Aztec Theatre

665 5th Avenue,
San Diego, CA 92101

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6_steevee_9 on June 29, 2017 at 7:29 pm

As the 1950’s-60’s arrived, The AZTEC THEATER was one of the many theaters below Broadway then, which were “open all night”, and showing “3 BIG FEATURES” with a program change twice a week. Don’t know what it looked like before then, but it was as pretty much of a DUMP in comparison with ANY of the other theatres, ANYWHERE IN TOWN. The entire floor was one big slant, stadium style, with one entrance in the center, and it was without a balcony. The only CLASSIC thing left by this time was the marquee, hardly big enough for 3 movie titles-but they managed to spell out MOST of them with a squeeze! Along with it’s next-door-neighbor the CASINO THEATER-they were two of the OLDEST theaters in San Diego, and both were ‘gutted-out’ of their original buildings in the GASLAMP re-vamping of the area, last century. The space presently serves purpose for other tourist-attracting ventures. I thought they had SAVED the CASINO’s ORIGINAL YELLOW MARQUE until I read somewhere that it’s a REPLICA!(I don’t know though—it looks like the ORIGINAL to me!) Yes, 5th AND G streets has, indeed, witnessed a few changes in the CENTURY PAST.

kencmcintyre on June 14, 2009 at 2:48 am

I saw Psycho II when it was released in 1983. It was a disappointment, but what would you expect?

chspringer on May 21, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Nice photos, thanks.

kencmcintyre on April 6, 2009 at 10:08 pm

This view of the Aztec is from 1983:

kencmcintyre on April 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm

There is a photo of the current occupant on this page:

kencmcintyre on April 4, 2009 at 8:14 pm

The Aztec and an adult theater next door can be seen in this 1984 photo:

JayAllenSanford on March 31, 2008 at 8:34 pm

The San Diego Reader has compiled all the Walnut articles onto one webpage, along with around 100 graphics and photos that never appeared in ANY of the published versions. Also included is a Pussycat Theatre mini-history, updates on various Walnut-related lawsuits, etc.

RE the Aztec, there’s a new addition to the article that refutes some info in the book that says Black Dahlia murder victim Betty Short saw a movie at the Aztec and stayed with an employee just before going to LA and getting killed. An old newspaper ad reproduced on the Reader page shows the ACTUAL movie Short saw, which was not the movie listed in the book – in fact, very oddly, Short saw “The Blue Dahlia” at the Aztec just before going to LA! A hitherto unknown and fascinating fact that Black Dahlia buffs will want to check into ——– the old Aztec ad was found and provided by blogger, where a BUNCH of old Aztec ads (and ads for other San Diego theaters) are scanned.

View link

danwhitehead1 on March 31, 2008 at 5:44 pm

P.S. When Andy and Charlie bought the Aztec, they bought it from the Russo (sp?) family. Preferred had gone out of business. I distinctly remember Mr. Walker commenting that they had done him out of his retirement when they went out of business.

danwhitehead1 on March 31, 2008 at 5:39 pm

When Wesley “Andy” Andrews and Charlie Smith bought the Aztec, all of those one-sheets and stills were gone. In fact, apart from a lot of old junk, the basement was pretty much empty. Andy and Charlie started their own collection when they reopened the Aztec in January of 1974. I remember Mr. Sorenson and also Preferred Theatres. Royal Fox Walker, who had been the manager of the Plaza Theatre, worked for Walnut Properties as their maintenance man for a long time.

chspringer on March 31, 2008 at 5:16 pm

I’d like to make a minor clearificaton to the above statements about the poster collection in the Aztec basement. I worked at the Aztec from the fall of 1965 through the spring of 1968. The theater was run by Preferred Theaters, which also ran the Plaza, the Mission and the El Cajon. Jerry Sorenson was the manager. I stated as night manager and then became assistant day manager for the Aztec. There was indeed a vast collection of movie posters in the basement. There were 40x60s, 24x28s, 14x28s, 11x14 lobby cards as well as 8x10s and 1 sheets. Some films had a complete set of all sizes, some had only a few pieces. The Aztec front was covered with all sizes of posters for the tripple features that we would run. We would never have to buy a poster as we would archive everything that came from the other theaters.

