Enrique Limón is on a mission to save the Caliente mural on the west façade of the nearly 90-year-old, decades-abandoned, California Theatre (1122 Fourth Avenue). Limón started a petition on April 22 when he caught wind of the Historical Resources Board meeting on April 28 to consider the historical designation of the mural along with two others at the same location.
Limón said on April 25, “We were hoping to have 250 signatures by Thursday, but we now have nearly 500. It’s really gaining momentum.”
Limón said about the mural, “This is a 40-by-80 foot love letter to our symbiotic relationship with Mexico at one time. Caliente was an economic and cultural boon in San Diego. It’s a tangible testament of a time before we spoke of building walls.”
The Caliente mural was unveiled in April 1956 by John Alessio of Mr. A’s fame. The “Fabulous 5-10” refers to wagering as well as to where he met his wife, who worked at Kress’ five-and-dime store. At that time, Alessio was the assistant general manager for the Caliente racetrack.
Limón's mission is personal, as his maternal grandfather worked at the original Caliente resort in Mexico. It’s also a reminder of the time his mother met Elvis at the bullfights.
“I do hope that people show up Thursday and speak about what the sign means to them,” said Limón. “It’s a monumental piece of art of a time gone by with a technique that no longer exists. José Jesus Moreno is the artist that painted the roses on the letter ‘C’ in Caliente. Moreno worked for Pacific Outdoor Advertisement Company [creators of the mural]. He also painted the I-8 signs before they were standardized by the city.”
Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, said, “We received no formal notice. Friday evening [April 22] was the first time I saw that the signs were on the agenda online.”
Coons said that even though the California Theatre was designated on the local historic register in 1990, the signs weren’t addressed at that time.
“The Caliente sign is one of the largest signs of its type left in San Diego county,” said Coons. “The sign is important to most San Diegans. Testimony of what it means to people will be important this Thursday.”
As Coons sees it, “Unlike many historical sites, the Caliente sign transports you back to a different time when crossing the border for entertainment was the norm. It was a time when our relationship with Mexico was good and San Diegans could glimpse celebrities. It tells a historical story that just isn’t possible with most other historic sites.”
Coons said if the board votes against the signs’ historical significance, he will take it to the state and national level.
“The developers have no roots in San Diego. They don’t care what the signs mean to San Diegans,” said Coons. “Three other major offers by major downtown developers have been made that want to incorporate the original elements, but their offers have been declined. The out-of-town developers acquired the property on foreclosure; they got quite a steal, and now they are trying to milk it for all it’s worth.”
The meeting to decide designation is at 1:00 p.m. on April 28 at 202 C Street. Coons said, “A strong turnout will have an impact. One can either speak or fill out a form telling what the sign means to you. It’s important to know that the murals are just the developer’s first step toward attempting to demolish the whole theater to build condos.”
Will public sentiment have any impact on the developer’s plans to demolish the signs and theater?
On April 26, Cyrus Sanandaji (principal at Sloan Capital) said, “No, preservation of the existing theater and tower is not economically feasible.” Sloan purchased the property when it went into foreclosure in 2006.
At the meeting, Sanandaji said he will argue that the signs do not meet any of the criteria for historical designation. If the vote doesn’t go his way, he will appeal the decision to the city council.
When asked if the city had ever fined Sloan in regards to the property’s condition, he said that when approached by city entities over the years, they have been responsive to all requests, although efforts have been time-consuming: he said that even a simple project to secure the building from trespassers and vandals and painting over graffiti took nearly nine months to receive approval.
As far as any offers from local developers to purchase the property, Sanandaji said no such offers exist.