to cover even the shortened hours. I was doing a lot of double shifts and overtime, so dead on my feet some nights that I was falling asleep in the seats on my breaks.
In summer ’81, the Aztec was screening this really dumb chop sock-y flick called “Kung Fu Of Eight Drunkards,” about martial artists who develop a method of kicking ass under the influence (I sh*t thee not…). Wolfman was there, he loved kung fu flicks, as were five karate students, fresh from class and still wearing their uniforms with (mostly dark colored) achievement belts. Who knows how or why, but Wolfy got into a fight with the karate guys.
I was behind the snack bar, I heard shouting and swearing and ran into the auditorium to find a scene straight out of the movie flashing up on the screen…call it “Wolfman Versus The Karate Kidz.” Wolfy was spinning around, kicking and throwing punches wildly in all directions while the karate kids were using their fists of fury to connect quite a few blows of their own, on each other as much as on Wolfman.
The rambunctious crowd egged them on, cheering like a prizefight, guys kept getting shoved into the seats and several chairs got broken up during the melee. I yelled and waved my big black flashlight, nobody listened, bodies kept flying, cops were summoned and Wolfy and his fellow combatants beat feat through the rear exit doors just as the sound of sirens reached the theater.
After that, we weren’t allowed to let Wolfman in any more. I don’t know who handed him the decree or when it happened – I never saw him again. The broken chairs remained busted for the remainder of my tenure on the downtown all-nighter circuit, which, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was drawing to a close.
My favorite place to take a meal break was in the basement of the Aztec, access to which meant you had to go outside, round the corner, unlock a gate and go down stairs to enter a long low-ceilinged room below the theater. On row after row of makeshift wooden shelves, tucked into manila envelopes and file folders, were literally thousands of movie posters, press kits, film stills and lobby cards.
The theater had been keeping and filing away all the film company promotional material since the sixties and the accumulation filled the entire basement, all stamped “Aztec” in big red letters on the back. You can imagine that, to even the most casual movie buff, this was a near magical place to hang out, to just pick up a few stacks of paper and unfold the posters to admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism.
The ads for the movies ranged from Bob Hope’s “Call Me Bwana” (1963) through John Wayne triple features, the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “American Graffiti” (1973) and “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978), 70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, softcore porn – it was an amazing archive, chronicling the best and worst of two decades of cinema history.
My favorite posters were the ones with hyperbole heavy taglines –
“Astro Zombies” - “See brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!” (1969)
“The Pigkeeper’s Daughter” – “She brought a new meaning to the phrase ‘Driving A Hard Bargain’!” (1972)
“Invasion of the Bee Girls” - “They’ll love the very life out of your body!” (1973)
“Wham-Bam Thank You, Spaceman” – “He’s a UFO Romeo!” (1973)
And the graphics – how could anyone not appreciate the glorious stupidity of a poster like the one for “Green Slime” (1968), with a painting of a busty young woman floating around in outer space, wearing a skintight spacesuit, high heels, yes I said high heels – no gloves! - her glass bubble helmet UNATTACHED to her spacesuit, with a CUTAWAY in her spacesuit that exposes her CLEAVAGE and looking mildly displeased as one of the titular slime tries to slip its tentacles around her thigh.
(Sidewalk in front of the Casino and part of the marquee, as seen in the 1979 movie A Force of One, starring Chuck Norris)
In July 1981, the manager of the Aztec told us the theater was about to be sold and the new owners might want to remodel the building for something completely different, maybe a multiple-screen moviehouse. He recommended that we all put together our resumes because other theater sales and possible closures were imminent.
I asked what would happen to all the posters, stills, lobby cards and press kits in the Aztec basement and he said, so far as he knew, everything would probably be thrown out. I’ve often wondered what happened to that treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. Considering ever-rising collector’s prices, the mint-condition contents of that basement today would be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars – conservatively.
With both my job satisfaction and job security in deep decline, I was walking home from work at about 5 a.m. when someone I couldn’t see clearly leapt out from behind a parked car and struck me on the back of my head with something hard and heavy. I woke up in an ambulance, my wallet still in my back pants pocket with some $40 or so tucked into it.
