Walter Mencken 10:01 a.m., May 29
Before It Was The Gaslamp: Illustrated Sequel
‘70s/'80s Downtown Theaters; Illustrated Directors Cut & sequel
‘70s/'80s Downtown; Directors Cut & sequel
BEFORE IT WAS THE GASLAMP SEQUEL: Last of the All-Nighters
1 - Before It Was The Gaslamp: Extended cut with rare graphics, unpublished photos
2 - Walnut's Properties: Theater by theater breakdown
3 - The People VS Walnut: Legal actions involving Walnut
4 - Last Of The All Nighters: A Walnut Clerk Remembers
The Reader's June 21, 2007, cover feature "Before It Was The Gaslamp" detailed the local life and turbulent times of Vince Miranda. In the '70s, Miranda ran a string of downtown grindhouse movie theaters and owned several flophouse hotels (as well as the Hotel San Diego). He was also co-owner of the Pussycat Theatre adult movie chain.
What I didn't mention in the article was that I worked for Miranda's theaters in the late '70s/early '80s. This didn't seem integral to anything being recounted in the article, which was mainly a profile of Miranda and his various local businesses.
I have, however, written a separate account – LAST OF THE ALL-NIGHTERS - of my own memories and experiences while working the downtown theaters. I offer it here, as sort of a DVD-extra, at the bottom of the Gaslamp article, which appears below in its original “War & Peace” director’s cut draft.
Also in this blog, OVER 100 PHOTOS AND GRAPHICS that did NOT appear with the published article, most of which have never been seen outside of Miranda’s family and his closest associates!
BEFORE IT WAS THE GASLAMP – BALBOA’S LAST STAND
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.
"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" below).
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.
However, the Russos held on to the Aztec on Fifth Avenue, at least for awhile...
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.
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 ballc-ck 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."
Sometime after Walnut leased the building, a pipe in the second basement burst. "Nobody thought it fed anything that the theater used any longer, so the plumbers just cut it off. A couple weeks later, we realized that the waterfalls weren't working and the supply line had been cut. There was no way the company would spend the money to fix it. From that time until the theater closed, I used a ladder and hose to fill up the waterfalls myself, about once every week in the winter and twice a week in the summer."
As with many theater stages, the Balboa's had a "doghouse" on top, with windows that opened up in the event of fire, to suck out heat and smoke. "It was an 80-foot drop from the catwalk grid under that doghouse to the stage floor," says Whitehead. "On top of the doghouse was a huge water tower. One day, a work crew came in to take that tower off from the roof. They were your usual bunch of know-it-all a--hole construction types. I told them the water supply to that tank was still live and that they'd better turn it off before they started cutting. They didn't listen. A little while later, the water started shooting up in the air and drenched everything. It looked like a tugboat coming into a harbor. I was laughing so hard that I couldn't get my breath."
("Erotica" - plus a Road Runner cartoon?!)
Whitehead says one of the best things about working the Balboa was access to the balcony, closed to the public for years (mainly because the exits led to the closed-off hotel hall). "I dragged an overstuffed chair and a couch up to the front row of the balcony. My brother David, who later managed the Balboa, helped me lug them up there. It was, literally, the best seat in town, centered to the screen horizontally and vertically. Just a wonderful place to watch a movie."
The all-but-abandoned balcony was just one of the Balboa's backstage remnants of a vanishing era. "There was an old sign behind where the stage was, instructing silence on account of radio broadcasts," says Whitehead. "I've always wondered which local radio station it was. I'm betting it was KOGO, but no one in management knew. I think the broadcasting was probably done from a room up on the top floor of the hotel, which has a ceiling window and looks like a classic studio."
Out in the seats, the Balboa was at that point so infested with rats that, in quiet movie moments, you could hear them scurrying amongst the treasure trove of discarded snack bar confections. "There was a time when a lady jumped to her feet screaming because a rat had run across her foot," recalls Whitehead.
Some other patrons were more scary than scared. "I recall a creep who had secreted himself in the janitor's closet in the women's restroom and was peeking out to see what he could see," he says. "There was another guy who used to rattle the plastic from his candy, just to irritate those around him. There was a huge, fat Mexican guy who sold newspapers on the street that we had to ask to leave more than once, because he smelled so bad."
Despite the descent into skid-row schlock, which mirrored Hollywood's own, the Balboa still frequently screened to packed houses, as when Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted in late 1979. "Walnut had just bought a Dolby stereo sound system, and they rushed installation just for that movie," says Whitehead. "I put a strobe light up in the pinnacle on top of the Balboa's roof dome, and you could see it all the way up Fourth Avenue. Getting that tiny light on top of the dome wasn't easy. I had to climb up it from the outside. Had I fallen, I'd have gone straight down into the huge fan that exhausted air out of the house."