JayAllenSanford on June 22, 2007 at 4:07 am

There’s a cover article in today’s San Diego Reader, detailing the histories of all the downtown theaters once run by Vince Miranda, at one time co-owner of California’s Pussycat Theatre chain. This is one of the theaters chronicled in the piece, which is built from a series of email interviews with Cinema Treasures contribs Dan Whitehead and Tim David (David is Miranda’s godson). Unfortunately, the online version doesn’t have any of the great photos and graphics seen in the printed version – I wrote the piece and will probably put scans of the graphics on my own webpage before much longer, after the next issue comes out. Here’s a link to the article on the Reader site:

View link

This is our second major feature on southern CA theaters in about a year (the other, “Field Of Screens,” is just on San Diego drive-ins and can be found on the Reader site with the search bar). If anyone here likes the article(s) and would like to encourage the publisher to greenlight more, feel free to leave your thoughts about the piece in the comment section after article. The paper really pays attention to reader comments!

tomdelay on July 27, 2006 at 9:21 am

>Does anyone know if this theatre had a small Wurlitzer pipe organ >circa 1924?
>posted by Tom DeLay on Jun 15, 2005 at 10:28pm

The entry above has been solved. The organ mentioned in the June 2005 posting was in the San Diego (G.A.) Bush Theatre, installed in 1924. Thus it was not in the Aztec. The organ was repo'ed and sent to the South Central LA Kinema Theatre on Compton Ave.

rokcomx on July 27, 2006 at 1:57 am

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!

scottfavareille on July 26, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Speaking of “unusual” double features—The most unusual one I saw played at a (now closed) theater in Fremont, CA in 1974. The double feature was “Huckleberry Finn” (a musical version that was produced by Readers Digest magazine) and “Death Wish”.

Some of the now-closed grindhouses in downtown Los Angeles which ran 4-feature bills had many unusual pairings as well.

BrooklynJim on July 25, 2006 at 4:52 pm

Enjoyed your 7/24 post, Jay, well worth the read. You’ll earn the Cameron Crowe “Almost Famous” Award yet.:)

You wrote, “Sometimes, the feature bills were totally unplanned, just randomly matched movies that by rights should never have been run back to back – "The Muppet Movie” with Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” comes to mind as one odd pairing."

Nice to know occurrences such as this happened here on the “left” coast as well. Saw a few mismatched beauts back east, but the capper had to be Howard Keel’s God-awful ‘62 musical, “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” coupled with “Play Misty For Me” ('72). After sweating bullets and shuddering through the first, I relaxed and was taken in by the suspense of Director Eastwood’s efforts.

As I recall, Eastwood added a song by Roberta Flack at some point in the movie. Her version of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was not bad at all, but was totally unacceptable to one old geezer up in the balcony near me. He was not impressed in the least with her style, so he threw Flack some flak. Whenever she sang “your face” toward the end of the song, he croaked out his own sarcastic imitation. Each and every time. Longer and louder. She jazzed it up and he razzed it up. She crooned. He groaned. Ya hadda be there! What a duet! What an afternoon delight for the benefit of us half dozen denizens of that local popcorn palace.