Earlier that evening, at the Casino, I’d bounced a surly teen customer, I forget over what but I’ve always assumed the guy was my assailant. After I took a few stitches to my head, I caught a cab back to the theater and gave the day manager my notice. He asked me to work one more week before quitting and I may have said yes but I don’t think I ever went back, not even to pick up my final paycheck.
I moved back to the east coast and took a job with a record store chain, staying a little over a year. By the time I finally made my way back downtown to get my ticket punched again at an all-nighter, it was too late.
They were all gone.
The Cabrillo Theater remained in operation until 1982, as did the Plaza (renamed for awhile the Owl). Both were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza Shopping Mall with its 140 retail shops spread out over five Byzantine levels. A United Artists seven-screen movie theater opened in Horton Plaza in 1985. In 1997, Pacific Theatres built a $15 million, 15-screen megaplex theater, the Pacific Gaslamp at 701 5th Avenue at G Street near Horton Plaza.
The Aztec and Casino theaters on Fifth Avenue closed and reopened under various owners for a few more years before the doors were padlocked for good. The theater buildings were acquired by the Hollywood-based development firm CIM in 1996, as was the space where the Foxy Theater used to show porno reels.
By 2,000, CIM had converted the entire 15,000 square foot area into a two story shopping complex currently housing a Ghirardelli Soda Fountain And Chocolate Shop, an Urban Outfitters branch and a sportswear store. Elements from the Aztec can still be seen in Urban Outfitters (exposed brick walls and steel framework) and a revamped version of the old Casino marquee now serves as the main signage for Ghirardelli’s.
The Balboa was boarded up and left to rot for most of the next twenty years, even after it was acquired through eminent domain (condemning) by the city of San Diego’s Center City Development Corporation. A $10 million dollar restoration plan for the historic 79 year old building was approved by a City Council committee in 2002, with the theater re-opening in early 2008, to great civic acclaim. The movie marquee was taken down and a replica of the original rectangular "Balboa" was installed (below photo shows the reopened Balboa in February 2008).
There are currently only two single-screen moviehouses still operating in the San Diego area - the La Paloma in Encinitas (built in 1927) and the Ken Cinema (opened 1946) in Kensington.
(8-29-73 local movie ads: Besides the Pussycat Theaters, here's proof that even the Mann theater chain briefly screened hardcore porn! Tho they couldn't bring themselves to print the NAME of the porno....)
WALNUT’S SAN DIEGO PROPERTIES
THE AZTEC THEATRE, 655 Fifth Avenue: Situated on the corner of Fifth and G, the 500-seat theater was part of a structure originally called the Bancroft Building, opened in 1905 as a meat market but remodeled and rechristened the California Theatre in 1919.
The Fox theater chain bought it in 1936 and changed the name to the Fox Aztec, remodeling the façade with plans by pop architect Clifford Balch. The venue later became known simply as the Aztec.
The theater's corner location afforded added space for multiple banks of movie posters, displayed in interconnected tiers of glass showcases wrapping around the building and lining the entranceway all the way up to the turnstile at the door.
Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, and the theater hall had ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony, referred to in the trade as "stadium seating" with two levels laid out at a continuous sloping angle instead of with risers.
The Fox theater chain bought it in 1936 and remodeled its façade, changing the name to the Fox Aztec.
According to Donald H. Wolfe's 2006 book The Black Dahlia Files, in December 1946, soon-to-be-murdered actress Elizabeth Short was found sleeping at the Fox Aztec by a clerk, after a screening of The Al Jolson Story. Short had arrived in San Diego broke and couldn't afford any other place to sleep. The clerk invited Short to stay at her home over the next couple of weeks, until the actress made her way toward L.A. and into history. Her mutilated body was discovered January 15, 1947.
Miss Short’s visit to the Aztec, however, may not have been to see the Jolson film after all – a local theater history blogger at myspace.com/SanDiegoCinerama has found the below ad, showing what WAS playing at the Aztec the week before Short went to L.A.
