Linda Lea Theatre

251 S. Main Street,
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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Photo courtesy of Benny Ballejo.

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Closed since the mid-1980s, the former Linda Lea (originally the Arrow Theatre and later the Aztec Theatre) underwent drastic renovation in 2006/2007 when only the outer walls were re-purposed. The rebuild was for ImaginAsian Entertainment, which operates the ImaginAsian Theatre in New York City and a cable television network. The new ImaginAsian Center opened on December 1, 2007 as a showcase for Asian and Asian-American features as well as film festivals and live events. Since 2008, it has been known as the Downtown Independent Theatre, and has its own page here on Cinema Treasures # 22371.

Contributed by William Gabel

Recent comments (view all 163 comments)

BradyWestwater
BradyWestwater on December 5, 2011 at 9:26 pm

It was NOT demolished. But it did it undergo a major reconstruction since there was nothing worth saving other the the concrete walls which are original. And it is now the Downtown Independent Theater which has a separate listing on this site that needs to be either combined with – or linked to – this listing.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 13, 2014 at 12:07 am

The 1939 Dick Whittington photo of the Arrow Theatre from the USC Archive I linked to previously has gone missing. Let’s see if this link (which USC calls a reference url) will have some staying power.

vienna
vienna on February 1, 2017 at 11:37 am

I couldn’t open a couple of the photo links in the other comments, so please excuse if this is a repeat:

http://photos.lapl.org/carlweb/jsp/FullRecord?databaseID=968&record=4&controlNumber=5072735

The description says ca. 1937, but it seems to be perhaps a bit earlier.

Starting around 1974, I used to go see movies at the Linda lea on an almost weekly basis, interspersed by viewings at the Toho La Brea and the Kokusai. I loved that old Linda Lea theater and was both saddened and angered by the theater’s fate. If you called the theater, a recording would give you the list of films (there were 3 films per bill) and their starting times. The recording would start off in English and whoever did the recordings tended to sound a bit like the villain in an old WWII move; the opening phrase: “This is the Linda Lea Theater, the home of Toei Films, exclusively!” Imagine this being said in a voice reminiscent of Sessue Hayakawa. After the English version, the whole spiel would be given again in Japanese.

The inside of the theater was basically one big box with the screen taking up pretty much all of the west wall; there were two, IIRC, exit doors below the screen in either corner. The theater did have a balcony and the balcony had a feature you don’t see anymore: a crying room; this was a walled off section of south side of the balcony with a large floor-to-ceiling pane of heavy glass; at the rear of the section were heavy drapes to muffle any sound from the area; in earlier days, patrons with small crying or fidgeting children who still wanted to see the film would be ‘exiled’ to the crying room so as not to disturb the other patrons.

There were quite a few aspects of the theater that held over from the earlier periods. The men’s restroom had “scratching plates” mounted on the wall next to the urinals so the men could strike their matches and light up a smoke while answering natures call. When I first came t LA in 1970, I was fascinated by all the old theaters still existing in downtown LA, particularly those east of Broadway. Those fine old theaters, some a bit worse for wear, some on their last legs, were like magnets to me and I spent a goodly amount of time visiting them and exploring the insides. One, whose name I have forgotten, I found out later had been the very first opera house in LA; st the time I saw it, it was an x-rated movie house, but a great deal of the old interior was still intact. Sadly, it was torn down, like a lot of the old Main St. theaters, often for nothing better than to become one more parking lot. I am thankful I got to see them before they faded away and I am very thankful for the help of the sometimes befuddled theater managers or projectionists who put up with me asking questions rather than seeing the films, or whatever, was on the bill.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 2, 2017 at 2:18 am

vienna: I’m getting a fatal exception when I try to use the link you posted. I’m wondering if the photo was this one? I only get three results when I search the LAPL database with “Linda Lea” and that’s the only one that actually gives a good view of the building, albeit when it was the Arrow Theatre.

I’m trying to puzzle out which Main Street theater you attended in the early 1970s that might have resembled an opera house. The only two old legit houses still standing by then were the Burbank Theatre and the Follies Theatre. The actual first opera house in Los Angeles was the theater listed here as the Grand, which was opened in 1884 and demolished in the late 1930s, but the Burbank, opened in 1883, was a large legitimate theater for many years before being converted to L.A.’s leading burlesque house, and the Follies, a bit smaller than the Burbank, opened in 1910 as the Belasco, and also became a burlesque house for many years. I believe both finished their days with x-rated movies.

There was also the large and very ornate California Theatre, opened in 1918 as a combination vaudeville and movie house, which later became a Spanish language movie theater and finally became part of the adult movie Pussycat chain. I’m not sure when the California closed, but it was demolished in 1989. I think the California is the most likely candidate to have been the theater you recall attending in the 1970s, as it was mostly intact up to the end, never having been extensively remodeled.

In 1970 there were also two good-sized early movie houses still operating on Main Street: The Optic, which remained in business with x-rated fare through the 1970s, and the Regent which, against all the odds, has survived and recently been renovated and reopened for live events, mostly musical. I believe all the other theaters still operating on Main Street in 1970, the Linda Lea excepted, were small storefront houses unlikely to be mistaken for once-grand theaters.

vienna
vienna on February 3, 2017 at 11:47 am

Mr. Vogel: I’m sorry I can’t really be more specific; it has been over 45 years and my memory is not what it was. It might have been the California, but IIRK, didn’t the Pussycat chain pretty much overhaul the interiors of their theaters, obliterating much of whatever remained of the of the original decor? It is entirely possible my recollection of the opera house claim may have been an exaggeration by some manager or other staff as to the provenance of the theater; some of them were also of an age when their own memories were ‘fuzzy’.