Miranda's legitimate stage venue, the Off Broadway Theatre, at Third and F, earned him civic accolades and social recognition for bringing heavyweight Hollywood talent downtown in a series of high-caliber productions. The Off Broadway opened in March 1971 with a production of Anything Goes, attended by Miranda's parents, flown in from Palo Alto. From there, he hired various producers to stage ambitious musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as hosting touring productions of shows like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Around 1972, Miranda began turning up around town -- and in L.A. and NYC -- arm in arm with actress Rose Marie, best known from The Dick Van Dyke Show. They'd met through her publicity girl, who was also working for Miranda when he offered to fly Marie and several others to San Diego to attend an Off Broadway production of Cactus Flower.
(Miranda & Rose Marie)
In her book Hold the Roses, Rose Marie describes their first encounter. "This man met me at the parking lot of the airport and hurried me to the gate," she says. "He was about five foot four, dark hair, kind of wiry, about 45 years old, kind of Italian looking. It turned out he wasn't Italian. Martha Raye was at the gate, Audrey Christy, Harry Guardino, and lots of actors. There were about 30 of us...He was very pleasant, charming, had a good sense of humor, and he was short! But I liked him."
She describes their growing relationship with mild allusions to her frequent date's homosexuality. "He was a great sport and, as I always said, the last of the big spenders," she says. "He was great to talk to, and he loved the idea that we were going out together. He took me home and we said good night. No kiss, no nothing. I relaxed. We became very good friends. No romance, and I was grateful for that. We liked being together, and he loved the idea that everybody knew me and came over for autographs. He was out with a celebrity. Best of all, we went to all of the big affairs, the $1000-ticket dinners, like the annual Thalians Ball affair and the St. Jude Hospital affair that Danny Thomas always did."
"We were getting to be known as a couple. Little did everybody know that we were like brother and sister, but we had fun. Once in a while, a kiss on the cheek, but that's all...and again, I was grateful. I didn't have to worry about a thing."
Marie was photographed on Miranda's arm at the Off Broadway's first-anniversary luncheon in March 1972, sponsored by the San Diego Downtown Association and held at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Former mayor Frank Curran presented Miranda with a plaque from the association, while Deputy Mayor Floyd Morrow gave him a plaque from the city, in recognition of the theater revitalizing downtown. A photo appeared with an article in the next day's San Diego Union. "His publicity man, Don Haley, kept our names in the columns," recalls Marie.
Miranda was reportedly thrilled at this mention in a 1972 issue of L.A.'s Daytime TV magazine: "Rosie's back and Vince has got her! Yep, after bidding boyfriend Vince Miranda bye-bye, Rose Marie must have decided it's worse to have loved and lost, because she didn't waste much time before she went right back...now he's back to playing 'Ring Around the Rosie' and the not-so-new twosome are cozying up again in their favorite hang-out, the elegant, very 'in' La Scala restaurant."
In 1974, Miranda and Tate purchased the Hotel San Diego for $1.4 million.
Both men maintained hotel suites of their own, as did a man named Don Wortman, who had known Miranda in the Coast Guard. Wortman produced stage shows for Miranda at the Off Broadway, including that venue's final show before it closed in 1975, Take It Off.
According to San Diego Union theater critic Welton Jones, that show "featured Georgina Spelvin, who had starred -- if you want to call it that -- in The Devil in Miss Jones. To give you some idea: she was backed by a chorus line of boys in jockstraps. Leather jockstraps. It was dreadful. It brought out the worst in everyone."
Wortman next ran the Broadway Dinner Theater for Miranda, in the Hotel San Diego's downstairs Continental Room. After that operation folded in 1977, Wortman ended up running Miranda's Backstage Restaurant, in the Commodore Hotel at Third and F, adjacent to the Pussycat on Fourth. Restaurant patrons had to walk through the Pussycat's lobby to use the Backstage restrooms.
"The Backstage was opened by a friend of mine named Frank Clancy," explains Whitehead. "Frank spent many long, hard hours getting that place opened, but then something happened. Wortman said something to Miranda that got him all stirred up and got Frank fired. Wortman took the place over and acted as if it was all his idea...I never did like Wortman. He had a heavy black beard and would talk out of the side of his mouth. He always made me think of a pirate."
Miranda let Wortman take charge of redecorating the Hotel San Diego. Columnist Welton Jones recalled the redo last year in a Reader article about the hotel. "When MGM auctioned off its props from Culver City, Don [Wortman] bought a lot of their stuff. His bed came from there. He said it came from the set of Cleopatra. He was always buying things, changing things, rearranging things...every room was different. The lobby alone and the chandeliers came from an old Hollywood movie theater. The front desk came from a pharmacy in Spain. The bar was straight out of World War II. He even had four packs of wartime Lucky Strike Green framed on the wall...Those guys were so alive, Wortman was amazing, covered with tattoos, smoking a cigarette, those dark eyes drilling into you. Those guys really had balls. Don't get me wrong: I'm not gay, but I felt something for the two of them."
