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Last of the All-Nighters

Cinema low-life before Horton Plaza shopping center

Cabrillo theater, 1938. We had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight.
Cabrillo theater, 1938. We had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight.

I spent my first night in San Diego sleeping in the back row of the Cabrillo theater.

That pre-Gaslamp, premultiplex downtown of 1979 exists today only in the fond memories 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. Half a dozen eclectic — if mildly disreputable — late-night movie houses operated within a few blocks of each other in the midst of a seedy urban sprawl perfectly suited to the sailors on shore leave and porn aficionados that made up 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 that hearkened back to Hollywood’s golden age, rich in cinematic history and replete with wide aisles and accommodating balconies.

In 1980, we ran Fade to Black with Dennis Christopher, who appears with half his face painted white as Dracula. When a customer arrived with his face made up the same way, I considered invoking the right to refuse admittance.

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, 19 years old with armpit-length dark hair, wearing a sleeveless Led Zep T-shirt and stonewashed jeans and carrying a knapsack toward what looked to be the center of town. I remember walking an unnerving gantlet 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. This sounded pretty good to a hungry kid fresh off the bus from rural New England without a lotta ducats in his 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.

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. However, by the late '70s, the adjoining enterprise was a porno emporium called the Foxy Theater where a guy behind mirrored glass slipped you a ticket to see X-rated 8mm and 16mm silent film loops continuously screened in an airless room full of folding chairs and several furtive men seated in a way that put as much distance between them as was physically possible in the confined space.

On the corner of Fifth and G, the 500-seat Aztec Theater was part of a structure originally called the Bancroft Building, opened in 1905 as a meat market but remodeled and rechristened “The California Theater” in 1919. In the thirties, the name was changed again, to the Fox Aztec and then eventually just Aztec. Its corner location afforded added space for multiple banks of movie posters, displayed in interconnected tiers of glass showcases wrapping around the building and lining the entranceway all the way up to the turnstyle at the door.

The posters promoted the current double or triple bill, next week’s coming attractions, “sometime in the future” attractions that may never actually play the Aztec (if the poster was particularly cool, like, with lots of blood or cleavage) and, just for the hell of it, maybe what’s playing down the street at the Casino, Plaza or Cabrillo. Permanent letters on the front of the marquee proclaimed "First Run Till You've Seen It."

Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, the seats were decrepit and cramped and there were ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony (an early San Diego example of what would be called stadium seating) 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.

People were showing up who knew all the Phantom dialogue by heart.

He especially loved horror flicks (Duh! ), lived for them, lived with them, absorbing obscure minutiae and memorizing 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 he became violent — but more on Wolfy later.

The Balboa Theater housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s, then after 1932 was used to screen the movies of Hollywood’s golden era.

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, loved the job. Occasionally I got to flirt with a pretty girl (sneaking her a flee Coke refill was a good opener). And there was a mild and slightly pathetic “power trip” involved, wearing a “uniform,” swinging around that big black flashlight, carrying keys to the snack bar and money till, having access to the projection booth, the back rooms, behind the screen. And if faced with an extreme situation, we were empowered to “refuse admittance,” just as it said 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 after being asked to leave by a guy in a red suit waving a big black flashlight.

Plaza Theater. The Cabrillo theater remained in operation until 1982, as did the Plaza (renamed the Owl for a while). Both were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza shopping mall.

But what we really loved about the job was the movies! Walnut employees could sign in for free at any of the theaters to see any movie, anytime; we were encouraged to be up on all the circulating features. Most of us were devotional film buffs, the kind of Jujube junkies seduced by the sound of mammoth Simplex movie projectors and their big spinning reels, who had no problem sitting through five, seven, ten, or more features a week. I think most of us felt we were “in the movie business”; it was a serious, solemn part of the job to view every new feature…or old feature, or feature we’d already seen a buncha times, but it was just so fuckin’ 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 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—standing on a rickety ladder on Fifth Avenue and putting up the marquee letters announcing the new week’s lineup of features. Usually, I’d be back at the theater a few hours later, off my shift, just to catch that first “virgin” showing. Often there’d be half a dozen other Walnut staffers sprinkled in the crowd as well. By the end of the weekend, we’d 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. Even schlocky B-movies that had already been on TV were fun to see in that environment: on a big screen 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 soccer hooligans when Charlton Heston growls, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” And not all the movies were second run— we had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight. After its success as a guaranteed draw, it circulated between theaters, selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup feature it was paired with (such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica, 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 should never have run back-to-back — The Muppet Movie with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film Mad Max floating around, a popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama The Accused and the farcical Airplaney 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 à la the Rocky Horror crowd. A dozen or so young adults showed up I every night dressed as characters from the film, carrying fake guitars with battleaxes 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 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 the brutal murder of his family, and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance. The Toolbox Murders (1978) was another, about a handyman who offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill, and a nail gun! Dawn of the Dead (1978) sold-out weekend and weekday showings, while Friday the 13th (1980) was so popular that at one point it was screening in three theaters simultaneously.

