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New article with a fairly detailed history of this theater, along with photos from the late ‘20s thru today – http://gardetheaterhistory.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-grande-olde-garde-history-of-new.html
The theater plans to once again offer movie screenings on a regular basis, after the recent installation of a newfangled 4K Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) compliant digital projection system with eight channel surround sound, said to rival any similarly outfitted moviehouse in the region (with a screen that, at around 40 feet by 25 feet, is one of the largest non-Imax screens in the state).
The first major engagement planned for the screening is the 2015 Winter Film Festival, which starts up in January.
The Niantic Theater was closed in March 1980 for renovations, reopening in May as the three-screen Niantic Cinema 1-2-3. Owner George P. Mitchell (who purchased the theater in 1979) told the New London Day (4-25-80) that the old theater seated about 630 people, while the three-screen version seated 200 people in each downstairs theater and 150 more in the balcony that had been turned into an upstairs screen (with rocking chairs). The projection booth was automated at the same time, and a new box office gate was installed with an automatic ticket machine.
The theaters ran mostly second run and foreign film thru late 1982. They added a 280 seat fourth screen in early 1983, by taking the adjoining building (which formerly housed Larson’s Carpet, the Niantic Package Store, and a bowling alley) and “jacking up the roof about 20 feet and redoing the building,” according to the New London Day (3-6-83).
BTW, the reason that big empty lot of concrete up the hill from the latterday DI remained undeveloped after 1972 was because the drive-in owners maintained ownership of their property where the original DI had been, refusing to so much as stripe the concrete for parking, in order to ensure that no business or cars would throw distracting light downhill onto their lovely new screen, now finally surrounded by trees instead of billboards and lit-up storefronts.
By the late ‘70s, that uphill wasteland was a mass of broken concrete, possibly broken up by the drive-in owners who wanted to discourage “bootleg” screenings by parked cars getting a free view the new screen, at least according to Waterford city officials who tried to get property owners to fix up overgrown lot (it’s true, you could usually hear the movie fine from uphill, especially if someone on the lot itself turned up a bunch of speakers!).
The fact that both the latterday DI lot and the old concrete wasteland remain undeveloped to this day leads me to suspect they’re still both own by someone apparently unwilling to sell or develop for some reason.
The Waterford DI at Boston Post Road near the intersection of Clark Lane opened in April 1955. In 1970, Raymond C. Sroczenski took over the theater and applied for permits to move the lot down the hill, a bit further from Clark Lane, to a space approximately the same size, but with one direct access entrance from the main road (Boston Post Road, aka Route 1). The new downhill locale also removed the screen from the “light pollution” caused by its original location being in the middle of a rapidly growing array of shopping plazas on all the surrounding properties.
The Google Maps image shows the ruins of the latterday locale, mostly covered in shrubbery. The original drive-in was to the left of that, on the lot now covered by broken concrete and where the small greytop building is attached to the building with the whit roof. Those buildings (the larger being a Stop ‘N’ Shop) went up in 1972 after the original Waterford DI closed, with the small grey roof building housing the indoor Waterford Theater, run by the same United General Theater chain that built the exactly identical Cameo Theater in nearby Niantic at the same time. Carl Sherman ran both the indoor and outdoor Waterford theaters
The new locale was built in spring 1973, though construction and permit delays kept the drive-in from reopening until August 29, with a screening of Dillinger (“Free admission to the first 25 Ladies in Red!”) backed with The Little Cigars Mob. It closed after the summer 1980 season.
The single screen Centre Cinema at 185 Center Street opened July 2, 1969 with a screening of “Finian’s Rainbow.” By 1975, it was being run by Robert Ahearn, though he was cited for several fire code violations and then went bankrupt, with the bank foreclosing on the property on June 4, 1975, forcing the theatre’s closure. The bank decided to lease the theater to the Centre Cinema Corp, operated by Franklin Ferguson of Franklin Ferguson & Theater Associates, which ran eight other theaters at the time. Ferguson and manager Leonard Paul of West Hartford fixed up all the code violations, and the theater was reopened at the end of December, 1975. It remained in operation until the 1990s.
Corrections – the Norwich-New London Drive-In Theater opened April 8, 1950 (not 1955), on a 17 ½ acre lot purchased by operator E.M. Leow from Walter and Helen Chabasinski for $100,000. Built by Bruno Weingarten, the opening night included a double feature of It’s A Great Feeling (starring Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson) and Sand (Mark Stevens). In December 1971, construction began on a second screen and an expansion of the physical lot, increasing car occupancy from 1,110 cars to around 1,400 for its reopening in April 1972 under a new marquee, now proclaiming it the Norwich-New London TWIN Drive-In. Bruno Weingarten’s wife Beatrice and her family continued to run the theater with the Leows after he died in 1978, through its closure in the mid-1980s.