According to longtime hotel employee Alice Faye, "Wortman and Mr. Miranda were both f-gg-ts. Mr. Miranda used to pick up Marines. Used to introduce them to people as his nephews. Mr. Miranda had lots of nephews."
She says Wortman was murdered in 1981. "[He] picked up some guy and took him home. Back to his sister's house, is what I heard. Can you imagine? His sister comes home and finds her brother between the bed and the wall with his neck broke. You talk about rough trade."
After Wortman's death, Miranda moved his own room from the sixth floor down to Wortman's former suite in room 264.
Miranda's godson Tim David tells me, "V.M. took me to the hotel all the time. It was quite a thing to walk in with him; he was a king there. The 'Presidential Suite' is what he called his room. It was very gaudy. I remember lots of bearskin and cut-glass panels. He and Tate would have their 'sailor parties' in that suite a lot. I would have to stay in the suite a few doors down during those."
Miranda installed former waitress Donna Martin as the hotel's resident manager. "Donna was quite a character," recalls Whitehead. "She and Mr. Miranda loved to drink. I remember drinking with them one time when she was waxing eloquent on the fact that God was actually a woman. One morning for breakfast, I went down to the Country Kitchen with Tom Wimbish [manager of the Cabrillo, Plaza, and Balboa theaters]. Mr. Miranda and Donna joined us, and they had both lost their voices from drinking so much the night before. Mr. Miranda was trying to figure out if it was the vodka or the cigarettes that did it."
Miranda's sterling civic and social rep seemed unassailable -- for a while, anyway -- even after it became common knowledge that he was buying an increasingly large stake in the Pussycat Theatre chain of adult movie houses.
The chain was founded by longtime film exhibitor Dan Sonney and sexploitation filmmaker Dave Friedman. The duo bought an abandoned 40-year-old, 400-seat theater on Fifth and Hill in L.A., remodeled it, and opened the doors as the Pussycat Theatre in March 1967.
Young George Tate had run the theater in a previous all-age incarnation.
Vince Miranda bought a 50 percent share of the Pussycat in 1968, immediately remodeling and redecorating each theater, which then included around two dozen California houses. "He fixed them up so nice," marvels Friedman, "that almost nobody was ashamed to be seen walking into a Pussycat. Which was a big change from the old 'raincoat' crowd...I can't say [Miranda] and I ever got along well, but he was definitely a showman who knew how to bring in the rubes."
Though operated under the Walnut umbrella, Miranda took great personal interest in the Pussycats. He outfitted each theater with crimson carpeting, velveteen fixtures, decorated walls (usually including selections from his own huge collection of painted nudes), and crystal chandeliers with golden fittings.
If an X-movie's poster wasn't particularly attractive in the marquee showcase, he'd commission and produce his own colorful, relatively "classy" display posters, shipped to managers chainwide to use as their public face in communities increasingly -- surprisingly -- receptive to hosting an X-rated theater or drive-in.
According to Rose Marie, "He took pride in running the Pussycat Theatres. Although they were porno theaters, he ran them like a business. They were cute little theaters that were kept in shape. Sometimes when we were out, he would stop at one theater or another and make sure everything was being run right. I met everyone at the office, including his cousin Jimmie [Johnson, an eventual Walnut co-owner]."
(Miranda with Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace)
Miranda later purchased a majority stake in the Pussycat chain, in a partnership with Johnson and Tate. At its peak in the '70s, Pussycat operated 47 California houses, most of them classical theaters that had faded.
Their growing profile, however, also made them visible targets. Though Deep Throat played Hollywood's Pussycat for around ten years and made Miranda millions, it sparked dozens of legal battles and mired him in numerous public-relations snafus, police actions, criminal trials, and civil lawsuits (see People VS Walnut, later in this story).
Statewide, he faced obscenity charges over 50 times, in around two dozen municipalities, but was only convicted once, of a reduced "public nuisance" charge.
The Los Angeles Times began refusing Pussycat ads in 1975, notwithstanding that Miranda had spent around a million dollars advertising Pussycats in their paper the previous year.
For awhile in the late '70s, the military was banned by the U.S. government from entering downtown porn theaters. X-houses were cropping up all over south of Broadway and soon spread to nearby and outlying areas of San Diego (even the Capri, North Park, and Academy theaters showed porn for awhile). Military MPs would regularly walk through theaters looking for soldiers and sailors violating the ban, which was later expanded to cover the entire county.
Around San Diego, Walnut came to operate four 'Cat-houses: downtown, in National City, in El Cajon, and in Escondido.
Downtown's Pussycat on Fourth Avenue -- open from noon-5:30 a.m. daily -- 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. The decor was mildly seedy, if era-apropos: faded and cracked tile offset by chrome-etched mirror panels and lit by flashing red and purple lights.