The audience’s support and enthusiasm for such celluloid bloodbaths was disturbing, at least to me (Walnut loved those customers; they kept us in business). From the lobby, we could hear them roar with applause at certain intervals and 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 say, “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 chanted along with the villain when he taunts the “good guys,” in a nasal whine, “Warriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and play!!!” When the Warriors finally did come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a loud, collective cheer, sustained long enough to almost bring down the half-century-old roof.

At first, talking to customers and meeting fellow movie buffs was like finding a home on the Island of Misfit Toys. That said, the 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. Christopher appears in one scene with half his face painted white as Dracula, his hair slicked back on one side, 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 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 (I doubt he was a diabetic Hasid), who got more and more amped up as he sat through 20 straight hours of Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1964), three violent “splatter” films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis. When he started shouting and swearing at the screen and other patrons, nobody wanted 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 the police, but they never showed, and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4:00 a.m., announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, and reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.

It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. Some 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 boring 1980 mummy flick where the drama is figuring 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 — advertised in ads and posters to be a horrific monster movie, it was a preachy tract on environmentalism, where the audience never got to see a BEM (bug-eyed monster). Ditto for The Fog from 1979, where the only monsters in the movie were bouncing around under Adrienne Barbeau’s sweater. And, despite my admiration for Bruce Lee’s prototypical oeuvre, it was hard to get into the badly dubbed copycat kung-fu flicks we were often saddled with (starring “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le” or “Bruce Lei” or “Bruce L. Eee”). Still, there was always something else unspooling down the street, and if all those movies sucked, the marquees would be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.

The Casino was my favorite place to work overnight. 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. Anyone paying attention could have smelled evidence of the spot’s popularity for clerks smoking joints during breaks, blowing the smoke out over Fifth Avenue. I got caught 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 was almost fired because I hadn’t paid for the candy (they counted inventory between shifts, and we were responsible for every last nougat and bon-bon).

At the end of the block, the Aztec always hosted more trouble than the Casino. In 1981, during a showing of Pink Flamingos (1973) and Polyester (new at the time and showing in Odorama, with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of flamboyantly dressed men in drag weren’t in the theater before a violent battle erupted on the sidewalk. Freddie referred to it after as “the 15-faggot fight,” unable to control his laughter whenever it came up. It was a cartoon: screeching insults, crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it went on a while as we waited for the cops to come break it up. That fight is etched in my memory more than anything from Pink Flamingos or Polyester.

I never minded working at the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features, such as 1981 s summer biggie Raiders of the Lost Ark (backed with another yellowish print of Mad Max). Usually, 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 to cash in on the other film’s fame. I remember fielding angry customers’ refund demands, which usually happened when the films broke, didn’t screen on time, or were shown with the reels out of order (this happened more often than you might think).

Occasionally, I manned the snack bar at the Balboa, on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street. This once-majestic 1500-seat theater was built in 1924, designed for stage and screen with a single balcony, ornate chandeliers, an orchestra pit, and 28-foot-tall vertical fountains built into the walls on either side of the stage. The fountains once operated at full force during intermissions (the gushing waterfalls also served as air conditioning). The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s, then after 1932 was used to screen the movies of Hollywood’s golden era. Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into disrepair in the ’50s, 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 grand old girl in the same lackadaisical, exploitative way as its other grindhouses, marking an ignoble period for the onetime crown jewel of downtown theaters. Many of us loved going into that dusty palace, though I realize few can appreciate the guilty glory of stuffing popcorn down your throat beneath monster-sized chandeliers while grooving on a blaxploitation triple feature of Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, and the 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 absorbed into the chain, and the clerks wore the same red uniform tops and black pants as we did at the Cabrillo, the Plaza, the Aztec, the Casino — and, just down the block, at the Pink Pussycat.