Strangely, and somewhat disturbingly, the movie Betty Short almost certainly saw was actually THE BLUE DAHLIA. Betty Short historians, take note (as far as I know, this odd twist to the Black Dahlia story was completely undiscovered, until SanDiegoCinerama’s research surfaced recently).
The venue later became known simply as the Aztec and was run by Russo Family Enterprises (later called El Dorado), until purchased in 1973 by A&S Theater Corporation, owned by Charlie Smith and Wesley "Andy" Andrews. The duo had previously run a 16mm X-rated house called the Little Art at the southeast corner of Third and E Street, where they reportedly earned the money to buy and remodel the Aztec.
Smith and Andrews reopened the Aztec on January 23, 1974, screening a triple feature that included Paint Your Wagon and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, with Robert Mitchum. The duo also operated a snack bar facing the sidewalk, as well as a game room separated from the concession stand by a wrought-iron grill and with its own door to the sidewalk (many assumed the arcade was part of the theater itself).
According to Aztec projectionist Dan Whitehead, "Andy and Charlie's motto on the west reader board of the marquee read 'It's first run 'til you've seen it!' This was actually the brainchild of the night projectionist, Henry 'Hank' Le Clair."
Walnut purchased the theater in the late '70s.
THE CASINO THEATRE, 643 Fifth Avenue: Opened in 1913, this movie house originally had a small restaurant built onto it, the Casino Café. Walnut Properties purchased the building from the Russos in the early '70s. By 1978, the Casino's adjoining enterprise was a porno emporium called the Foxy Theatre -- run by Bob Clark -- which screened mostly silent X-rated 8mm and 16mm film loops.
After Walnut sold the buildings, the Casino and Aztec theaters closed, reopened, and then closed again a few times through the '80s, under different management and often as X-rated houses (the Aztec briefly served as a Pussycat locale).
(Sidewalk in front of the Casino and part of the marquee, as seen in the 1979 movie A Force of One, starring Chuck Norris)
Having been boarded up for good, the buildings were purchased for $250,000 by the Santa Monica development firm CIM Group LLC, who by 2000 had converted the entire 15,000-square-foot area into a two-story shopping complex.
The locale currently houses a Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, an Urban Outfitters branch, and a sportswear store. Elements from the Aztec can still be seen in Urban Outfitters (exposed brick walls and steel framework), and a revamped version of the old Casino marquee now serves as the main signage for Ghirardelli's.
THE BALBOA THEATRE, 850 Fourth Avenue: This venue on the southwest corner of Fourth and E was built in 1924. Designed for stage and screen, it featured a single-level balcony, gold metallic wall paint, a gilded ceiling with ornate chandeliers, and a sizable orchestra pit.
The original seating capacity -- 1513 -- commemorated the year Vasco Nuñez de Balboa arrived in San Diego, and whimsical 28-foot-tall vertical waterfalls were built into the walls on either side of the stage. The waterfalls operated at full force during intermissions.
The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s, until shifting to motion picture screenings. A neon marquee was added in 1930 and the name changed to El Teatro Balboa, to feature Spanish-language movies and stage shows, with usherettes often dressed in faux-bullfighter gear.
In the '50s, a new movie-style marquee was installed, as the Balboa began showing more motion pictures. Downtown's heavy military population made sexploitation fare very popular, and the marquee constantly touted movies starring the likes of Bardo, Diana Dors, Connie Stevens, and Jayne Mansfied.
Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into hard times and disrepair in the '50s, until it was almost demolished for a parking lot in 1959.
Russo Family Enterprises bought the building, spending $125,000 to remodel it in 1964. The City of San Diego placed the Balboa on its local Register of Historical Places in 1972, and it was being run by the blue-chip Fox chain until leased to Walnut in the mid-'70s, in a deal negotiated by George Tate.
Walnut squeezed additional profits from the Balboa by renting out portions of the building. Recalls head projectionist Dan Whitehead, "There was a tattoo artist for many years who called himself Doc Webb -- his shop was originally down on West Broadway, but he later moved it into the Balboa, where those storefronts were on the Fourth Avenue side of the building. The Mark Shoe Repair shop was owned by two Greek brothers who moved it from the Yuma Building [631 Fifth] into the Balboa building."