Whitehead recalls opening Deep Throat at the downtown 'Cat, where the film would screen almost continuously over the next five years. "I worked for three days straight, because the day projectionist, Michael Knight, was a college student and afraid of getting busted; he later became management. Those were 18-hour shifts, back to back. After the third day, I literally couldn't go on any longer and went home and crashed."
"That was the night the vice squad came in and confiscated the print."
Walnut's head of public relations, Don Haley, was staying in town and prepared. "He brought a second print over from the St. James Hotel -- the cops could only take one print until a court decided if it was obscene -- and then he proceeded to call all the radio and TV stations in town. When I got to work the next night, people were lined up way down the street and around the block, and it stayed that way for a long time. It was so busy that we were answering the phone in the projection booth, because the concession stand and box office were literally too swamped to do it." Walnut battled the city over this and other Pussycat matters for years.
Walnut's stake in the Pussycat chain only included the California operations. Most estimates indicate several hundred other Pussycats did business elsewhere, until video lowered the boom on all walk-in theaters, especially the X-houses.
According to Miranda's godson, Tim David, "V.M. and Tate never owned or had anything to do with Pussycat outside of the state. I remember asking V.M. about it one time. He really couldn't have cared less what they did outside of the state. Jimmie Johnson and I spoke about it last year. He told me people really wanted V.M. to trademark the name. He just never did. Weird, huh?"
If you look at who was running the famed NYC Pussycat, a possible clue emerges regarding why Miranda was unwilling to make a federal case of the matter. According to the Meese Commission report, mob boss Mickey Zaffarano ran the New York Pussycat from an office across the street connected to the theater via a secret underground tunnel. During one FBI raid, Zaffarano reportedly tried to elude agents using the tunnel, only to collapse from a massive coronary and die. Mickey's brother Johnny Zaffarano owned or ran several porn shops and massage parlors in San Diego through much of the '70s.
Miranda did apply for and receive a trademark for the Pussycat logo itself, with its festive masked playmate leaping through a lighted oval, ringed on marquees by flashing, chasing light bulbs. This has proven a major factor in Pussycat-related litigation that continues to this day, but more on that in a bit.
By December 1979, around 30 adult bookstores and movie houses operated within a 16-square-block area downtown. The city targeted those adult merchants with eminent domain proceedings intended to condemn the properties, so they could be refitted to suit the resurgent Gaslamp Quarter, whose acreage would be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
However, the city's "Redevelopment Agency" didn't stop there. It also named around 75 non-adult businesses and individuals in an eminent domain lawsuit filed December 31, 1979. The hit list included Walnut's Commodore Hotel, as well as the Buccaneer Lounge, the Equitable Trust Company, Fourth Street Arcade, the Horton Hotel Grand, Joe's Barber Shop, the Right Spot bar, Security First National Bank, Terminal Auto Parks, the Western Union Telegraph Company, and even San Diego's Department of Internal Revenue.
According to court documents, Miranda filed his own lawsuit a few weeks later, for "unlawful detainer," over being locked out of his Cabaret Theater -- formerly his Off Broadway legit stage theater -- then screening porn (447901, Vincent Miranda, et al. v. James Schneider). Though he never regained control of the Cabaret, he was eventually awarded a $100,000 judgment, which the city had to pay due to "intentional property distress, lost income, and lost public goodwill."
As downtown San Diego became increasingly seedy, the company's grindhouse theaters began opening at noon and closing at midnight. "They were finding needles in the alley behind the Casino," recalls Whitehead. The 1979 film Hardcore shows downtown at its Sodom and Gomorrah peak, with George C. Scott stumbling through wall-to-wall porno shops in search of information about his missing porn-star daughter. He makes his way down Fourth and Fifth Avenues, dodging hunchbacked junkies and drooling perverts at every step.
You can see the Cabrillo and Plaza during their final days in the 1980 Marty Feldman film In God We Trust, partially shot downtown. "They took one of the box-office ladies named Olivia and put glasses and a wig on her," recalls Whitehead. "I think I ruined one of their shots. The Cabrillo paged me with an emergency, and the film crew tried to keep me from going in. I just pushed past them and went in anyway. As far as I was concerned, there was an emergency, and Walnut was paying my check, not them. A--hole me, ha?" Both the Cabrillo and Plaza were closed in 1982.
"Talk of the city taking over the properties had been around for a while," recalls Whitehead. "I had to deal with people from the city from time to time, as they came to inspect the properties they were basically stealing. Eminent domain operates under the 'color of law,' but it's theft, pure and simple. No private citizen can operate in such a fashion, so it shouldn't be legal for the city government to do it."
"I never had anything but cold, utter contempt for the parasites that made up the San Diego City Council and the CCDC [Centre City Development Corporation]. They were and probably still are smarmy, self-righteous tax parasites. Anytime I could cause them any trouble whatsoever, no matter how small, I went out of my way to do so.