The Pussycat was notorious for its sidewalk posters, assaulting passersby with graphic (not quite explicit) images from triple-X features with titles such as Talk Dirty to Me, Taboo, The Budding of Brie, and A Scent of Heather” (no, not in “Odorama”). The decor was seedy, even from a distance — faded, 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 15-foot-tall genitalia wore thin after the first few hours, and the nonstop moaning and groaning (overdubs recorded by bored, fully clothed “thespians”) grated on the nerves to the point where I couldn’t recall what actual sex sounded like. Plus, I hated handling money peeled from the sticky palms of sweaty-looking men who smelled like a gang bang where nobody brought towels.

People literally hid their faces when they walked up to the Pink Pussycat, and the first thing the manager said to me during training was, “If you see someone you recognize, pretend they’re a complete stranger no matter how well you know them.” 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 a while, 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 for an auditorium walk-through. What the other clerks said about the couple seemed the stuff of urban myth, but I did see the two of them 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; they often left with a patron or two exiting right behind them.

I only spent a few weeks at the Paris Pussycat, but when I went back to the Aztec and Casino, the two Fifth Avenue theaters were switching off showing X-rated features as well, serving a three-pack of porno at the Aztec one week, at the Casino the next. Even the non-X features were getting nasty, as was the neighborhood at night — you can get a taste of this in the 1979 film Hardcore. One scene shows downtown San Diego at its Sodom-and-Gomorrah peak, with George C. Scott stumbling through wall-to-wall porno theaters and adult bookstores in search of his missing porn-star daughter. His disgust is barely concealed as he makes his way down Fourth and Fifth Avenues, dodging hunchbacked junkies and drooling perverts at every step. It wasn’t an unrealistic portrayal. 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 was taken out by police one night, along with a big bruiser with whom he’d gotten into a fistfight, and it was several weeks before he could talk Freddie into letting him “move” back in. When he started coming around again, he was scary looking — even for him: Wolfy was strung out and hollow, like Hardcore's denizens of the sidewalk exposed to the light.

One morning at the Casino, I was clearing out the auditorium for the cleaning crew and went to wake up a bearded, homeless-looking older guy, a regular who came around a lot. The guy was slumped over: cold, blue, and dead. It was some sort of seizure or attack, I think; I remember later someone saying that he 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 after we closed, standing outside the locked doors, swearing and waving a handgun around. Cops showed up within two minutes of our call, and the guy surrendered. These incidents were just two of many that had me wondering if I was 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 little more for managers, judging from the high turnover. There were rumors that buildings were up for sale or 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). Longtime Walnut staffers were quitting to take jobs elsewhere, leaving just enough employees to cover 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 dumb chop socky flick called Kung Fu of Eight Drunkards, about martial artists who develop a method of kicking ass under the influence. (I shit thee not.) Wolfman was there (he loved kung fu flicks) as were five karate students, straight from class and still wearing their uniforms with dark-colored achievement belts. 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 on the screen...call it Wolfman Versus the Karate Kidz. Wolfy was spinning around, kicking and throwing punches in all directions, while the karate kids used their fists of fury to connect a few blows of their own... on each other as much as on Wolfman.

The rambunctious crowd egged them on, cheering as if they were at a prizefight. Several chairs were broken during the melée. I yelled and waved my flashlight; nobody listened, bodies kept flying, cops were summoned, and Wolfy and his fellow combatants beat feet through the rear exit doors just as the sound of sirens reached the theater. After that, we weren’t allowed to let Wolfman in anymore. I don’t know who handed down 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 going outside, rounding the corner, unlocking a gate, and heading downstairs to a long, low-ceilinged room below the theater. On row after row of makeshift wooden shelves, tucked into manila envelopes and file folders, were thousands of movie posters, press kits, film stills, and lobby cards. The theater had been filing all the film-company promotional material since the ’60s, and the accumulation filled the basement, all stamped “Aztec” in big red letters on the back. Even to the most casual movie buff, this was a magical place to hang out...just unfold the posters and admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism. Ads 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 Hetty Story (1978), ’70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, soft-core porn—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 (1969) — “See brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!” The Pigkeeper's Daughter (1972) —“She brought a new meaning to the phrase ‘Driving a Hard Bargain’!” Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) —“They’ll love the very life out of your body!” Wham-Bam Thank You, Spaceman (1973) — “He’s a UFO Romeo!” The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (1974) —“It’s not his nose that grows!” Son of Blob (1972) — “It’s loose again, eating everyone!” (This one starred a post-Jeannie and pre-Dallas Larry Hagman.)