Final screening at this theater was October 10, 1985, a double bill with Deep Throat and Taboo – http://whenporntheatersinvadedconnecticut.blogspot.com/
Smack dab in between the Casino and Aztec theaters on 5th Avenue was this disreputable little cave that screened mostly silent porn loops, in a foul-smelling space reeking of disinfectant. I used work at the Aztec and Casino, and I recall catching whiffs from inside the Foxy while standing on a sidewalk ladder to put up new marquee letters…the Foxy door would open, and I’d about swoon and fall over from the malodorous assault. Open since at least 1977, it finally closed around 1987.
John Antonelli owned the Lux Theatre just underneath the Neptune Hotel, having opened it in the early ‘70s. His brother Andy Antonelli ran Sonny’s on the west side of 5th, with grindhouse theater operator Wes Andrews and another partner. The Lux was later purchased by Rick Ford, who also operated a porno filming place upstairs in the Neptune that he called Seabag Productions.
The collapsed storefront to the left of the theater was never rebuilt, and the wooden two-story structure seen in the photo to the right of the theater was demolished and replaced by offices now mostly used as county courthouse outlets, so the old brick-lined rectangular theater space is the only still-standing part of that entire east-side strip of the town square.
This used to be along the east side of the town square, which is now a round rotunda rather than a square. There’s one other storefront not seen on the left side of the vintage photo before the building ends, but that storefront collapsed a few years ago, which threatened the entire left wall of the former theater, occupied at the time by a wine and cheese shop with a small deli in the back. Luckily, the wall was shored up without having to replace, and the interior that was once the movie theater (a long, rectangular space) still has some of the original brick walls exposed.
As of 2013, the only remnant of its movie theater days is a film reel mounted on the wall that almost toppled (which is actually a large shipping reel rather than a projection reel).
I can confirm that theater seen in Boxoffice circa 1950 is indeed the same theater that was later split up and expanded for the Niantic Cinemas. There is no other Niantic moviehouse, unless you count the nearby Cameo Theatre, which only operated from 1972 to 1985. The much smaller Cameo (a porn house for all but its first two years) was just behind the Niantic Theatre, across Hope Street and occupying the far end of a strip mall.
If the Markoffs opened a third as-yet unidentified house in Niantic in late 1945, it was long gone by the 1970s. I’ve yet to find ads for a third house, but I’ll keep an eye peeled. Perhaps the Markoffs STARTED work on a theater in late ‘45, but that house later (1950) became this place, run by the Dubreulls?
The 1950 Boxoffice article mentions this theater’s owners also started a local newspaper shortly before the Niantic Theatre opened, which corresponds with the 9-27-77 article mentioning the Dubreulls running both the theater (since the early ‘50s) and the town paper, the Niantic News. So this was the Dubreull’s operation since before the day it opened, not the Markoffs’.
Sorry, Niantic (a village) and East Lyme (town in which Niantic sits) are all the same place to us residents! Cameo address should be 66 Pennsylvania Avenue, Niantic. The PO that now occupies 58 Pennsylvania is at the far end of a strip mall building whose address/suite numbers have all been shuffled a bit since various businesses have come and gone, knocking out walls and changing the resident configurations. The addresses of the strip mall occupants used to span from number 56 to number 82.
The spot that used to be number 66 (the Cameo) now appears to be number 58, the PO (the large space that used to house a supermarket now holds several other smaller stores). The PO is a bit longer than the Cameo was, occupying the former Cameo locale PLUS an adjacent space that formerly held other businesses.
I interviewed a woman who co-managed the Cameo and then purchased it with her husband during its final two years, and she confirms the somewhat shady organization who previously owned the locale and who provided its adult movie prints. “We never saw anyone ever. Film was delivered and every night we called a phone number to give the voice on the other end the totals for the day.”
“The Cameo looked exactly like Waterford Cinema, down to the red carpet and the mirror tiles on the lobby wall. We had a small candy counter with a small popcorn machine, a few candy bars and a small fridge for cans of pop.”
“There was a rectangular marquee on the roof above the theater and poster displays outside. Bo would put up the movies titles and the little town pranksters would re-arrange the letters into cuss words on it all the time. At some point, he stopped, and I think he just had the show times on it: Monday through Saturday 7:00 & 9:00, Saturday matinee at 4:00, and closed Sunday…we hung the movie posters on the walls in the lobby.”