"One time, the CCDC sent two architects to inspect the Balboa, so that they could declare it earthquake unsafe and make it easier to steal. These guys were in their late 50s or early 60s, and I made them go through that entire building, from the theater to the hotel, and the stores. I took them through every crawlspace and airshaft that one could fit into. We started at 9:00 in the morning and didn't finish until that afternoon. By the time we were done, they were literally drenched with sweat and hardly had any strength left at all. God, I hated those motherf-ck-rs."
"The guy I had the most dealings with was a runty little weasel named Dave. One time, he browbeat Angie, the Filipino gal who was temporary manager of the Balboa. She was one of the most kind, gentle, sweet little gals I've ever known. At Mr. Tate's orders, I had copied a set of keys to the Balboa and the Pussycat for the CCDC's little Napoleon a--hole. The key that worked the door to the Balboa's dome didn't work, and this creep verbally browbeat Angie and told her to get that door open or he'd have it knocked down. She paged me in tears, and I called him and told him to deal directly with me only from that point on. Then I made him wait a few days for a new key."
Next, time was up for the Fourth Avenue Pussycat. "On the day we removed all the equipment," remembers Whitehead, "I was instructed to give a guy from the city the keys when we were finished. So I called and he was there in just a few minutes, as if he'd been waiting right beside the phone or something. I had removed all the identification from all of the keys, just to make his job difficult. When he put out his hand for the keys, I deliberately let them fall to the floor, turned my back on him, and walked out the door without a word. Yes, that was small and petty, but it felt good to do it."
Walnut appointed two new partners in late 1981, when Miranda's cousin Jimmie Bert Johnson and Walnut associate Jerome Knell were jointly named company president. Johnson was formerly head of the advertising department and company vice president (his mother Ada Johnson managed the Torrance Pussycat). Knell had been a part-owner of the Pussycat on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. Miranda and Tate still ran the day-to-day operations.
Around this time, a man named Jonathan T. Cota entered the picture at Walnut. In short order, he seemed to wield as much authority as Miranda and Tate. According to Miranda's godson Tim David, "Cota just appeared one day around 1982 or 1983, never to leave the scene. He was a shoe salesman at Florsheim shoes in Beverly Hills. He was sleeping with Tate, and he was a third or fourth cousin to V.M. He must have been very talented at what he did...I remember his first big 'gift' from Tate was a house in the Hollywood Hills."
David says Miranda disliked Cota. "V.M. was an incredible judge of character, and he hated the sight of Cota and saw him for what he was right away. A leech." Cota's growing involvement with Walnut operations was partly related to Miranda's gradual withdrawal from management, due to health problems later diagnosed as cancer related.
According to David, "As V.M. became more sick, Cota slowly moved into the house that V.M. and Tate had on Magnolia in Encino. I spent summers there in my teens, and it had always been a beautiful, antique-filled home. Walnut Acres they called it, an old walnut farm with neighbors like the Jacksons and Tim Conway."
Dan Whitehead says, "I never liked Cota from the first day I saw him slither into the office. Once he became Tate's squeeze, Mr. Miranda didn't like that. One time, Cota came to the office with Tate for an after-business-hours drinking party. After Tate left with Cota, Mr. Miranda said, 'I wish he wouldn't bring Cota around here, he's such a f-g.' I almost fell off my chair."
In May 1985, Miranda -- a lifelong heavy smoker -- was battling lung cancer in an L.A. hospital. "My Aunt Susan spoke to V.M. several times about my future with Walnut," says David. "Something must have been going down at the end, because V.M. called her and said he was planning on getting married! This is very strange, due to the fact he and Tate had been live-in lovers for decades."
Vince Miranda died June 3, 1985. "He denied the fact that he was dying up to the end," says David. "The last time I saw him was at Walnut Acres...he was bald from the chemo treatments but insisted that he was in remission and was going to be fine. He kept it a secret from all of us."
"To this day, I haven't seen V.M.'s will, and neither did his mom, Grandma Mattias," says David. "She was the one who told me Tate and Cota were keeping everything. I had gold coin collections and accounts in my name from when I was a child. All was taken and just disappeared. Remember, I was just a pup, and poor Grandma was an old lady. We were no match for sharks like Tate and Cota."
David says Cota quickly moved in with Tate at Walnut Acres in Encino. "The last time I was there, after V.M.'s death, the house had been completely 'Cotafied.' The guy has no taste whatsoever; it looked like something off the set of Miami Vice. Horrible."
Jimmie Johnson filed injunction requests and lawsuits against Tate and Cota, attempting to regain control of Walnut and Pussycat assets, with very little success. "Grandma Mattias never got anything [from Miranda's estate] either," says David. "It was all funneled back to Tate and Cota."
To be fair, there may not have been a lot of Walnut left, at least once the IRS hit Miranda's estate with a federal tax lien of $6,047,760.00. Walnut properties all over the state were sold, leased, or traded away, with many real-estate holdings being handed over in lawsuit judgments. Several claims against the estate were connected to ongoing litigation dating back years.