I moved to LA from San Francisco in early 1970 and quickly got a job working at a bank data processing center located on Main St. between 4th and 5th street. I worked the swing shift, starting at about 4:00pm and ending at about 1:00am. The entire area was a sort of a 24/7 battle zone. Just up the street was the old Follies Burlesque and just down the street, opposite was the Regent. There were a few “hole-in-the-wall” theaters and some arcade setups, some of which defy description other than “sleaze”. One of the times I went to the Follies, not long before its final closing, I got to go backstage and to an area upstairs where the were still posters, standups, and other advertising objects from the burlesque glory days. The Rolling Stones did some still and video photography for their “Exiles on Main Street” album cover art and promo films on Main St., Downtown LA. Some of the stills, on the original cover art, show some of the entrances and exterior lobby displays of some of the theaters; there are “Exiles” related videos on YouTube also showing film footage of some of the theater exteriors.

The Linda Lea was used for filming after its closure; I recall seeing the interior lobby used in the film “The Crow: City of Angels” and in a couple of TV crime drama series.

Regarding the photo link — I apologize on two counts:

1) I just found this website the same night I made my first post and didn’t know how to properly post a link;

2) I was also unaware of the “Photos” tab at the top of the Linda Lea Theater page; the photo in question is the first one to the left when the tab is clicked and the year in the caption is 1937; I should have known, on a site as extensively detailed as Cinema Treasures, someone had already posted the picture

I’m sorry I couldn’t be more specific on the theater you were asking about and thank you for you response and comments.

davidcoppock
davidcoppock on February 3, 2017 at 5:04 pm

“Was there a person called Linda Lea?”

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 3, 2017 at 9:50 pm

davidcoppock: I’ve wondered about it myself, but have never been able to discover if there was a person called Linda Lea. A web page which is no longer available (not even at the Internet Archive’s wayback machine) said that the first Linda Lea Theatre opened in the former Fuji-Kan Theatre at 324 E. First Street on February 10, 1945. It presented stage shows as well as movies for an African American audience.

The Japanese population had been interned in camps during the second world war, and Little Tokyo filled up with workers, predominantly Black or Mexican, who had come to work in L.A.’s booming wartime industries. Following the war, as the Japanese gradually returned to the neighborhood, the Linda Lea went back to its original function as a Japanese language movie house, but instead of returning to its pre-war name Fuji-Kan it kept the name Linda Lea. The Japanese management kept the name even when they moved their operation to this house on Main Street around 1955.

It’s possible that there is still someone around who knows if there was a person named Linda Lea for whom the theater was renamed in 1945. If there was a Linda Lea, given the programming of the theater at that time, she was probably African American. I suspect that if anyone ever discovers the origin of the name it will be someone researching the history of the Black community in Los Angeles.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 4, 2017 at 2:22 am

vienna: While the Pussycat chain usually did spruce up the theaters they took over, I don’t think they did much with the California. It was very large, and anything more than cosmetic changes would have been very costly. I believe they only had a short term lease on the house, in any case. Pussycat’s main downtown location was the Town Theatre on Hill Street, which they operated for almost two decades. I don’t think they took over the California until after the Town closed, though.

I never went to the California, but in the mid-1980s I had occasion to pass by it on foot on several occasions, and from the outside it looked pretty much as it had in the 1960s when it was being operated as a Spanish language movie house.

The only Main Street theater I ever attended was the Regent, back in the 1960s when it was a fairly busy triple-feature grind house. I only went there once, and it was pretty grim, with more than a few of the seats occupied by sleeping drunks.

vienna
vienna on February 5, 2017 at 8:38 am

Mr. Vogel: If memory serves, I seem to recall both the California and the Town being open as Pussycat theaters at the same time. I have a recollection of taking notice of the same film title being shown at both theaters at the same time and find the booking as odd.

One thing I do seem to remember about the putative ‘first opera house’ was the existence of some fixtures that appeared to be re-purposed gas light fixtures and, bit more dimly, the possible presence of box seating on the sides. Again, I am working from dim memories growing dimmer every day.

I probably attended, at one time or another, almost all of the theaters in Downtown LA and Hollywood, not to mention a goodly number of nabes and Westside theaters. Your experience at the Regent was more than typical of the other Main St. theaters and then some. If it wasn’t out of the curiosity to see what the interiors of the theaters looked like, I wouldn’t have had a reason to go into any of them. Still, at least I got to see some of those now lost treasures before they faded away.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 5, 2017 at 11:15 am

The California never had side boxes, but the Follies did, as did the Burbank, which was built in 1893 when that feature was still de rigueur. As I was never inside either of them I don’t know how much of their interiors survived later remodeling jobs. Both got streamline modern exteriors, but the one on the Follies was removed for some reason (possibly it was damaged by the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake, which was fairly strong even in Los Angeles) and I have no memory of it. The Burbank kept its streamlined exterior to the end.

The California was showing regular movies at least as late as 1983, though it might have shown x-rated stuff earlier, as well as later. This photo from Ken McIntyre’s Facebook album shows the California with the 1983 film The Outsiders among those listed on the marquee.

I regret not having been more adventurous when I first began going downtown on my own in the early 1960s. I attended all the major theaters still open on Broadway and Hill Street south of Sixth, but never went to the rest of the downtown houses, other than the Regent, because they looked a bit too dicey to me. The only reason I saw the Regent was because a more adventurous friend insisted on seeing a movie there that he had missed earlier.

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