During its final six months until it closed after the summer 1974 season, the Capitol showed X-rated features at night, G-rated kiddie matinees on weekends, and even hosted several rock concerts, including Delaney & Bonnie. This made for some surreal advertising blocks in the local New London Day newspaper!
In summer 1974, the State in Jewett City was being run by the Boston/NYC branch of the Pussycat Cinema chain and screening Deep Throat. The State shared employees with the nearby Palace Twin in Norwich, also part of the chain, which sometimes showed mainstream films on one screen and X-rated features on the other.
According to a New London Day article dated September 27, 1977, the Niantic Theater (later renamed Niantic Cinemas) was owned from around 1952 until at least 1977 by Alphonse and May Dubreull of Wild Rose Place, in nearby Waterford, who also published the Niantic News newspaper. The article was about the Dubreull’s attempting to sell the place.
The Waterford DI was closed for awhile in 1973, until it reopened under new ownership In August 1973. When it finally closed in 1980, owner Carl D. Sherman also ran the nearby Waterford Cinema, a single-screen on the eastern side of a strip mall overlooking the Drive-In. That theater would soon close as well.
Somewhere, I have a photo of a marquee pitching a double feature of “Blue Thunder” and “Purple Rain” – at least the names are a perfect pairing!
Fantastic info above! I wish I’d been in contact with you when I wrote the article for the SD Reader (the Aztec stuff I posted is only a short excerpt). Interesting you brought up Vasic – I’m writing about him now, in a Reader feature called “Battle Of The Peeps” about peep show theaters in San Diego in the 70s thru today (I ran Jolar on University in the mid-80s and got to know Vasic thru meetings of an adult merchant’s association).
A few of the corrections are mildly incorrect – employees did indeed take breaks in the Aztec basement, at least during my tenure working for Walnut (1979 thru 1981), tho it was pretty dusty. The manager who closed the theatre to kick out a rowdy was Freddie Bantug, a Phillipino guy who I understand went against Walnut’s wishes by hiring longhaired guys like me and Jay Bagrose (who I came across years later working at one of the local drive-ins).
I SO appreciate the correction about which theater showed the Waters movie and Phantom Of The Paradise! I knew it wasn’t at another “cult” theater like the Strand in OB (where I DID see Monty Python’s Beyond The Fringe) or the Ken, but something seemed fishy about my recollection of the sidewalks downtown – it was indeed at the Hillcrest theater! You’ve finally cleared up a memory that’s been far too fuzzy for years (might have something to do with those smoke breaks at the Casino – I know well that window you speak of!)
I wasn’t privvy to management much so I guessed wrong about locales exchanging prints, and I believed an apparently faulty reference about the Balboa’s waterfalls providing a sort of air conditioning. I eventually stopped going to the Balboa even for free movies – the rat problem was unspeakable, you could see and hear them constantly and they’d be brazen enuff to jump into an unattended popcorn bucket!
I didn’t know that the poster (okay, one-sheet) stash only dated back to 1973 – because the Aztec and Casino showed so many older movies, the one-sheets dated back to the 60s. Amazing to hear the stash remained there for so long after I left! One of the managers – I forget his name but he was an older guy who taught dance lessons in his other job – gave us some one-sheets and lobby cards as a Christmas bonus one year. I don’t think he was supposed to but I still have all of them, with Aztec stamped on the back.
Good times! Dan, I specialize in writing about this stuff for the Reader, I’ve done many features on local theaters over my past 10 years with the paper. I’d love to talk with you directly sometime – perhaps you could contribute to one of the upcoming articles. We’re working on Battle Of The Peeps now and will be doing another shortly on the old 50s Hollywood Burlesque theatre in downtown San Diego –
Jay Allen Sanford
I also posted an excerpt from an earlier article I wrote for the Reader (on downtown all-nighter theaters of the 70s) in the Aztec Theater section. I used to work there for Walnut (and at the nearby Casino, the Balboa, the Pink Pussycat and the two Horton Plaza theaters). If Cinema Treasures launches pages on the Casino, Cabrillo, etc., I’ll post those article excerpts. Anyone interested in the whole (lengthy) article can request it from me via email!
For that matter, there are several long-gone San Diego Drive-ins I’d love to post “chapters” on at this site – I have tons of records RE the Frontier, the Tu-Vu, the Midway near the beaches, etc.
My next big Reader feature on local theaters will be on the old Hollywood Burlesque Theatre in downtown SD where, in the 50s, famed strippers like Lilli St. Cyr came thru and a famous “nudie cutie” movie was filmed there –
A couple of years ago, I wrote a lengthy feature article about ALL the old downtown theaters, called Last Of The All Nighters, for the San Diego Reader. Covers the Aztec, Casino, Cabrillo, Balboa, Pink Pussycat, etc. I worked these theaters for Walnut Properties in the late 70s/early 80s. Here’s excerpts from the article concerning the Aztec – email me for a complete draft covering all the theaters thru their closing.