(Yuma Building, and next door to the Yuma, circa 1979/1980)
The City filed eminent domain proceedings to acquire the property at the beginning of 1980, ultimately succeeding. The Balboa closed April 6, 1986. It was still boarded up in November 2002, when a $10 million restoration plan was finally approved by a City Council committee.
In 2008, the Balboa was open again and hosting both stage plays and musical performances.
THE CABRILLO THEATRE on Plaza Street, facing Horton Plaza's fountain, opened in 1918. Miranda leased it in the early '70s -- his first San Diego theater -- using the locale most often to exhibit low-budget, second-run action and horror flicks, whose exploitative titles looked fabulous on the oversize marquees.
"We screened The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the Cabrillo the week it was released in 1973," recalls Walnut head projectionist Whitehead. "The house was packed for all but the earliest and latest showings. It made so much money that the studio jerked it out of our second-run houses and put it in the first-run theaters."
THE PLAZA THEATRE, also on Plaza Street, opened April 13, 1913. Miranda purchased it in the early '70s from Preferred Theatres, Inc., in a package deal that included the El Cajon Theater (later converted to a Pussycat).
Under Walnut, the Plaza began showing soft-core and sexploitation movies, not altogether out of character for a building that had once housed brothels in its second-story hotel. The hotel part of the building was demolished in 1966, but under Miranda's stewardship, the Plaza's gloriously tacky façade became, like its next-door sister, the Cabrillo, just as tarted up and all-accommodating as any lady of the evening.
The Plaza (renamed the Owl for a while) and the Cabrillo remained open through late 1982. Both theaters were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza Shopping Mall. A United Artists seven-screen movie theater opened in Horton Plaza in 1985. In 1997, Pacific Theatres built a $15 million, 15-screen megaplex theater, the Pacific Gaslamp at 701 Fifth Avenue at G Street near Horton Plaza.
OFF BROADWAY/CABARET, 314-316 F Street: Built in 1913, the venue was originally known as the Lyceum, and then the Liberty, before becoming the Hollywood Burlesque in 1936. The 1948 film Hollywood Burlesque was shot in the bawdy hall -- once dubbed "San Diego's most famous dirty little secret" -- featuring well-known striptease dancers (including the iconic Lili St. Cyr) and various vaudeville acts.
Owner Bob Johnson had started at the Liberty as a concession clerk; he ended up with a house on Fort Stockton Drive, a Cadillac, a box at the Del Mar racetrack, and his own thoroughbred Hollywood Theatre Stables, plus he ran the popular downtown hangout Bob Johnson's Sports Palace. Business at the Burlesque died down as porn became more prolific.
"The decision to close the Hollywood in 1970 was difficult but inevitable," says author Jaye Furlonger, in her award-winning paper San Diego's Bygone Burlesque: The Famous Hollywood Theatre. "In a 1969 San Diego Union newspaper article entitled 'Burlesque House Stripped of its Glory,' Johnston claimed never to think about retiring from the theatre, but he openly lamented burlesque as a slowly dying art. Business was terrible, [his wife] Frances was at home most of the time suffering from the arthritis she’d developed as a dancer, and Johnston was now in his seventies (though he still also ran the Palace Bar next door). Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Hollywood folded in less than three months, after its 11:00 p.m. show on February 9, 1970. The official word was that Johnston wanted to devote as much time as possible to his first and only grandchild, Robert Johnston, Jr. Other reasons surely included his advancing age, the death of burlesque, and pressure from the City of San Diego and developers who aimed to turn San Diego’s “tenderloin district” into valuable commercial real estate."
Vincent Miranda negotiated a $3 million deal to purchase around two square blocks downtown, including two hotel spaces, several retail shops, and the old Hollywood Burlesque. He refurbished the theater exterior and interior, spending around $250,000 to remodel and install red carpeting and wallpaper.
The resultant 417-seat playhouse was renamed the Off Broadway Theatre and reopened March 16, 1971, a day officially declared by the City "Off Broadway Day." The debut production was Anything Goes, featuring movie star Dorothy Lamour and Sterling Holloway (best known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh).