[BrooklynJim shivers at this point]

Grammy material, I swear…

danwhitehead1 on July 25, 2006 at 2:12 pm

I need to correct myself here. When Mr. Wesley Andrews (known to all of us a Andy) purchased the Aztec, he had a business partner named Charlie Smith. Together they formed the A & S Theatre Corporation. The only other theatre they had was a little 16mm x-rated house called the Little Art at the SE corner of 3rd and “E” streets. I can’t believe I forgot about Charlie. Well, Andy was a larger-than-life type of person (literally and figuratively) and tended to eclipse others. The omission was completely accidental.

scottfavareille on July 25, 2006 at 8:18 am

I did read the Battle of the Peeps article, which is excellent. I do want to make one notable comment. According to Pussycat Theaters co-founder David Friedman, there were approximately 750 Pussycat Theaters in the US at one point. Vince Miranda only owned 47 of these theaters, which were in California. (According to an article called “Empire of the Pussycat”, Miranda failed to register a copyright for the Pussycat Theaters name outside of California. Theaters outside of California were not controlled by Miranda nor was he able to get a share of the revenues.)

rokcomx on July 25, 2006 at 2:01 am

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

danwhitehead1 on July 24, 2006 at 5:52 pm

I worked for Walnut Properties at the Cabrillo and Pussycat (just Pussycat, not Pink Pussycat) theatres from 1972 to 1974. I went to work for Mr. Wesley Andrews at the Aztec from 1974 to 1978. In the summer of 1978 I went back to work for Walnut Properties as their chief projectionist for the San Diego district (and later for the whole state) and held that position until 1989 which is when Walnut quit running most of their theatres. In 1989 I went to work for Mr. Terry Wiggins, who leased several of Walnut’s theatres including the Aztec, Casino and Bijou (listed at this website as the Roxy), as his chief projectionist. I held that position until April of 1994 which is when Terry went out of business.

While the lengthly article above is interesting there are some corrections that need to be made.

Paragraph 2: “Up in Smoke” ran several times, but hardly what one would call endlessly.
Paragraph 3: Prints could not just be casually changed from one theatre to another. Express permission had to be granted by the booker. The first booker for Walnut was a Mr. Ben Ohre (spelling?). After he died the firm of Jannopoulis-McCallum took over the job. No movie could ever be shown or moved withour their permission.
Paragraph 4: None of Walnut’s downtown projection booths really had any nooks and/or crannies; for the most part, they were too small.
Paragraph 6: While Walnuts early projection equipment was indeed Simplex, we changed over to Century in the late 70s and early 80s.
Paragraphs 8&9: As noted above, prints could not be moved without the express permission of the booker(s).
Paragraph 10: None of Walnut’s houses ran cult-type films. The Strand in Ocean Beach ran “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for many years but was owned at that time by Great Western. The only time I remember running “Phantom of the Paradise” was when it was a relatively new movie at the Cabrillo. Mr. Miranda didn’t like running cult movies as the “cultists” were too hard on the theatre and our houses didn’t need any more wear and tear than they already had.
Paragrahp 11 The Cabrillo and Aztec used to run as what were then called “Grind Houses”. The admission was cheap, we ran 3 features and changed twice a week. We used to open at 9:30A and close at 5:30A and the janitors had 4 hours to clean up and then we were back on screen. The Cabrillo dropped that type of operation during the late late 70s and the Aztec dropped it in the early 80s. We also changed the hours of operation in that we began opening at 12:00P instead of 9:30A and closed at 5:00A instead of 5:30A. The Pussycat always opened at 12P and also changed their exit time from 5:30A to 5:00A.
Paragraph 14: If the Aztec shut down at 4:00A to throw out an unruly customer then there was only one hour of business time left and the management would most likely have just gone ahead and closed down for the night. Mr. Miranda and Mr. Tate did not like over time. As time went by, we started closing the theatres at midnight and the “grind house” hours were forever gone.
Paragraph 16: I did my smoking on the roof of the Casino. There was a little window in the projection booth that opened directly onto the roof. The smoke dissipated much faster and the cops were happier.
Paragraph 17: The Aztec never ran “Pink Flamingos” or “Polyester”. Those movies ran at Landmark’s Guild theatre on 5th Avenue up in Hillcrtest.
Paragraph 19: The Russo family and their Eldorado Enterprises ran the Balboa until Mr. Tate purchased a lease from them in the mid 70s. The Russos also owned the Aztec, the Casino and the Campus Drive-In. Fox Theatres went out of business in the very late 60s or the very early 70s. The Russos/Eldorado Enterpirses ran the above mentioned theatres for many years. Their manager was a Mr. Sorenson. Aslo, the waterfalls in the Balboa were strictly ornamental and had nothing at all to do with the air conditioning.
Paragraph 20: As mentioned above, the Pussycat on 4th Avenue was never called the “Pink” Pussycat; just the Pussycat. A very early manager was Mr. Greg Vasic of the “F” Street bookstore corporation. He later became the longest lasting of Walnut’s district managers. He quit in the very late 70s or the very early 80s to concentrate on his own business which later made him a very rich man.
Paragreaph 21: When Mr. Wesley Andrews bought the Aztec in 1973, the Russos completely emptied the basement out. All of those one-sheets (which is what they’re called, not posters) started collecting on January 23, 1974 which is when Mr. Andrews reopened the Aztec. Others were added to the pile when the Cabrillo and Pussycat were torn down and also when Mr. Tate brought down a huge truck load from the Los Angeles area theatres after Walnut bought the Aztec from Mr. Andrews. As far as I know, the Aztec basement was never used a lunch area for the employees as it was just too filthy. The last person to operate the Aztec was Terry Wiggins and all those one-sheets were still there when we walked out for the last time in April of 1994.

