California Theatre – San Diego, CA

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in April 2021. You can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

Balcony of the California Theatre in San Diego

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

Once billed as “the cathedral of motion pictures” and “an enduring contribution to the artistic beauty of the entire Southland,” The California Theatre in San Diego, CA will be demolished. It could be said its destruction has been ongoing in the last 30 years due to inadequate maintenance. Southern California does not have harsh winters, but it gets rain, and when water comes into a building, it can do significant damage, especially if it’s full of ornamental plasterwork.

California Theatre Auditorium from the Stage

It was named the New California Theatre because there was already a California Theatre in San Diego in 1927. The original California changed its name to the Aztec in 1930, which allowed this one to drop the “new” from its name.

Architect John Paxton Perrine designed the 2,200-seat theater in Spanish Colonial Revival style. The building also housed several restaurants and a high-end department store, Bernard’s, which occupied the entire second floor. It began as a silent film and a Vaudeville theater, before turning to talkies in 1931. Eventually, ornate theater interiors went out of style, and the decorative plasterwork in California’s auditorium was covered by draperies during a remodel in 1963. The California stopped showing films in 1976, and became a performing arts center in 1978. Many famous bands performed at the theater during this time, including; A-HA, Poison, Pete Seeger, The Jerry Garcia Band, Donny Osmond, Jesus and Mary Chain, Melissa Etheridge, The Smithereens, Alice Cooper, Cowboy Junkies, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith.

The lobby of the California Theatre in San Diego

Joseph F Malloy, the theater’s original assistant manager, was shot and killed during a robbery on May 7, 1928.

Ariel Wharton (A.W.) Coggeshall, a San Diego-based businessman, bought the building in 1976. When he died in 1986, he left California to a group of non-profit organizations. The nonprofits formed a consortium called Fourth and C Corp. They were not interested in owning a 2,200-seat theater and planned to sell it to Hillman Properties, a Pittsburgh-based developer. Hillman planned to demolish the building and build a 34-story office complex. Fourth and C Corp gave the tenants of the office building, many of which were month-to-month, 30 days to leave in April 1990. Avalon Attractions, the company that managed the theater, was given until July 1990. The last performances were the Cowboy Junkies on June 20, 1990 and the Final Curtain Concert at the California Theatre, held by the Theatre Organ Society of San Diego on June 24, 1990.

The fire curtain and proscenium arch of the California Theatre in San Diego, CA

The feature presentation on opening night was “Venus of Venice,” a silent romantic comedy starring Constance Talmadge and Antonio Moreno. “Book Ideas,” a vaudeville show by Fanchon and Marco, and a performance by Al Lyons and his band rounded out the opening bill.

However, it wouldn’t be that easy to demolish the California, as it was a historic site grade three, which protected it from being demolished. Fourth and C Corp petitioned the San Diego City Council to change the designation to grade four, which would allow demolition as long as the historic features were recorded. They held a vote in February 1991 and voted 5-to-2 to change the listing. Hillman Properties abandoned the project in October 1991 due to the impact of the economic recession of 1990-1991. The building was bought and sold a few times in the 1990s and early 2000s, with plans for the theater ranging from a Christian performing arts center to a playhouse with occasional films.

Orchestra Level, California Theatre San Diego, CA

View of the auditorium from the orchestra level.

Sloan Capital Partners LLC purchased the California building in 2006. Sloan partnered with Caydon Property Group, an Australian company, to redevelop the property. Caydon’s plans called for the theater to be demolished and replaced by a 41-story condominium tower. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), a San Diego based historic preservation nonprofit, filed a legal challenge to the demolition of the building on March 1, 2018. The court granted the legal petition because the environmental impact report did not analyze any adaptive reuse alternatives for the theater, required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Looby of the California Theatre in San Diego,CA.

The California was the first public venue in San Diego to have earthquake resistant framework built into the structure to protect the building.

SOHO and Caydon eventually agreed the lobby and much of the exterior facade would be reconstructed. They also agreed to work with SOHO to identify historic items in the building that could be repurposed. Caydon recently purchased the property from Sloan for $21.1M. It is currently scheduled to be demolished in 2021, with the construction of the new building beginning shortly afterwards.

Auditorium from the side of the stage - California Theatre San Diego, CA

The Wurlitzer organ was removed from the theater after it closed. It went to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Spring Valley, CA, but was destroyed by arson in March 1996.

Emery Theatre – Cincinnati, Ohio

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in Jan 2021. You can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

View of the auditorium from the middle balcony.