Next up was Plaza Suite, with Dana Andrews and Pamela Britton, and then a musical, Forty Carats, with Lost in Space's Angela Cartwright. Later productions included Rose Marie in Guys and Dolls and Bob Crane (Hogan's Heroes) in Beginner's Luck. (Crane was doing the same play in 1978 when murdered in a Scottsdale AZ hotel room).
Miranda closed the Off Broadway in 1975, in the midst of various disputes with City officials over this and other Walnut downtown properties. Walnut later converted the space to an X-rated movie house (as the Cabaret, and briefly as a Pussycat). It was closed by the city in 1980 under eminent domain proceedings.
Miranda sued and won a $100,000 judgment from the city but in the process gave up his stake in the property. It was briefly renamed the Lyceum again -- as well as operated as a porno house called Cinema XXX for a time -- until the building was demolished in 1985 to make way for the Horton Plaza parking garage.
For a detailed - and fascinating! - history of this theater when it was still the Hollywood Burlesque, I direct you to an award winning article by local historian Jaye Furlonger, which includes photos of the venue, of vaudeville and burlesque cast members, and of owner Bob Johnson and family: http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/v51-1/pdf/2005-1_hollywood.pdf
The Crest, the Star, the Palomar, and the Towne: In the early '80s, Walnut also ran these four theaters in Oceanside, purchased from North County movie-house and drive-in impresarios the Siegel Brothers. "The Crest and Star were absolutely beautiful theaters," recalls Walnut projectionist Dan Whitehead. "They were built deluxe in every sense of the word. They both had stereo sound systems -- magnetic oxide-track stereo; there was no such thing as an optical stereo sound track when those houses were built -- and movable masking, which is the black fabric around the edges of the screen and two drapes in front of the screen. Both theaters had title drapes, which means they parted in the middle, immediately in front of the screen. A grand drape in front of that would be pulled up toward the ceiling, 'waterfall' fashion. The waterfall drape at the Crest was pure, high-quality velvet, and it weighed a ton. The motor that ran it burned up one time, and it took myself and two projectionists to pull it up."
Miranda outfitted the Star with projection equipment purchased from the Campus Drive-In, at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and College Avenue, after it closed in 1983. The Palomar ran X-rated movies. "I was told the Palomar used to be a dance hall and the projection booth was added later when someone changed it to a movie theater," says Whitehead. "I believe it. The only way to get into the booth was to climb up a straight iron ladder, which was no easy task for a technician carrying a heavy toolbox. There was a dry cleaning plant right next door, and the booth always reeked of dry cleaning fluid." The Oceanside theaters became early casualties in Walnut's eventual shutdown.
(Thanks to www.myspace.com/sandiegocinerama for many of the old theater ads seen above! Also thanks to Vincent Miranda’s godson Tim David, for Miranda photos, clippings, etc.)
RELATED BLOG ENTRIES:
"Pussycat Theaters - When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the detailed inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Told by those who actually ran the theaters! http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/aug/07/pussycat-theater-history-when-cathouses-ruled-ca-n/
"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" - Cover story 6-21-07: San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters, run by the owner of the Pussycat Theatre chain, Vince Miranda - this detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc.
"Battle Of The Peeps" - feature article about a weird gig I had in the mid-'80s, running a strip club called Jolar, for the nation's second biggest pornographer, Harry Mohney (Deja Vu Showgirls founder).
"Field Of Screens" - Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including a few which screened X-rated fare for awhile.
More like this:
- Pussycat Theaters - a comprehensive history of a California dynasty — June 29, 2010
- The History of Comic Books In San Diego: The ‘90s — Sept. 22, 2008
- Painting Rock Stars, plus Behind the Scenes: Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors — May 8, 2008
- "What's Your Favorite Twilight Zone?" 25 Local Musicos Talk Twilight, plus ShatFest — Dec. 18, 2007
- Undercover Chronicles #1 - I Was An Undercover Ticket Scalper — Nov. 19, 2007