scottfavareille on July 24, 2006 at 2:23 pm

That last post was wonderful. Interesting to find out that Walnut operated theaters other than their famous Pussycats. Reminds me a bit of the days of the theaters on San Francisco’s Market Street (circa 1970-1989).

rokcomx on July 24, 2006 at 1:59 pm

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 “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 weekâ€\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 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 “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 Chongâ€\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 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 “power trip” involved, wearing a “uniform,” swinging around that big black flashlight, entrusted with the keys to the snack bar and money till, access to all the nooks and crannies in the projector booth, the back rooms, behind the screen.

And we were empowered to â€" if faced with an extreme situation â€" “refuse admittance,” just like it said we reserved the right to do on the cash register. We even had the power, if not always the ability, to eject customers from the premises, at least those patrons who 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 “in the movie business” and it was a serious and solemn part of the job, to personally view every single new feature (or old feature, or feature 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 girlfriend…). Business was good, on weekends the house was often sold out, some decent movies were coming out in the late 70s and early 80s and all in all it was a pretty cool gig. Did I mention the big black flashlight?

Few things in my life can compare to the anticipation I used to feel on Thursday nights, in the middle of the a.m. – standing on a rickety ladder on 5th Avenue and putting up the marquee letters announcing the new 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 “virgin” 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 ‘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 “Planet Of The Apes” if youâ€\ve never been deafened by a room full of people who erupt like socker hooligans when Charlton Heston growls “Get your sticking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” And not all the movies were 2nd run – we had a print of “Alien” on its first week of release that packed the Cabrillo to the rafters for fourteen days straight, circulating it between theaters after that as a guaranteed draw and selling out houses no matter where it played or what lame backup features it was paired with (“Buck Rogers In The 25th Century” and “Battlestar Galactica” for instance, two re-edited TV shows that cost the company almost nothing to rent).

Sometimes, the feature bills were totally unplanned, just randomly matched movies that by rights should never have run back to back â€" “The Muppet Movie” with Charles Bronsonâ€\s “Death Wish” comes to mind as one odd pairing. There always seemed to be a print of the 1979 sci-fi action film “Mad Max” floating around, a dependably popular bottom-of-the-bill backup feature that opened for the rape drama “The Accused” and the farcical “Airplane,” among others.