And the graphics — who couldn’t 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 outerspace, wearing a skintight space suit, high heels (yes, I said high heels, and no gloves!), her glass-bubble helmet unattached to her space suit, with a cutaway in her space suit that exposes her cleavage, and looking mildly displeased as one of the slimes 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 different — maybe a multiple-screen movie house. He recommended we work on our résumés because other theater sales and possible closures were imminent. I asked about the posters, stills, lobby cards, and press kits in the Aztec basement; he said, so far as he knew, everything would probably be thrown out I’ve often wondered what happened to that 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.

I was walking home from work at about 5:00 a.m. one day, job satisfaction and job security in decline, when someone 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 pocket, some $40 tucked into it. Earlier that evening, at the Casino, I’d hounded a surly teen customer — I forget over what — but I’ve always assumed that guy was my assailant. After 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 made my way back downtown to get my ticket punched 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 the Owl for a while). Both were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza shopping mall with its 140 retail shops spread 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 Fifth Avenue at G Street, near Horton Plaza.

The Aztec and Casino theaters on Fifth Avenue closed in 1982. 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 2000, CIM had converted the 15,000-square-foot area into a two-story shopping complex housing a Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, an Urban Outfitters, 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 in 1982 and left to rot for most of the next 20 years, even after it was acquired through eminent domain (condemning) in 1985 by the city of San Diego s Centre City Development Corporation. A $10 million-restoration plan for the historic 79-year-old building was approved in November 2002 by a city-council committee, which would produce a 1400-seat performing-arts theater and five stories of office space.

There are currently only two single-screen moviehouses still operating in the San Diego area — La Paloma in Encinitas (built in 1927) and the Ken Cinema (opened 1946) in Kensington.

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Keeping Up With Commander Cody

“He poured a much-too-large line on my hand”
Cabrillo theater, 1938. We had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight.
Cabrillo theater, 1938. We had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight.

I spent my first night in San Diego sleeping in the back row of the Cabrillo theater.

That pre-Gaslamp, premultiplex downtown of 1979 exists today only in the fond memories 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. Half a dozen eclectic — if mildly disreputable — late-night movie houses operated within a few blocks of each other in the midst of a seedy urban sprawl perfectly suited to the sailors on shore leave and porn aficionados that made up 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 that hearkened back to Hollywood’s golden age, rich in cinematic history and replete with wide aisles and accommodating balconies.

In 1980, we ran Fade to Black with Dennis Christopher, who appears with half his face painted white as Dracula. When a customer arrived with his face made up the same way, I considered invoking the right to refuse admittance.

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, 19 years old with armpit-length dark hair, wearing a sleeveless Led Zep T-shirt and stonewashed jeans and carrying a knapsack toward what looked to be the center of town. I remember walking an unnerving gantlet 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. This sounded pretty good to a hungry kid fresh off the bus from rural New England without a lotta ducats in his 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.

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. However, by the late '70s, the adjoining enterprise was a porno emporium called the Foxy Theater where a guy behind mirrored glass slipped you a ticket to see X-rated 8mm and 16mm silent film loops continuously screened in an airless room full of folding chairs and several furtive men seated in a way that put as much distance between them as was physically possible in the confined space.

On the corner of Fifth and G, the 500-seat Aztec Theater was part of a structure originally called the Bancroft Building, opened in 1905 as a meat market but remodeled and rechristened “The California Theater” in 1919. In the thirties, the name was changed again, to the Fox Aztec and then eventually just Aztec. Its corner location afforded added space for multiple banks of movie posters, displayed in interconnected tiers of glass showcases wrapping around the building and lining the entranceway all the way up to the turnstyle at the door.

The posters promoted the current double or triple bill, next week’s coming attractions, “sometime in the future” attractions that may never actually play the Aztec (if the poster was particularly cool, like, with lots of blood or cleavage) and, just for the hell of it, maybe what’s playing down the street at the Casino, Plaza or Cabrillo. Permanent letters on the front of the marquee proclaimed "First Run Till You've Seen It."

Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, the seats were decrepit and cramped and there were ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony (an early San Diego example of what would be called stadium seating) 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.

People were showing up who knew all the Phantom dialogue by heart.

He especially loved horror flicks (Duh! ), lived for them, lived with them, absorbing obscure minutiae and memorizing 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 he became violent — but more on Wolfy later.

The Balboa Theater housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s, then after 1932 was used to screen the movies of Hollywood’s golden era.

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, loved the job. Occasionally I got to flirt with a pretty girl (sneaking her a flee Coke refill was a good opener). And there was a mild and slightly pathetic “power trip” involved, wearing a “uniform,” swinging around that big black flashlight, carrying keys to the snack bar and money till, having access to the projection booth, the back rooms, behind the screen. And if faced with an extreme situation, we were empowered to “refuse admittance,” just as it said 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 after being asked to leave by a guy in a red suit waving a big black flashlight.

Plaza Theater. The Cabrillo theater remained in operation until 1982, as did the Plaza (renamed the Owl for a while). Both were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza shopping mall.

But what we really loved about the job was the movies! Walnut employees could sign in for free at any of the theaters to see any movie, anytime; we were encouraged to be up on all the circulating features. Most of us were devotional film buffs, the kind of Jujube junkies seduced by the sound of mammoth Simplex movie projectors and their big spinning reels, who had no problem sitting through five, seven, ten, or more features a week. I think most of us felt we were “in the movie business”; it was a serious, solemn part of the job to view every new feature…or old feature, or feature we’d already seen a buncha times, but it was just so fuckin’ 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 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—standing on a rickety ladder on Fifth Avenue and putting up the marquee letters announcing the new week’s lineup of features. Usually, I’d be back at the theater a few hours later, off my shift, just to catch that first “virgin” showing. Often there’d be half a dozen other Walnut staffers sprinkled in the crowd as well. By the end of the weekend, we’d 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. Even schlocky B-movies that had already been on TV were fun to see in that environment: on a big screen 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 soccer hooligans when Charlton Heston growls, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” And not all the movies were second run— we had a print of Alien on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo for 14 days straight. After its success as a guaranteed draw, it circulated between theaters, selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup feature it was paired with (such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica, 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 should never have run back-to-back — The Muppet Movie with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film Mad Max floating around, a popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama The Accused and the farcical Airplaney 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 à la the Rocky Horror crowd. A dozen or so young adults showed up I every night dressed as characters from the film, carrying fake guitars with battleaxes 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 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 the brutal murder of his family, and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance. The Toolbox Murders (1978) was another, about a handyman who offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill, and a nail gun! Dawn of the Dead (1978) sold-out weekend and weekday showings, while Friday the 13th (1980) was so popular that at one point it was screening in three theaters simultaneously.

The audience’s support and enthusiasm for such celluloid bloodbaths was disturbing, at least to me (Walnut loved those customers; they kept us in business). From the lobby, we could hear them roar with applause at certain intervals and 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 say, “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 chanted along with the villain when he taunts the “good guys,” in a nasal whine, “Warriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and play!!!” When the Warriors finally did come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a loud, collective cheer, sustained long enough to almost bring down the half-century-old roof.

At first, talking to customers and meeting fellow movie buffs was like finding a home on the Island of Misfit Toys. That said, the 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. Christopher appears in one scene with half his face painted white as Dracula, his hair slicked back on one side, 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 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 (I doubt he was a diabetic Hasid), who got more and more amped up as he sat through 20 straight hours of Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1964), three violent “splatter” films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis. When he started shouting and swearing at the screen and other patrons, nobody wanted 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 the police, but they never showed, and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4:00 a.m., announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, and reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.

It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. Some 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 boring 1980 mummy flick where the drama is figuring 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 — advertised in ads and posters to be a horrific monster movie, it was a preachy tract on environmentalism, where the audience never got to see a BEM (bug-eyed monster). Ditto for The Fog from 1979, where the only monsters in the movie were bouncing around under Adrienne Barbeau’s sweater. And, despite my admiration for Bruce Lee’s prototypical oeuvre, it was hard to get into the badly dubbed copycat kung-fu flicks we were often saddled with (starring “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le” or “Bruce Lei” or “Bruce L. Eee”). Still, there was always something else unspooling down the street, and if all those movies sucked, the marquees would be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.