Jay Allen Sanford
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 â€œThe California Theaterâ€ 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 weekâ€\s coming attractions, â€œsometime in the futureâ€ 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 whatâ€\s playing down the street at the Casino, Plaza or Cabrillo.
Inside, there was no real lobby to speak of, the seats were decrepit and cramped and there were ascending layers of floor levels rather than a traditional balcony so it had a much less â€œold fashionedâ€ 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 Chongâ€\s â€œUp In Smoke,â€ 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 otherâ€\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 someoneâ€\s ejaculate at the Paris Pussycat or taking in a James Bond marathon up the street or around the corner at one of our (only slightly) more respectable theaters.
There wasnâ€\t much to the job itself, any drone could put on a red suit and sell tickets, fill containers with popcorn and soda, count money, sweep carpets. But everyone I met who worked there, day and night and overtime for a measly $3.50 to $4.50 an hour, seemed to really love their jobs. In my case, I occasionally got to flirt with a pretty girl (sneaking her a free coke refill was a good opener). And there was, I guess youâ€\d say, a mild and probably pathetic â€œpower tripâ€ involved, wearing a â€œuniform,â€ swinging around that big black flashlight, entrusted with the keys to the snack bar and money till, access to all the nooks and crannies in the projector booth, the back rooms, behind the screen.
And we were empowered to â€" if faced with an extreme situation â€" â€œrefuse admittance,â€ just like it said we reserved the right to do on the cash register. We even had the power, if not always the ability, to eject customers from the premises, at least those patrons who werenâ€\t doubled over with laughter from being asked to leave by a guy in a red suit waving around a big black flashlight.
The main thing we loved about the job was THE MOVIES! Walnut employees could sign in for free at any of the theaters to see any movie, any time, and were encouraged to do so, to be up on all the circulating features. Most all of us were devotional film buffs, the kind of JuJu Bead junkies seduced by the sound of mammoth Simplex movie projectors and its big spinning reels, who had no problem sitting through five, seven, ten or more features a week. I think most of us genuinely felt we were â€œin the movie businessâ€ and it was a serious and solemn part of the job, to personally view every single new feature (or old feature, or feature weâ€\ve already seen a buncha times but itâ€\s just so fucken cool and maybe that girl I gave the free soda to will show up again, this time without her bitchy girlfriendâ€¦). Business was good, on weekends the house was often sold out, some decent movies were coming out in the late 70s and early 80s and all in all it was a pretty cool gig. Did I mention the big black flashlight?
Few things in my life can compare to the anticipation I used to feel on Thursday nights, in the middle of the a.m. – standing on a rickety ladder on 5th Avenue and putting up the marquee letters announcing the new weekâ€\s lineup of features. Usually, Iâ€\d be back at the theater myself a few hours later, well off my shift, just to catch that first â€œvirginâ€ showing, and most times thereâ€\d be half a dozen other Walnut staffers sprinkled in the crowd as well. By the end of the weekend, weâ€\d pretty much all viewed the new flicks and were debating their merits or lack thereof in company quorums held behind the snack bars, between intermissions.
The mix of brand new films and older features was a cost effective way for Walnut to offer multiple bills, cheap and â€˜round the clock, and even schlocky B-movies that had already been on TV were fun to see on a big screen, in that environment, with an audience. How can you say youâ€\ve truly experienced â€œPlanet Of The Apesâ€ if youâ€\ve never been deafened by a room full of people who erupt like socker hooligans when Charlton Heston growls â€œGet your sticking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!â€ And not all the movies were 2nd run – we had a print of â€œAlienâ€ on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo to the rafters for fourteen days straight, circulating it between theaters after that as a guaranteed draw and selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup features it was paired with (â€œBuck Rogers In The 25th Centuryâ€ and â€œBattlestar Galacticaâ€ for instance, two re-edited TV shows that cost the company almost nothing to rent).
Sometimes, the feature bills were totally unplanned, just randomly matched movies that by rights should never have run back to back â€" â€œThe Muppet Movieâ€ with Charles Bronsonâ€\s â€œDeath Wishâ€ comes to mind as one odd pairing. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film â€œMad Maxâ€ floating around, a dependably popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama â€œThe Accusedâ€ and the farcical â€œAirplane,â€ 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. â€œPhantom Of The Paradise,â€ a rock and roll camp classic from 1974, played on a triple bill with Ken Russellâ€\s â€œTommyâ€ and the Rocky Horror semi-sequel â€œShock Treatment.â€ People were showing up who knew all the Phantom dialogue by heart, talking back to or taunting the characters on the screen ala the Rocky Horror crowd. A dozen or so young adults showed up every night dressed as characters from the film, carrying fake guitars with battle axes for handles and wearing face makeup just like â€œThe Juicy Fruitsâ€ in the movie, acting out their parts in front of the screen and miming to the musical soundtrack (composed mostly by Paul â€œWeâ€\ve Only Just Begunâ€ Williams). I donâ€\t think this particular cult ever really caught on.