Built as part of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, the Emery Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio opened on January 6, 1912 as the Emery Auditorium. It was funded by an endowment of $656,737 ($17.1 million with inflation) from Mary Emery, whose husband, Thomas J. Emery had planned on building a similar school in the city. Emery stipulated as part of the endowment that the auditorium must be open to the public and have at least 1,800 seats. The 2,200-seat theater was designed by Harvey Hannaford of the architectural firm of Samuel Hannaford & Sons. It was one of four “acoustically perfect” concert halls whose design was inspired by the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. The other three were the Orchestra Hall, also in Chicago, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Orchestra Hall in Detroit, MI.

View of the auditorium from the stage.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra held an inaugural concert at the theater on January 6, 1912. In 1924, George Gershwin performed his classic composition Rhapsody in Blue at the theater. On April 25, 1936, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra held its final concert at the Emery; it moved to the Cincinnati Music Hall, a space with more seats and more parking. Beginning in 1935 and ending in 1939, the Federal Theatre Project, a program established during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal to fund live entertainment programs, began to use the Emery. From 1938 to 1948, the theater was the home of The Boone County Jamboree, an American Country Radio Program. A 500,000-watt transmitter was used by station WLW so that millions of people around the country could listen to the program.

The Emery has a very small lobby when compared to many other theaters built around the same time.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Emery on June 16, 1959 while he was campaigning for Ted Berry during Berry’s run for Cincinnati City Council. The University of Cincinnati (UC) took ownership of the Emery building in 1969, when the Ohio Mechanics Institute was incorporated into the university. A Wurlitzer Opus 1680 organ moved to the Emery from the nearby Keith’s Theater the same year, but was not completely installed until 1977. That same year, the Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society began programming shows on the weekends. They held organ concerts, showed silent, talking, and 3D films, and reduced the seating by closing the upper balcony. The final organ concert was held on October 24, 1999, after which the Wurlitzer was removed to be restored. It would never return to the Emery, and was installed in the Cincinnati Music Hall’s ballroom in 2004.

Most of the seats on the upper balcony have been removed.

Beginning in November 2011, the Requiem Project, a non-profit group formed in late 2008 to restore the theater, held concerts, film festivals and recording sessions at the Emery. The National, Dirty Projectors, Carrie Rodriguez, Ralph Stanley and others performed at the theater during this time. The Requiem Project hired John Senhauser Architects and Westlake Reed Leskosky, two architecture firms, to create the restoration plans for the Emery. However, the Emery Center Corporation, who subleased the theater from Emery Center

Apartments Limited Partnership (ECALP), who in turn leased it from UC, shut down all programming in 2013. According to Kathy Schwab, head of the Emery Center Corp in 2013, programming was stopped due to the theater’s dilapidated state and because everything had to be approved by UC. The Requiem Project sued to try to continue their renovation efforts at the theater, but eventually settled in March 2016. On April 23, 2019, the UC board of trustees voted to sell the Emery; according to them, it is beyond repair. It was sold for $8.55 million to local developers who intend to restore the building. The restoration costs are estimated at around $30 million and will take about three years to complete.

The theater’s vertical sign is stored in one of the former offices in the building.

View of the auditorium from the orchestra level.

Documenting the End of a Theater – Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in Feb 2021. You can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

The auditorium was used for storage after the theater closed.

In late December 2020, a representative of the Wisconsin Historical Society contacted me. They asked me if I was familiar with what was happening at the Capitol Theatre (Park) in Racine, Wisconsin. I had heard of it, but I didn’t know anything about its current state. 

The Capitol opened on May 30, 1928. It was a typical Vaudeville theater that eventually became a cinema. Les Paul, the famous musician, performed on the stage at the Capitol when he was 14. The theater was twinned in 1976 by splitting the auditorium in two. This change did not touch the front of the auditorium and the stage was closed. 

In the photo above, you can see the auditorium dome through the drop ceiling.

It was renamed Park 1 & 2 in August 1981 and closed on September 1, 1987. The theater was bought by John Apple, who used it as a storage and repair facility for antiques (e.g. cash registers and barber chairs). Over time, the building began to fall into disrepair, and Apple fell a decade behind on his property taxes. 

Many things were left behind before the theater was demolished.

The Racine Building Department issued 12 violations of the City Code in August 2017. Apple did not address this, so a demolition order was issued for the building in June 2018. Apple tried to stop the demolition by going through the court, but his petition was rejected. Then he sought a landmark designation, and on December 1, 2020, the city of Racine bestowed Landmark Status on the Capitol. 