I liked the themed packages best, these often brought out a colorful cult crowd who showed up in big numbers and ate a lot of expensive snack bar crap. “Phantom Of The Paradise,” a rock and roll camp classic from 1974, played on a triple bill with Ken Russellâ€\s “Tommy” and the Rocky Horror semi-sequel “Shock Treatment.” People were showing up who knew all the Phantom dialogue by heart, talking back to or taunting the characters on the screen ala the Rocky Horror crowd. A dozen or so young adults showed up every night dressed as characters from the film, carrying fake guitars with battle axes for handles and wearing face makeup just like “The Juicy Fruits” in the movie, acting out their parts in front of the screen and miming to the musical soundtrack (composed mostly by Paul “Weâ€\ve Only Just Begun” 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. “Rolling Thunder” (1977) was one such perennial, kind of a sordid precursor to the “Rambo” movies with William Devane as a POW who comes home from Vietnam, witnesses his family brutally murdered and goes on a killing spree in search of vengeance. “The Toolbox Murders” (1978) was another, about a handyman who savagely offs nekkid women with his claw-hammer, a screwdriver, a power drill and â€" gulp – a nail gun! “Dawn Of The Dead” (1978) sold out weekend AND weekday showings all the time, while “Friday The 13th” (1980) was so popular that, at one point, it was screening in three theaters at the same time.

The 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 “Oh, thatâ€\s the part where the guy burns the junkieâ€\s balls off with a flamethrower” and then screams of delirious laughter where weâ€\d know “that must be when he gives her the toothpick with the eyeball on it and says ‘beats a sharp stick in the eye.â€\” When we screened Walter Hillâ€\s surreal fantasy “The Warriors” (1979), about teenage gangs waging war in a fictionalized New York City underworld, everyone in the theater always chanted along with the villain when he taunts the “good guys,” ad infinitum in a nasal whine, “Warriors, come out and play! Warriors, come out and PLAY!!!” When the Warriors finally did indeed come out to play, the brain-bashing was greeted with a collective cheer loud and sustained enough to nearly bring down the half-century old roof.

At first, talking to our customers and meeting so many fellow movie buffs was like finally finding myself a home on the island of misfit toys. That said, the sort of movies we usually showed attracted an oddball clientele and I didnâ€\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. 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 “normal,” 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 “right to refuse admittance” sign on the register.

Then there was a guy at the Aztec, with a long beard and needle marks who I donâ€\t think was a diabetic Hassidic, who got more and more amped up as he sat through something like twenty straight hours of “Blood Feast” (1963), “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) and “Color Me Blood Red” (1964), three infamously violent “splatter” films by the godfather of gore, H. Gordon Lewis. When he started shouting and swearing at the screen, and at other patrons, in some kind of increasingly deluded state, nobody wanted to be the one to ask him to leave, he seemed dangerous (though at least a dozen other customers ignored the commotion and kept watching the movies). Someone called police but they never showed and the only way we got rid of the guy was to stop running film at 4am, announce we were closing, wait until he (and everyone else) left the theater, only to reopen an hour later with the films back on their posted, advertised schedule.

It sucked when all the movies on the bill were dogs. There were weeks I couldnâ€\t stand the thought of walking through the auditorium one more time to be faced with scenes from, say, “The Awakening,” a really boring 1980 mummy flick where the only drama is trying to figure out whatâ€\s moving slower â€" the plot, the mummy or Charlton Heston. “Prophecy” (1979) by director John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”) was another one everyone hated – made out to be a horrific monster movie in ads and posters, it was instead a preachy tract on environmentalism where the audience never even got to see a BEM (Bug Eyed Monster). Ditto for 1979â€\s “The Fog,” 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 “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le” or “Bruce Lei” or “Bruce L. Eee”). Still, there was always something different unspooling down the street and, even if all those movies sucked, the marquees would soon be changing again come Thursday night/Friday morning.