Recycled older prints, long out of theater circulation but too new for TV, were also part of Walnutâ€\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. â€œRolling Thunderâ€ (1977) was one such perennial, kind of a sordid precursor to the â€œRamboâ€ movies with William Devane as a POW who comes home from Vietnam, witnesses his family brutally murdered and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance. â€œThe Toolbox Murdersâ€ (1978) was another, about a handyman who savagely offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill and â€" gulp – a nail gun! â€œDawn Of The Deadâ€ (1978) sold out weekend AND weekday showings all the time, while â€œFriday The 13thâ€ (1980) was so popular that, at one point, it was screening in three theaters at the same time.
The audienceâ€\s support and enthusiasm for such celluloid bloodbaths was disturbing, at least to me (certainly Walnut loved those customers, they kept us in business). From the lobby, we could hear them roar with applause at certain intervals and be able to say to ourselves â€œOh, thatâ€\s the part where the guy burns the junkieâ€\s balls off with a flamethrowerâ€ and then screams of delirious laughter where weâ€\d know â€œthat must be when he gives her the toothpick with the eyeball on it and says â€˜beats a sharp stick in the eye.â€\â€ When we screened Walter Hillâ€\s surreal fantasy â€œThe Warriorsâ€ (1979), about teenage gangs waging war in a fictionalized New York City underworld, everyone in the theater always chanted along with the villain when he taunts the â€œgood guys,â€ ad infinitum in a nasal whine, â€œWarriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and PLAY!!!â€ When the Warriors finally did indeed come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a collective cheer loud and sustained enough to nearly bring down the half-century old roof.
At first, talking to our customers and meeting so many fellow movie buffs was like finally finding myself a home on the island of misfit toys. That said, the sort of movies we usually showed attracted an oddball clientele and I didnâ€\t always enjoy chatting up the patrons. In 1980, we ran a cultish little flick called â€œFade To Black,â€ with Dennis Christopher as a teenage movie fanatic who commits several murders by reenacting his favorite celluloid death scenes. Itâ€\s basically about being so obsessed with movies that you canâ€\t distinguish them from reality. Christopher appears in one scene with half his face painted white as Dracula, his hair slicked back on one side only, while the other side of his face and hair is â€œnormal,â€ just before he commits one of his most gruesome murders (wherein he drinks his female victimâ€\s blood). The first time a customer arrived with his own face made up in exactly the same way, I considered invoking that â€œright to refuse admittanceâ€ sign on the register.
Then there was a guy at the Aztec, with a long beard and needle marks who I donâ€\t think was a diabetic Hassidic, who got more and more amped up as he sat through something like twenty straight hours of â€œBlood Feastâ€ (1963), â€œ2,000 Maniacsâ€ (1964) and â€œColor Me Blood Redâ€ (1964), three infamously violent â€œsplatterâ€ films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis. When he started shouting and swearing at the screen, and at other patrons, in some kind of increasingly deluded state, nobody wanted to be the one to ask him to leave, he seemed dangerous (though at least a dozen other customers ignored the commotion and kept watching the movies). Someone called police but they never showed and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4am, announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, only to reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.
It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. There were weeks I couldnâ€\t stand the thought of walking through the auditorium one more time to be faced with scenes from, say, â€œThe Awakening,â€ a really boring 1980 mummy flick where the only drama is trying to figure out whatâ€\s moving slower â€" the plot, the mummy or Charlton Heston. â€œProphecyâ€ (1979) by director John Frankenheimer (â€œThe Manchurian Candidateâ€) was another one everyone hated – made out to be a horrific monster movie in ads and posters, it was instead a preachy tract on environmentalism where the audience never even got to see a BEM (Bug Eyed Monster). Ditto for 1979â€\s â€œThe Fog,â€ where the only monsters in the movie were bouncing around under Adrienne Barbeauâ€\s sweater. And, despite my admiration for Bruce Leeâ€\s prototypal oeuvre, it was hard to get into the badly dubbed copycat kung fu flicks we were usually saddled with (starring â€œBruce Liâ€ or â€œBruce Leâ€ or â€œBruce Leiâ€ or â€œBruce L. Eeeâ€). Still, there was always something different unspooling down the street and, even if all those movies sucked, the marquees would soon be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.