The Casino was my favorite place to work overnight. 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. Anyone paying attention could have smelled evidence of the spot’s popularity for clerks smoking joints during breaks, blowing the smoke out over Fifth Avenue. I got caught 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 was almost fired because I hadn’t paid for the candy (they counted inventory between shifts, and we were responsible for every last nougat and bon-bon).

At the end of the block, the Aztec always hosted more trouble than the Casino. In 1981, during a showing of Pink Flamingos (1973) and Polyester (new at the time and showing in Odorama, with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of flamboyantly dressed men in drag weren’t in the theater before a violent battle erupted on the sidewalk. Freddie referred to it after as “the 15-faggot fight,” unable to control his laughter whenever it came up. It was a cartoon: screeching insults, crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it went on a while as we waited for the cops to come break it up. That fight is etched in my memory more than anything from Pink Flamingos or Polyester.

I never minded working at the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features, such as 1981 s summer biggie Raiders of the Lost Ark (backed with another yellowish print of Mad Max). Usually, 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 to cash in on the other film’s fame. I remember fielding angry customers’ refund demands, which usually happened when the films broke, didn’t screen on time, or were shown with the reels out of order (this happened more often than you might think).

Occasionally, I manned the snack bar at the Balboa, on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street. This once-majestic 1500-seat theater was built in 1924, designed for stage and screen with a single balcony, ornate chandeliers, an orchestra pit, and 28-foot-tall vertical fountains built into the walls on either side of the stage. The fountains once operated at full force during intermissions (the gushing waterfalls also served as air conditioning). The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s, then after 1932 was used to screen the movies of Hollywood’s golden era. Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into disrepair in the ’50s, 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 grand old girl in the same lackadaisical, exploitative way as its other grindhouses, marking an ignoble period for the onetime crown jewel of downtown theaters. Many of us loved going into that dusty palace, though I realize few can appreciate the guilty glory of stuffing popcorn down your throat beneath monster-sized chandeliers while grooving on a blaxploitation triple feature of Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, and the 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 absorbed into the chain, and the clerks wore the same red uniform tops and black pants as we did at the Cabrillo, the Plaza, the Aztec, the Casino — and, just down the block, at the Pink Pussycat.

The Pussycat was notorious for its sidewalk posters, assaulting passersby with graphic (not quite explicit) images from triple-X features with titles such as Talk Dirty to Me, Taboo, The Budding of Brie, and A Scent of Heather” (no, not in “Odorama”). The decor was seedy, even from a distance — faded, 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 15-foot-tall genitalia wore thin after the first few hours, and the nonstop moaning and groaning (overdubs recorded by bored, fully clothed “thespians”) grated on the nerves to the point where I couldn’t recall what actual sex sounded like. Plus, I hated handling money peeled from the sticky palms of sweaty-looking men who smelled like a gang bang where nobody brought towels.

People literally hid their faces when they walked up to the Pink Pussycat, and the first thing the manager said to me during training was, “If you see someone you recognize, pretend they’re a complete stranger no matter how well you know them.” 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 a while, 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 for an auditorium walk-through. What the other clerks said about the couple seemed the stuff of urban myth, but I did see the two of them 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; they often left with a patron or two exiting right behind them.

I only spent a few weeks at the Paris Pussycat, but when I went back to the Aztec and Casino, the two Fifth Avenue theaters were switching off showing X-rated features as well, serving a three-pack of porno at the Aztec one week, at the Casino the next. Even the non-X features were getting nasty, as was the neighborhood at night — you can get a taste of this in the 1979 film Hardcore. One scene shows downtown San Diego at its Sodom-and-Gomorrah peak, with George C. Scott stumbling through wall-to-wall porno theaters and adult bookstores in search of his missing porn-star daughter. His disgust is barely concealed as he makes his way down Fourth and Fifth Avenues, dodging hunchbacked junkies and drooling perverts at every step. It wasn’t an unrealistic portrayal. 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 was taken out by police one night, along with a big bruiser with whom he’d gotten into a fistfight, and it was several weeks before he could talk Freddie into letting him “move” back in. When he started coming around again, he was scary looking — even for him: Wolfy was strung out and hollow, like Hardcore's denizens of the sidewalk exposed to the light.