Walnut Properties and/or company principals were served with over 100 civil lawsuits filed between 1973 and 2005, the majority related to Pussycat locales (see People v. Walnut, later in this story). Interestingly, one tax lien mentions as a DBA "George Munton Tate," confirming "Munton" as one of Tate's AKAs.
In all, around $30 million in Walnut assets were liquidated, lost in judgments, or "gift deeded" to others over the next 15 years. Top candidates for liquidation included the increasingly problematic Pussycat theaters, which had installed video-projection equipment to no avail. Between shrinking attendance, home video, and increasing civic and social intolerance, the Pussycat dynasty was nearly dead.
Tate must have seen a future for Pussycat, however. After recovering from a stroke (neither his first nor last), he registered for sole ownership of Pussycat Theatres, Inc., in February 1986, listing the corporation's primary service as "photofinishing laboratories" and its secondary service being "motion picture production."
The Balboa closed in the first week of April 1986, with over a decade remaining on Walnut's original lease. The final double feature on its screen was "April Fool's Day" and the Stephen King film "Silver Bullet" (based on his book "Cycle of the Werewolf"). "I don't remember much at all about the last day," says Whitehead. "This may sound silly, but it was a sad, even traumatic, experience. I loved that house very much; it really hurt to leave. My office was there, and I ordered all the projection booth parts and supplies from there, and everything for my department was delivered there."
In 1987, Tate sold the Hotel San Diego for $6 million to Dr. Leonard Glass, whose purchase also included a 99-year ground lease for the entire block. Glass later told author Michael Lesy, "This place was done up like a New Orleans bordello. It was a glorified flophouse full of antiques...Miranda's partner said they spent $2 million on all the couches and chandeliers and bric-a-brac. Maybe the IRS believed them, but I don't. We got rid of it all except the phone booth and the window in the lobby."
Theater critic Welton Jones recalled: "I went to one of the last [hotel] auctions. I was standing there looking at a lamp...One of the auctioneers came up. 'You know anything about this stuff?' he said. I lied. 'No,' I said...I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I walked away. It was as if everything those two guys had done, everything they'd tried to do, even who they were, had all vanished into thin air."
Says head projectionist Dan Whitehead, "Around then, my paycheck bounced for the first time. It wasn't long after that that I was let go."
Walnut Properties filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy actions in June 1994, listing liabilities of $17.7 million. For some of these legal proceedings, Walnut officer Barry Hartsfield was listed as Tate's trustee/conservator. Tate had sought Hartsfield's help after suffering health setbacks that included a stroke that sidelined him for the better part of 1994. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy actions were converted to Chapter 7 actions in August of that year. Then:
"I received a call from Grandma Mattias, V.M.'s mom," says Tim David. "She never said hello, she just started talking, and she asked, 'Do you want the good news or the bad?' "
"I replied, 'The good, I guess.' "
"She said, 'The b-stard is dead! George Tate died on the dentist chair. Now do you want the bad news?' I said 'yes' and she replied, 'All the money is gone, he spent it all.' She hated Tate, too."
In 1998, Cota and Barry Hartsfield (Tate's one-time estate conservator) -- as the Tate Group, Inc. -- tried launching a hot-dog chain called Red's, with their first locale on the corner of Hollywood and Western in L.A. Patterned after Tinseltown hot-dog hotspot Pink's, it failed to take off. Walnut Properties -- by this time solely owned by Cota -- renewed its bankruptcy application in 1999, in proceedings that continued through 2001.
Cota threatened to file a lawsuit against pop performers the Pussycat Dolls in 2004, for infringing on the trademark he claimed to own on the Pussycat Theatre logo. Not that the Dolls were using a similar logo, but Cota claimed their name traded on his own "well-known, world-famous mark."
The suit appears not to have been pursued, after the U.S. Patent Office declared the Pussycat trademark to be "abandoned."
Cota launched a website awhile back, www.pussycatoriginal.com. "He's trying to sell product with a b-stardized version of the Pussycat logo," says Tim David of the slightly altered catwoman design gracing various T-shirts and mugs on the site.
The Pussycat Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A. is still open and being run by Jonathan T. Cota. The chain's former flagship house switched to gay porn, as the name was changed to the Tomkat...
...and then the name was changed to Studs.
The original Pussycat sign was recently reinstalled. According to David, "Cota wasn't using the old oval at all, the plexiglass had been reversed and left up there to rot for years. I wrote and spoke to him about getting the sign, to renovate and keep it for myself. Three weeks after my inquiry, the old marquee was back up."
Cota -- whose voice is on the theater's answering machine -- has not responded to interview requests.
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). 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). After being 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."
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.
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, and the theater closed in February 1970.
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.
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.
At its peak in the mid-'70s, Walnut ran 47 Pussycat Theatres around the state. The Pussycat at Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee in L.A. leased out its basement for what became a legendary rock club, the Masque (opened August 1977). Frequently raided by police, the venue hosted early gigs by Black Flag, the Ramones, Wall of Voodoo, and the Go-Gos.