The Casino was my favorite place to work overnights. Up in the rear of the balcony was a door to a storage room where spare uniforms and â€œwet floorâ€ signs were kept. The room had a small window facing outside the building, just over the top of the flashing marquee, and anyone paying attention could probably have spotted the evidence of how popular the spot was for clerks who liked to smoke a joint during their break, blowing the smoke out over 5th Avenue. I got caught in there once, not smoking but making out with a teenage Hispanic girl Iâ€\d seduced with free Kit-Kats and Coke (in a cup, not on a mirror). The manager wasnâ€\t so mad about the girl in the room, but I nearly got fired because I hadnâ€\t paid for the candy yet (they counted inventory between shifts and we were responsible for every last nougat and bon-bon).
The Aztec at the end of the block always seemed to host more trouble than the Casino, as I speculated on before. In 1981, during a showing of â€œPink Flamingosâ€ (1973) and â€œPolyesterâ€ (new at the time and showing in â€œOderama,â€ with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of well over a dozen flamboyantly dressed men, most in drag, werenâ€\t even in the theater yet when a violent battle erupted between them on the sidewalk. Freddie always referred to it after that as â€œthe fifteen faggot fight,â€ barely able to control his laughter every time it came up. It was an astonishingly cartoon sight and sound, all these guys screeching insults and flaming at their hottest, slapping each other and crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoesâ€¦it went on forever while we waited for the cops to come break it up. The fifteen faggot fight is etched in my memory far more clearly than anything from â€œPink Flamingosâ€ or â€œPolyester.â€
I never minded being sent to work the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features like 1981â€\s summer biggie â€œRaiders Of The Lost Arkâ€ (albeit backed with yet another yellowish print of â€œMad Maxâ€). Usually, though, they were screening schlocky also-rans like â€œThe Day After Halloween,â€ not a sequel to the John Carpenter hit â€œHalloweenâ€ but an unrelated Australian movie originally called â€œSnapshotâ€ and later retitled in order to cash in on the other filmâ€\s fame. I remember fielding refund demands from angry customers over that one, which usually only happened when the films broke, didnâ€\t screen on time or were shown with the reels in the wrong order (this happened more often than you might think).
Occasionally, I manned the snack bar at the Balboa, on the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and E street. This once-majestic 1,500 seat theater was built in 1924, designed for stage and screen with a single-balcony, ornate chandeliers, an orchestra pit and whimsical twenty-eight foot tall vertical fountains built into the walls on either side of the stage which used to operate at full force during intermissions (the gushing waterfalls also served as air conditioning). The building housed vaudeville acts in the 1920s and then was used almost exclusively to screen movies after 1932, through Hollywoodâ€\s most golden era. Grandiose by any standards, the Balboa fell into hard times and disrepair in the fifties, until it was almost demolished for a parking lot in 1959. Russo Family Enterprises bought the building, remodeled it and the theater was run by the blue chip Fox chain until being leased to Walnut in the late 70s.
Walnut ran the grande olde girl in the same lackadaisical and exploitative way as its other grindhouses, marking what is to some an ignoble period for the one-time crown jewel of downtown theaters. Many of us loved the moviegoing experience of going into that dusty, fantastical palace, though I realize not everyone can appreciate the guilty glory of stuffing popcorn down your esophagus beneath those monster sized chandeliers while grooving on a Blaxploitation triple feature of â€œShaft,â€ â€œCleopatra Jonesâ€ and the all-time baddest of afro-mofo badasses â€œBlaculaâ€ (played by William Marshall, who would one day become the King Of Cartoons on Pee Weeâ€\s Playhouse). The Balboa was seamlessly absorbed into the chain and the clerks wore the same red uniform tops and black pants as at the Cabrillo, the Plaza, the Aztec, the Casino – and just down the block, at the Pink Pussycat.
My favorite place to take a meal break was in the basement of the Aztec, access to which meant you had to go outside, round the corner, unlock a gate and go down stairs to enter a long low-ceilinged room below the theater. On row after row of makeshift wooden shelves, tucked into manila envelopes and file folders, were literally thousands of movie posters, press kits, film stills and lobby cards. The theater had been keeping and filing away all the film company promotional material since the sixties and the accumulation filled the entire basement, all stamped â€œAztecâ€ in big red letters on the back. You can imagine that, to even the most casual movie buff, this was a near magical place to hang out, to just pick up a few stacks of paper and unfold the posters to admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism. The ads for the movies ranged from Bob Hopeâ€\s â€œCall Me Bwanaâ€ (1963) through John Wayne triple features, the Beatles â€œYellow Submarineâ€ (1968), â€œAmerican Graffitiâ€ (1973) and â€œThe Buddy Holly Storyâ€ (1978), 70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, softcore porn â€" it was an amazing archive, chronicling the best and worst of two decades of cinema history.