However, the demolition order stood. The City Council of Racine voted to change the Historic Landmark Designation process so that they cannot be nominated while under a raze order. 

One of the antique cash registers that remained prior to demolition.

Despite the efforts of the Friends of the Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI, who raised enough money to purchase and stabilize the building, demolition began on the morning of February 23, 2021. The walls were destabilized and pushed down into the auditorium. The rubble was removed and dirt was hauled in to fill the space.

The projection room was used as a makeshift apartment.

I was asked if I would be interested in documenting the interior of the theater before it was demolished. I was but I needed to figure out the best way to get to Wisconsin and be safe due to the ongoing pandemic. I decided that driving out there was the safest way even if it meant spending 17 hours in the car. Fortunately, I convinced a friend of mine who has been exploring abandoned buildings with for almost 20 years to make the trip with me.

I was hoping that the effort to save the building would succeed but I’m glad that I could document it before it was lost. I know that not every that theater I photograph can or will be saved, but this one came close.

Patreon

I’m launching a Patreon page! As an After the Final Curtain Patreon you’ll get early access to image galleries, video walkthroughs, and write-ups before they are released, print giveaways, discounts on workshops, and some exclusive workshop locations (one some of you have been asking me about for years).

I’ve been uploading content to the page for a few months before launch so there’s already a number of things to check out. You can sign up at https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

2021 Workshops Part 1

Auditorium, Victory Theatre Holyoke, MA.

Here’s the workshop lineup for the first half of 2021. All of the workshops are limited in size and masks are required due to the ongoing pandemic.

Orchestra Level, Orpheum Theatre – New Bedford, MA.

First up is a return to the Orpheum Theatre in New Bedford, MA on May 1, 2021. This is one of my favorite workshops as there is so much to shoot. A theater, a ballroom, and a shooting range. To sign up visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/orpheum-theatre-workshop

Auditorium, Everett Square Theatre – Boston, MA.

Up next is the Everett Square Theatre in Hyde Park, MA on May 15, 2021. This is a great one for people who haven’t photographed anything abandoned before. It’s a smaller theater,  but still has a lot of great details. To sign up visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/everett-square-theatre-workshop

Auditorium, Victory Theatre Holyoke, MA

Next is one I haven’t done for a few years – The Victory Theatre in Holyoke, MA on June 12, 2021. The Victory was one of the first theaters I photographed, and the first one I held a workshop at back in 2014. To sign up visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/victory-theatre-workshop

Auditorium, Colonial Theatre – Augusta, Maine.July 24, 2021, is a return to the Colonial Theatre in Augusta, Maine. When I first photographed this theater there was a giant hole in the middle of the auditorium,  luckily that has been fixed and it’s much easier to move around the place. To sign up visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/colonial-theatre

Auditorium, Goodwill Theatre – Johnson City, NY

I had a workshop planned for the Goodwill Theatre in Johnson City, NY in April 2020 but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m still working with the owners on finalizing a date but it should be sometime in the Spring of 2021. I will put out an update the second the date is locked.

There are other locations in the works (outside of the New England area) but that announcement will have to wait for another day.

Update

Ellie

Hi Everyone,

Been awhile! During all of the craziness of 2020 – my second daughter was born, so I took a bit of a break to spend as much time as possible with her.

Now that I’ve got your attention with a cute baby photo I’d like to talk about an issue that is affecting most of the world currently – the Covid-19 epidemic. Yes, I know you’re probably here to look at photographs of historic theatres, but as this crisis has shut down the world for a year, including most of the historic theaters – it should be addressed. The area of the US I call home – the Northeast – seems to be getting better, and as a freelance architectural photographer and digital technician jobs have started to pick up again. I was even able to host a few long-delayed workshops last year.

In some areas of the country, theaters have been able to reopen after being closed for months, but the majority of them are still closed. The larger corporate-owned ones will probably be ok when this is over, but the smaller independent theaters will need our help. Theaters were one of the first locations to close, will likely be the last thing to reopen, and when they do they will have a reduced occupancy so that social distancing is possible. I’m afraid that we’re going to see many theaters close for good because of this. 