"They [club operators] broke the old-fashioned elevator by trying to take a cow down in it," recalls Walnut projectionist Dan Whitehead, "and later there was a murder in the place. They left the police chalk outline of the body on the floor and painted it Day-Glo orange, to make it permanent."
Deep Throat played at the Hollywood Boulevard Pussycat for nearly ten years, earning (according to Variety) $11,000 weekly during peak seasons, until the theater's throat was finally cut in December 1981.
At the Pussycat in Torrance (formerly the Stadium Theater), tenth-grade dropout Quentin Tarantino checked tickets and manned the snack bar in the late '70s. "I was up there several times on service calls," says Whitehead. "Mr. Miranda's aunt, Mrs. Ada Johnson, managed this and the Lakewood Theatre at the same time. She was a great lady, and I was very fond of her. She didn't take any sh-t from anyone, anywhere, anytime, ever."
The Lakewood Theatre in Lakewood was an old single-screen house that Walnut turned into a twin theater. "They ran the number-one screen as an all-age general release and art house, and the number-two screen as a Pussycat," muses Whitehead. "Talk about a nightmare. They kept it that way for a long time."
In San Diego, one early Pussycat regional manager was Yugoslav immigrant Gojko "Greg" Vasic, who'd later borrow money from his parents to launch his successful F Street Bookstore chain. "Vasic was the longest lasting of Walnut's district managers," reveals Whitehead. "He still worked for Walnut after he opened his first F Street store across the street from the Cabaret [formerly Miranda's legit Off Broadway]. Mr. Tate was very fond of him. He was certainly a strange character. His family name was actually spelled Vasich, and they used to have an egg ranch in Ramona. His uncle delivered their produce to many of the downtown eateries."
Like Miranda, Vasic's vision involved the mainstreaming of porn. He eventually expanded into running nearly a dozen F Street Bookstores, including shops in El Cajon, Miramar, Chula Vista, Escondido, North Park, and Leucadia (all but the last including peep show booths).
National City's Paris Pussycat, at 903 National City Boulevard, was originally known as the Bush Theatre and then the National Theatre. The venue opened in February 1928, with a live production of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It was renamed the Aboline Theater around 1950, until becoming the Paris Theater in 1961. It was converted to an X-rated Pussycat house in 1967.
"I personally ran the Paris Pussycat booth many times," says Whitehead. "The projection booth was originally the balcony. In the late '70s, that was the very first booth where Walnut tried a homemade automation system. Each feature was on one big reel. Projector number one had the main feature, and projector number two had the second feature. The lamp-houses were Peerless Magnarc carbon arc lamps, which had been converted to xenon. The upper reel -- the supply reel -- had a motor to rewind the feature, and the take-up reel had a separate motor to drive it, because the reel would become too heavy for the soundhead take-up drive to manage. I installed a completely new automation system, sound system, projector heads, sound heads, lamphouses, and rectifiers."
Walnut withdrew from managing the Paris Pussycat in the mid-'80s. Former Aztec Theatre owner Wesley "Andy" Andrews leased the property from Walnut and kept it open under the Pussycat name until 1999, after all but the last few California 'Cats had closed.
National City purchased the property for $1,066,000, and Mayor George Waters padlocked the theater for good in July 1999. It was later bulldozed to make way for an intended student-resource center dubbed the University Education Village.
At the Escondido Pussycat on Grand Avenue -- in a building that formerly housed the Ritz Theatre -- the manager was arrested in 1973 over a showing of Deep Throat. Though Walnut successfully fought the obscenity charges, theater neighbors and city officials put enough public pressure on the locale to force its closure in 1976. It was later reopened and renamed the Bijou, and then the Big Screen Theater, offering family fare again. It was briefly known as the Ritz again in February 1998, though it only managed to stay open for nine days this time before closing again. Periodic attempts are occasionally made to revive this house.
THE PEOPLE VS WALNUT
In 1973, California officials were using the "Red Light Abatement Act" as a toilet brush to clean out porn shops and theaters from the municipal landscape. The Buena Park Pussycat at 6177 Beach Boulevard was raided by police, initiating a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, to be argued (and decided) in 1975. Hicks v. Miranda (422 US 332) named Miranda as owner of the land the theater was on, with Pussycat and Walnut as DBAs, while Hicks was the Orange County District Attorney.
As stated in the Supreme Court summary, "On November 23 and 24, 1973, pursuant to four separate warrants issued seriatim, the police seized four copies of the film Deep Throat, each of which had been shown at the Pussycat Theatre in Buena Park, Orange County, CA. On November 26, an eight-count criminal misdemeanor charge was filed in the Orange County Municipal Court against two employees of the theater, each film seized being the subject matter of two counts in the complaint."