My favorite posters were the ones with hyperbole heavy taglines â€"
â€œAstro Zombiesâ€ – â€œSee brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!â€ (1969)
â€œThe Pigkeeperâ€\s Daughterâ€ â€" â€œShe brought a new meaning to the phrase â€˜Driving A
Hard Bargainâ€\!â€ (1972)
â€œInvasion of the Bee Girlsâ€ – â€œTheyâ€\ll love the very life out of your body!â€ (1973)
â€œWham-Bam Thank You, Spacemanâ€ â€" â€œHeâ€\s a UFO Romeo!â€ (1973)
â€œThe Erotic Adventures Of Pinocchioâ€ â€" â€œItâ€\s not his nose that grows!â€ (1974)
â€œSon Of Blobâ€ – â€œItâ€\s loose again, eating everyone!â€ (this one starred a post-Jeannie and
pre-Dallas Larry Hagman) (1972)
And the graphics â€" how could anyone not appreciate the glorious stupidity of a poster like the one for â€œGreen Slimeâ€ (1968), with a painting of a busty young woman floating around in outer space, wearing a skintight spacesuit, high heels, yes I said high heels â€" no gloves! – her glass bubble helmet UNATTACHED to her spacesuit, with a CUTAWAY in her spacesuit that exposes her CLEAVAGE and looking mildly displeased as one of the titular slime tries to slip its tentacles around her thigh.
In July 1981, the manager of the Aztec told us the theater was about to be sold and the new owners might want to remodel the building for something completely different, maybe a multiple-screen moviehouse. He recommended that we all put together our resumes because other theater sales and possible closures were imminent. I asked what would happen to all the posters, stills, lobby cards and press kits in the Aztec basement and he said, so far as he knew, everything would probably be thrown out. Iâ€\ve often wondered what happened to that treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia. Considering ever-rising collectorâ€\s prices, the mint-condition contents of that basement today would be worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars â€" conservatively.
The South Bay Drive-In, open since 1958 at 2170 Coronado Avenue, is one of only two San Diego drive-ins remaining in operation today. One mile north of the border and with space for up to 1500 cars, it was another William Oldknow/Sero Amusements venture (still run by Oldknow’s company, now called De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation). Originally called the Bayview and sporting a single screen, in the mid-‘70s the South Bay added two more screens. Most of the speaker poles were phased out for AM sound in 1972, and then FM beginning in the early '80s (movies are currently broadcast in stereo, via FM only). The snack bar has been renovated a few times, most recently sporting a nautical theme, with the entire concession building painted blue and white and designed to resemble a ship, portholes and all.
Local legend has it that actor Matthew Modine used to work at the South Bay. “Actually, that was his father, Mark Modine, who worked for us,” laughs De Anza operations manager Teri Oldknow. “That was in the ‘70s, and they had, like, eight kids who all grew up at the drive-in. His sister still works there to this day.”
When I mention to Oldknow my recollection of how run-down this drive-in got in the early ‘80s — with frequent gang activity, drug trade, and other scary goings-on — she says, “I know it was bad. There were plans to sell around that time. I wasn’t with the company then, but the attitude was kind of like 'We’ll just let it go long enough to get a good offer and then sell it.’ I started here in 1996, and that was one of my big pushes, to revive places like that and make them better than ever. If you manage a drive-in properly, you keep it fun, keep it clean, keep it safe, there’ll be so much business you’ll have to turn customers away.” The company also runs the six-screen Redwood in Salt Lake City, the four-screen Mission in Pomona, the four-screen De Anza in Tucson, and the three-screen Van Buren and three-screen Rubidoux in Riverside, California.
The De Anza company really goes all out for the Starlight Drive-In near Atlanta. This well-advertised ozone regularly hosts pop-culture conventions and car shows on its lot during the day, and frequent “Drive-In Madness” theme-athons (often with live band performances) run all night long. “We had [exploitation filmmaker] Dave Friedman there last year for Blood Feast,” Oldknow says. “His offices used to be across the street from ours in L.A., and we’d share the same screening room. We can get away with that at the Starlight because it’s an industrial area with no neighbors but a cemetery and a landfill. We can’t do adventurous stuff like that at the South Bay because we’re surrounded by residential properties. Neighborhood people are going to complain no matter what you do, so we’re reluctant to have that kind of programming there. I’d like to, though, maybe timed around the Comic-Con.”