A friend of mine recently asked regarding theaters closing “Isn’t that good for you?” No, it’s not good for me. I started After the Final Curtain to raise awareness of largely forgotten structures, not to wait around for more to become abandoned. Besides, my list of theaters to document is long enough already. His comment did get me thinking – what could a 2,000 + movie theater turned performing arts center do in a time like this? It could revert to what it was built to do – become a movie theater. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know my favorite theater is the Kings in Brooklyn, NY. There are roughly 3,200 seats in the Kings. It would be a perfect place to watch a movie while still following social distancing protocols.

You may have read a bit about the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918. Theaters closed pretty quickly after it began and many independent ones did not reopen. Studios took advantage of this and began to buy up the closed theaters. Studios at the time were allowed to own theaters, so all of the chains began to form after this until the Paramount Decree put a stop to studio-owned theater chains. On August 7, 2020, the Paramount Decree was overturned and studios are once again allowed to own movie theaters. 

I’ve still been keeping very busy even though I didn’t post very often on here during the past year. This post is long enough already. I’ll save what I was up to in 2020 and what’s in store for 2021 (the 10th anniversary of After the Final Curtain!!) for Monday. 

Happy Holidays!

The Boyd Theatre opened on Christmas Day in 1928.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! I hope you all are staying safe and healthy during this awful year.

Thank you for following my work!

The Keith-Albee or RKO Keith’s Theatre in Queens, NY opened on Christmas Day in 1928.

Artists Sunday – November 29, 2020

Orchestra level, Colonial Theatre Laconia, NH.

Colonial Theatre – Laconia, NH.

I’ll be taking part in the first-ever Artists Sunday on November 29, 2020. It’s similar to Black Friday or Small Business Saturday but encourages people to buy art! 

Between now and November 29 I’ll be uploading a lot of new and never before seen work to my print store at http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/store. If you want a sneak peek of the new work be sure to follow my Instagram and Twitter pages. 

The sale will go live at 12:01 AM on November 29, 2020, and end at 11:59 PM.  

Visit http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/store and use the coupon code “Artistssunday” at checkout to get 20% off your order. The first 13 people to spend over $100 will get a free matted 8×12 print.

Lobby, Adams Theatre – Newark, NJ

Here’s a short interview I did with the Boston Globe about the event:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/11/20/lifestyle/thousands-artists-crafters-organizations-encourage-customers-shop-artists-sunday/?outputType=amp

 

Here’s a bit about Artists Sunday from their website:

“Artists Sunday is the nationwide movement dedicated to supporting artists and recognizing the impact they have in enriching our lives, communities, and the economy. The powerful new effort is designed to make the Sunday after Thanksgiving the most profitable day of the year for artists. Consumers are encouraged to shop with artists and purchase creative, handcrafted gifts for the holidays. Artists Sunday follows Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, prior to Cyber Monday. Supporters include individual artists, economic development agencies, and non-profit organizations across the country. To learn more about Artists Sunday artists, partners, sponsors, or involvement in promoting commerce with artists, please visit http://ArtistsSunday.com/

Artist Sunday Flyer

“Haunted” Theatres

Auditorium, Hanover Theatre – Worcester, MA

One superstition in the theatrical world is that every theater has a ghost because of this many of these buildings have traditions to appease the restless spirits. One common one is the use of a ghost light, which is a single light that is always on in the center of the stage. It’s said that this provides the spirits with the opportunity to perform on stage and keeps them from cursing the theater. In reality, the ghost light is there so that people will not trip and fall into the orchestra pit while walking across the darkened stage.

Full disclosure – I’m a complete skeptic when it comes to the paranormal. I’ve been visiting places that you’d assume would be full of ghosts: abandoned asylums, prisons, houses, and theaters. However, I have never come across anything that didn’t have a rational explanation. 

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays so I’ve put together a list of some of the theaters I’ve visited that have ghost stories attached to them. 

Warner Pacific Theatre, Hollywood, CA

The first theater is the Warner (Pacific) Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. It is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Sam Warner, of Warner Bros Pictures.  Warner died of pneumonia a day before the film he had been working on – the “Jazz Singer” premiered. His ghost was said to use the elevator in the theater until it stopped working after an earthquake in 1994. Warner’s ghost has also been blamed for many items going missing only to turn up in different locations hours or days later.

View from the balcony, Variety Theatre – Cleveland, Ohio.

Next is the Variety Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. Patrick Colvin, the building’s caretaker, has witnessed lights turning on and off, doors closing and opening, and has heard voices throughout the building when there is no one there. He has named many of the ghosts and greets them every time he enters the building. 

View from the side of the balcony, Lincoln Square Theatre – Decatur, IL.