The Casino was my favorite place to work overnights. Up in the rear of the balcony was a door to a storage room where spare uniforms and “wet floor” signs were kept. The room had a small window facing outside the building, just over the top of the flashing marquee, and anyone paying attention could probably have spotted the evidence of how popular the spot was for clerks who liked to smoke a joint during their break, blowing the smoke out over 5th Avenue. I got caught in there once, not smoking but making out with a teenage Hispanic girl 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 “Pink Flamingos” (1973) and “Polyester” (new at the time and showing in “Oderama,” with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of well over a dozen flamboyantly dressed men, most in drag, 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 “the fifteen faggot fight,” barely able to control his laughter every time it came up. It was an astonishingly cartoon sight and sound, all these guys screeching insults and flaming at their hottest, slapping each other and crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it went on forever while we waited for the cops to come break it up. The fifteen faggot fight is etched in my memory far more clearly than anything from “Pink Flamingos” or “Polyester.”

I never minded being sent to work the Horton Plaza theaters, which occasionally lucked into first-run A-list features like 1981â€\s summer biggie “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (albeit backed with yet another yellowish print of “Mad Max”). Usually, though, they were screening schlocky also-rans like “The Day After Halloween,” not a sequel to the John Carpenter hit “Halloween” but an unrelated Australian movie originally called “Snapshot” and later retitled in order to cash in on the other 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 “Shaft,” “Cleopatra Jones” and the all-time baddest of afro-mofo badasses “Blacula” (played by William Marshall, who would one day become the King Of Cartoons on Pee 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 “Aztec” in big red letters on the back. You can imagine that, to even the most casual movie buff, this was a near magical place to hang out, to just pick up a few stacks of paper and unfold the posters to admire the brilliant marketing and carnival-barker hucksterism. The ads for the movies ranged from Bob Hopeâ€\s “Call Me Bwana” (1963) through John Wayne triple features, the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “American Graffiti” (1973) and “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978), 70s exploitation cheapies, comedies, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, westerns, martial arts, softcore porn 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€"

“Astro Zombies” – “See brutal mutants menace beautiful girls!” (1969)

“The Pigkeeperâ€\s Daughter” â€" “She brought a new meaning to the phrase ‘Driving A
Hard Bargainâ€\!” (1972)

“Invasion of the Bee Girls” – “Theyâ€\ll love the very life out of your body!” (1973)

“Wham-Bam Thank You, Spaceman” â€" “Heâ€\s a UFO Romeo!” (1973)

“The Erotic Adventures Of Pinocchio” â€" “Itâ€\s not his nose that grows!” (1974)

“Son Of Blob” – “Itâ€\s loose again, eating everyone!” (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 “Green Slime” (1968), with a painting of a busty young woman floating around in outer space, wearing a skintight spacesuit, high heels, yes I said high heels 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.

danwhitehead1 on March 29, 2006 at 3:53 pm

Does anyone out there remember the downtown San Diego theatres of the 1970s?

danwhitehead1 on March 29, 2006 at 2:23 pm

I worked as the day projectionist of this theatre from 1974 to 1978 for Mr. Wesley Andrews and Mr. Charlie Smith. We showed three featrues and changed features twice a week. Admission was .99 cents and hours of operation were from 9:30A to 5:30A. It was later bought by Walnut Properties (Pussycat Theatres). Those were good days.

LOBBYLOVER on March 10, 2006 at 9:34 pm

In the new book “THE BLACK DAHILA FILES” (2006 ReganBooks) by Donald H. Wolfe, the author reports that on December 9, 1946 Aztec cashier Dorothy French found a sleeping Elizabeth Short following the last showing of “The Jolson Story”. Ms. Short said had just arrived in San Diego from Hollywood, was broke, and had no place to sleep for the night. She said she had worked as an usherette at the Tremont in Boston (in 1942). Dorothy took her home and she became a house guest for “a few days” which in fact turned out to be until January 8, 1947. Elizabeth then went back to L.A. to meet her fate. Her body was found on the morning of January 15, 1947.