One morning at the Casino, I was clearing out the auditorium for the cleaning crew and went to wake up a bearded, homeless-looking older guy, a regular who came around a lot. The guy was slumped over: cold, blue, and dead. It was some sort of seizure or attack, I think; I remember later someone saying that he 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 after we closed, standing outside the locked doors, swearing and waving a handgun around. Cops showed up within two minutes of our call, and the guy surrendered. These incidents were just two of many that had me wondering if I was 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 little more for managers, judging from the high turnover. There were rumors that buildings were up for sale or 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). Longtime Walnut staffers were quitting to take jobs elsewhere, leaving just enough employees to cover 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 dumb chop socky flick called Kung Fu of Eight Drunkards, about martial artists who develop a method of kicking ass under the influence. (I shit thee not.) Wolfman was there (he loved kung fu flicks) as were five karate students, straight from class and still wearing their uniforms with dark-colored achievement belts. 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 on the screen...call it Wolfman Versus the Karate Kidz. Wolfy was spinning around, kicking and throwing punches in all directions, while the karate kids used their fists of fury to connect a few blows of their own... on each other as much as on Wolfman.

The rambunctious crowd egged them on, cheering as if they were at a prizefight. Several chairs were broken during the melée. I yelled and waved my flashlight; nobody listened, bodies kept flying, cops were summoned, and Wolfy and his fellow combatants beat feet through the rear exit doors just as the sound of sirens reached the theater. After that, we weren’t allowed to let Wolfman in anymore. I don’t know who handed down 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 going outside, rounding the corner, unlocking a gate, and heading downstairs to a long, low-ceilinged room below the theater. On row after row of makeshift wooden shelves, tucked into manila envelopes and file folders, were thousands of movie posters, press kits, film stills, and lobby cards. The theater had been filing all the film-company promotional material since the ’60s, and the accumulation filled the basement, all stamped “Aztec” in big red letters on the back. Even to the most casual movie buff, this was a magical place to hang out...just unfold the posters and admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism. Ads 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 Hetty Story (1978), ’70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, soft-core porn—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 (1969) — “See brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!” The Pigkeeper's Daughter (1972) —“She brought a new meaning to the phrase ‘Driving a Hard Bargain’!” Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) —“They’ll love the very life out of your body!” Wham-Bam Thank You, Spaceman (1973) — “He’s a UFO Romeo!” The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (1974) —“It’s not his nose that grows!” Son of Blob (1972) — “It’s loose again, eating everyone!” (This one starred a post-Jeannie and pre-Dallas Larry Hagman.)

And the graphics — who couldn’t 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 outerspace, wearing a skintight space suit, high heels (yes, I said high heels, and no gloves!), her glass-bubble helmet unattached to her space suit, with a cutaway in her space suit that exposes her cleavage, and looking mildly displeased as one of the slimes 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 different — maybe a multiple-screen movie house. He recommended we work on our résumés because other theater sales and possible closures were imminent. I asked about the posters, stills, lobby cards, and press kits in the Aztec basement; he said, so far as he knew, everything would probably be thrown out I’ve often wondered what happened to that 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.

I was walking home from work at about 5:00 a.m. one day, job satisfaction and job security in decline, when someone 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 pocket, some $40 tucked into it. Earlier that evening, at the Casino, I’d hounded a surly teen customer — I forget over what — but I’ve always assumed that guy was my assailant. After 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 made my way back downtown to get my ticket punched 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 the Owl for a while). Both were demolished to make room for the Horton Plaza shopping mall with its 140 retail shops spread 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 Fifth Avenue at G Street, near Horton Plaza.

The Aztec and Casino theaters on Fifth Avenue closed in 1982. 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 2000, CIM had converted the 15,000-square-foot area into a two-story shopping complex housing a Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, an Urban Outfitters, 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 in 1982 and left to rot for most of the next 20 years, even after it was acquired through eminent domain (condemning) in 1985 by the city of San Diego s Centre City Development Corporation. A $10 million-restoration plan for the historic 79-year-old building was approved in November 2002 by a city-council committee, which would produce a 1400-seat performing-arts theater and five stories of office space.

There are currently only two single-screen moviehouses still operating in the San Diego area — La Paloma in Encinitas (built in 1927) and the Ken Cinema (opened 1946) in Kensington.

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