The third is the Lincoln Square Theatre in Decatur, IL. The Lincoln Square is said to be haunted by a former theater worker named “Red”. People claim to have heard him whisper, and seen him walking around the stage area. According to one website, there was a stagehand nicknamed “Red” who worked at the theater during the vaudeville era. He took a nap in the theater after eating his lunch one day in 1927 and never woke up. 

Auditorium, Loew’s Poli Theatre – Bridgeport, CT

Fourth on the list is the Loew’s Poli (Palace) and Majestic Theatres in Bridgeport, CT. According to one site, the complex may have been built on a Native American burial ground due to artifacts found during the construction of the building. People have claimed to hear the muffled sounds of a crowd and see shadowy figures move through the auditorium.

Orchestra level, Rialto Theatre – South Pasadena, CA

Last is the Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena, CA. Rumors that the Rialto is haunted have been around for years. One story says that it’s haunted by a woman who committed suicide on the balcony. Another story says that a man went insane in the projector room. It’s alleged that the ghost of an older man has been seen on the balcony and that the stalls in the girl’s bathroom shake when there is no one around. 

I’ll be back in a few days with an update post on what I’ve been doing these past few months. Happy Halloween!

Capitol Theatre – New London, CT

Auditorium of the Capitol Theatre in New London, CT

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

George Burns and Gracie Allen are one of the most well-known comedy duos of the 20th century, and legend has it that they met at the Capitol Theatre in New London, CT. This isn’t true, but they were introduced by Allen’s roommate at the time, Rena Arnold, who went on to marry Walter T. Murphy, the owner of the Capitol Theatre. 

Stage, Capitol Theatre New London, CT

View of the auditorium from the stage.

The Capitol Theatre opened on November 21, 1921. Tickets for the opening day celebration went on sale three days earlier, and sold out in just a few hours. According to an article in The New London Day, “In beauty, comfort, equipment, construction, and other ways, it equals, if it does not surpass any theater of its size in the country.” Architect W. H. Lowe designed the interior, which featured a mural of cherubs above the proscenium arch. Like many other theaters of the time, the Capitol had an orchestra pit, and an organ. 

Lobby mezzanine, Capitol Theatre New London, CT

The opening act was Billy Sharpe and the 20th Century Revue.

Murphy sold the theater to the Connecticut Theatres Operating Company in 1942. Ownership and management of the Capitol between the mid-1940s and early-1970s is unclear, but we do know that the Capitol was closed on April 22, 1974 after a visit by the New London building inspector found multiple violations, including an unsafe marquee, eight feet of water in the basement, and a broken toilet in the projection booth. Its closing was made permanent after the projectionists union complained of unsafe working conditions. It was purchased by the City of New London for $55,000 in 1978 so that they could provide fire exits on the adjoining buildings — a tunnel was built under the theater’s stage that connected the buildings on either side of the theater to serve as their fire exit.

The ticket booth pictured here was not original to the theater.

Beyond housing this fire exit, the theater has been unused since 1978. Proposals for revitalizing the building have included a performing arts center, a disco, a mini-mall, a twin-screen theater, a flea market, a visitors center for a maritime heritage park, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting hall. Every plan has fallen through — one developer said “Physically, it’s just too big. There just isn’t the population in the area to fill that theater every night.” The City executed some general maintenance on the theater in 1995, including replacing the roof, removing the seats, and cleaning up the interior of the building, but no additional work has been done on the theater space since then. 

The South Eastern New England Theatre Organ Society (SENTOS) purchased the Marr & Colton Organ in 1977 and placed it in storage. The last time it had been played was in 1936.

Maxim Development Group (MDG) purchased the theater in 2006 for $1 in exchange for modest tax breaks, provided that MDG renovate and develop the theater into a live music venue within an agreed upon time frame. Before the deal was executed, local newspaper The Day revealed that the head of the company had defrauded investors of millions, and had been convicted of attempted armed robbery. The City of New London went through with the deal regardless, and within the year the company had broken its agreement with the City. It was seized by the City for non-payment of taxes, and auctioned to two contractors from New York for $20,000, who later sold the property for $68,000 to a local developer.  The theater is currently for sale.

In my opinion the Capitol is worth reusing, but it should become something other than a performing arts center. New London has a movie palace-turned-performing arts center, the Garde Arts Center, located less than a mile from the Capitol. A return to movies in the style of a place like the Nitehawk Cinemas, a New York City movie theater chain that offers food and drinks that can be ordered and consumed while watching a film, might be something that would work.