A swap meet has run on the lot since April 1977, operated by the drive-in’s owners rather than being leased out as at other area ozones. It appears to have been the area’s third drive-in swap meet (Midway began leasing to Monte Kobey’s swap meet the previous summer, and the Valley Drive-In held an Oceanside flea market as far back as 1971). “That’s why the South Bay survived,” says Oldknow. “There was that early recognition of how to turn daytime use into profits on the property. There’s no overhead for a swap meet, whereas we’re paying 50 percent of our box office take to the studio for movies. Swap meets were the only thing enabling most drive-ins to survive the ‘80s. We’re charging money for parking spaces and keeping all the proceeds…this was so profitable that it would be difficult for other businesses to compete for the property.”
The main screen number one at the South Bay blew down during the early 2003 winter storms and had to be replaced that spring, at a cost of around $60,000. In summer 2005, a new Technalight installation was done on the projectors for all three South Bay screens. “That increased the picture brightness from five to nine times brighter,” says Oldknow, “so it’s as bright as any indoor screen now.” Open seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year (admission $6 per person, children nine and under free), it may be the only drive-in in the U.S. to serve menudo.
Excerpt from Reader feature:
The Campus Drive-In at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and College Avenue, and stretching to 61st Street, was a single-screen ozone originally built for 700 cars and 200 walk-ins (the seats were later removed, making room for up to 900 cars). The Campus Drive-In Corporation was formed August 7, 1947, and the theater itself opened the following year, charging 50 cents admission and giving out free popcorn during opening week. Sam J. Russo and Co-Op Theatres Inc. were listed as chief operators.
At the time, the Campus was one of the largest drive-in theaters on the West Coast. Signage on the back of the screen featured a 50- x 80-foot mural. Lit up at night by 1900 feet of piping installed by California Neon, it depicted a 46-foot-tall marching majorette, wearing an Indian headdress and spinning a baton that appeared to twirl as she strutted in front of a depiction of SDSU’s old main building and bell-tower quadrangle, football goalposts, and mountains (one with a white S on it). The majorette was designed by Austin Linn Gray and Joe Schmidt, two San Diegans said to have based her on a photograph of Marion Caster Heatherly Baker, head drum majorette at San Diego High School in 1943 and later a majorette for the Los Angeles Rams.
A killing took place at the Campus on December 2, 1961. Snack-bar employee Tom O'Leary got into an argument with patron Dennis O'Conner. Things got increasingly heated, and O'Leary ended up pulling a knife on the patron and stabbing him to death. O'Leary was charged with unlawful killing and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. This didn’t satisfy O'Conner’s family, who filed a lawsuit against the Campus Drive-In Corporation, seeking damages for corporate negligence by maintaining that O'Leary committed the assault while acting in the course of his employment. The court eventually ruled that the Campus wasn’t a party to the manslaughter and thus shouldn’t be held liable, though appeals and motions regarding the judgment continued through 1967.
The original Campus Drive-In Corporation dissolved July 8, 1975, and soon the locale was being run by Eldorado Theatres, the same corporation that had opened the Ace Drive-In in Lemon Grove during the late ‘60s. From the '70s onward, screenings opened with a short film that featured a rippling American flag set to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” During intermissions, “Speedometer Bingo” numbers were announced over the speakers, with patrons winning snack-bar prizes when the last three digits on their speedometer matched the numbers called.
The Campus Drive-In closed in February 1983; the final two features were The Dark Crystal and a retread print (a second- or third-run film) of Dragonslayer. Before the drive-in’s demolition, the majorette portion of the screen mural was donated to the Save Our Neon Organization, which packed the sign in crates to store in a downtown warehouse. In 1985, the majorette was purchased for $4000 by William J. Stone and Associates, operators of Marketplace at the Grove, off Highway 94. The neon was restored at a cost of around $200,000 by El Cajon-based Integrated Sign Associates, and the majorette was reinstalled at the Marketplace, near the Mann Theatre. After the shopping center was renovated as College Grove Center, a relighting ceremony was held March 10, 2000, reportedly attended by over 8000 people and covered by several local TV news crews.
On July 2, 2001, the operators of College Grove Center, Vestar Development Company, donated the neon landmark to a company called SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation). Vestar has agreed to remain responsible for financial and physical maintenance of the sign and for keeping it lit at night in the shopping center. SOHO has an easement for access and the right to remove the majorette, although there are no plans to abandon the Center. The Campus majorette has been featured in photo spreads in Time and Life, as well as in numerous books and calendars. The shopping center that replaced the drive-in uses small reproductions of the majorette in building signage.