The OC Superior Court held a hearing, viewed the film, took evidence, and declared the movie to be obscene. Then, in June 1974, a three-judge court issued its judgment and opinion declaring the California obscenity statute to be unconstitutional, which the Supreme Court agreed with. Three of the four prints were later returned, and Miranda and his employees eventually beat the criminal charges.
Buena Park Pussycat neighbor Donna Bagley filed a lawsuit against Miranda and Walnut in 1974, demanding closure of the theater. Her suit claimed she was "significantly offended, outraged, and has suffered shame, embarrassment, and emotional distress as a result of the public scandal caused by the continuous and daily presence, advertisement, and public exhibition of patent hard-core pornography." She also said the theater attracts "immoral persons," including "criminal elements, undesirables, deviates, and dropouts."
According to a mid-'90s study about L.A.'s Pussycat on Santa Monica Boulevard, commissioned by the group Concerned Women for America, between 1977 and 1994 "the Los Angeles Police Department made 2000 arrests for lewd conduct on the premises. The conservative estimate is that every arrest required four hours of police work for two officers at a minimum of $55 per hour for each officer. This does not include the substantial costs attendant on review by a supervisor, prosecution, court proceedings, and probation."
Walnut Properties ("a real estate holding and investment company") filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June 1994, claiming liabilities of $17.7 million. The filing listed George Tate as Walnut's president and sole stockholder; the 'Cats are never mentioned by name.
Creditors with the largest claims included First Fidelity Savings and Loan of San Diego ($2.08 million), Queen City Bank in Long Beach ($2.38 million), and Topa Thrift and Loan in Century City ($2.8 million).
However, the bankruptcy petition was ruled incomplete. The court's summary stated, "The debtor has been involved in several lawsuits causing further extraordinary expenses. The comments... indicate a creditor who obtained a judgment against Walnut has attempted to tie up the debtor's assets, disrupting the ability to operate his business."
The Chapter 11 bankruptcy actions were converted to Chapter 7 actions in August 1994.
Walnut's bankruptcy cases were discharged/dismissed in February 1996. Shortly thereafter, the company was hit by the IRS with a $182,294 tax lien, but the company tried to keep at least a few plates spinning.
In 1998, Walnut borrowed $341,000 against mortgages in San Diego. The following year, it borrowed another $120,000 in San Luis Obispo and took out a $350,000 mortgage loan in L.A. In March 1999, the company renewed its bankruptcy application, with the process finally completed in December 2001.
In 2001, around $15 million in Walnut assets all over the state (mostly properties) went to litigants Charles Perez and Kathy and Michel Harouche, in a "trustee's deed" covering various judgments obtained against Walnut.
Walnut (Jonathan T. Cota, president) tried to save the company's former headquarters at 5445 West Sunset Boulevard in July 2001, by transferring ownership of its second floor from Walnut Incorporated to the George Tate Living Trust. The entire property ended up being transferred in April 2002 to TK Theaters, Incorporated, in lieu of a $1,110,000 debt.
In December 2002, Walnut lost a judgment of $2,643,333.00 to Ralph and Nancy McLaughlin in Porterville, CA, over unpaid rent and damages relating to a property Walnut had kept tied up for a proposed multiscreen theater since 1992, through Tate's death and the multiple bankruptcy filings.
The company was still being divvied up in tax sell-offs in 2006, when the city of Baldwin Park obtained a Walnut property at 4024 East Pacific Avenue for $20,355 (assessed value $107,374).
SEQUEL: LAST OF THE ALL-NIGHTERS – by JAS
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 1979, 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.
At the time, the Cabrillo was one of two all-nighters (the Plaza being the other) facing Broadway from the south side of Horton Plaza park. 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.
I remember walking an unnerving gauntlet of middle aged men who pulled over in their cars to ask if I needed “a ride,” “something to eat,” “a place to stay” or “20 bucks.” 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, but at this time 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.
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 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.” People were showing up who knew all the Phantom dialogue by heart, talking back to or taunting the characters on the screen ala the Rocky Horror crowd.
A dozen or so young adults showed up every night dressed as characters from the film, carrying fake guitars with battle axes for handles and wearing face makeup just like “The Juicy Fruits” in the movie, acting out their parts in front of the screen and miming to the musical soundtrack (composed mostly by Paul “We’ve Only Just Begun” Williams). I don’t think this particular cult ever really caught on.
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.
Walnut ran the grande olde girl in the same lackadaisical and exploitative way as its other grindhouses, marking what is to some an ignoble period for the one-time crown jewel of downtown theaters. 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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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- RIP Reader cover artist and underground comix legend Spain Rodriguez — Nov. 28, 2012
- Pussycat Theaters - a comprehensive history of a California dynasty — June 29, 2010
- Before It Was the Gaslamp: Downtown's Grindhouse Row (updated 8-22-09) — July 23, 2008
- Balboa's Last Stand: Balboa Theater circa 70s/80s — June 11, 2008
- Before It Was The Gaslamp: Illustrated Sequel — May 1, 2008