San Gabriel Mission Playhouse
320 S. Mission Drive,
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Opened as the Mission Playhouse on March 5, 1927. It was built by John Steven McGroaty to house his “Mission Play” which had become so popular it outgrew its previous location. The “Mission Play” told the story of early California history with a cast of 150 accompanied by a full orchestra and an Aeolian 2 manual 21 ranks organ. Seating is provided mainly on the orchestra floor, with a small balcony at the rear which has 176 seats. Along the side walls are a series of boxes, which were built with the intention of being able to accommodate a car in each one, so that the occupants could sit in their car to see the performance. In the end this feature was never utilised and they became conventional loge seated boxes. The proscenium is 53ft wide and 30ft high, the stage measures 92ft wide x 47ft deep and contains rigging for 40 lines to support scenery. The “Mission Play” ran until 1932 clocking up 3,198 performances.
On September 1, 1932 it became a full-time movie theatre screening James Cagney in “Winner Take All” & Monte Collins in “It’s a Cinch”. It is said that during the wartime housing shortage that its dressing rooms were used as apartments. It closed as a movie theatre in 1945.
The Mission Theatre was bought by the city and it became the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. In 1971 the Wurlitzer 3 manual 17 ranks organ originally installed in the RKO Albee Theatre, Brooklyn, NY was installed in the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, a gift to the theatre from RKO Theatres.
In October 1987 the Whittier Narrows earthquake damaged the building and on the 4th October 1987 aftershock, one of the bell towers collapsed into the lobby and part of the façade came down, immediately closing the theatre down. Repairs were speedily carried out and it reopened February 12, 1988 with a production of “42nd Street”. The building was also shaken about in 28th June 1991 when the Sierra Madre earthquake struck, but little damage was done.
Today it is used for a variety of the performing arts, silent movies with organ accompaniment and is available for rental. It was re-named San Gabriel Mission Playhouse in 2008.
The nearby San Gabriel Mission, dating back to the early-1800’s, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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