Imagine Long Beach with several successful theatre districts, a part of town where about a dozen competing motion picture theaters were in walking distance from each other. In the 1940s and 1950s, such a thing existed. For instance, at the foot of Pine Ave. at Ocean Blvd., one could leave the Palace Theater, which had been around since 1917, walk south to The Nu-Pike and find the Strand, the Capitol and the Tracy, all on Seaside Blvd, as well as the Capitol, the New Strand and the Rialto.
But the real heart of the downtown movie-going experience was on the north side of Ocean Blvd. On W. Ocean, the Roxy began in 1916 as the Liberty, what sailors were on when they went to the movies. On E. Ocean, a movie-goer could choose between the Imperial (1928), the United Artists (1931) and the Fox West Coast, which was originally called the Fox Imperial (1925).
One-time manager of the Fox, Joseph J. Musil recalled in an article for the Long Beach Heritage Assn that in 1957, he was required to wear a tux as he greeted customers at the entrance. Musil’s explorations of the vaudeville-era building revealed dressing rooms, stage equipment, an orchestra pit and a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, “untouched since 1930 when the first Fox Movietone sound film uttered its first word.” Also off-limits since Prohibition was the basement cafeteria, which instead served as a 1920s speakeasy with “the marble stair and finished ceiling.”
On the south side of Ocean was the venerable State Theater, which opened in 1920 in the Jergins Bldg., which connected to the north side by the Jergins Arcade Tunnel, now under active consideration for rehabilitation by the city. No such rehab is available for the torn-down Jergins, but in the late 1940s, the State was the crown jewel of the Milt Arthur chain of theaters.
“State was perhaps the oldest. On Ocean, it was the West Coast, also the Imperial. I had nothing to do with booking. That was all handled through some agency. By the time I got there, the war was over.”
The United Artists Theater was operated by the father of budding surf rock guitar star Marlow Hendrix, who performed as Marlow Stewart. Marlow’s dad would publicize his son’s guitar prowess with stage shows and buy-a-record-get-free-admission deals (or vice versa) and book other stage shows, like the Elvis impersonator show of which Dick Dale took first prize. 14-year-old Marlow also had his own interview show on KNAC-FM, which was located in Lakewood Village.
The year 1984 was like an Orwell novel for downtown theaters with the closing, auctioning off and eventual demolition of the West Coast and the Roxy when civic leaders were preoccupied with Grand Prix-showcasing and downtown mall-building.
“I was looking for a job when I came out of the service,” Lamont recalled. “I started working as an usher at the State Theater at the Jergins Bldg. Arthur also had the Rivoli (525 American Ave., now Long Beach Blvd.). Then I managed the Cabart” (2342 E. Anaheim St.). “The Rivoli and the Cabart (1936) were the training grounds for new managers and cashiers. Arthur made a point of hiring veterans who were going to school and needed part-time work. We tried to hire our half-dozen ushers from that group. One of the ushers Tom Marchese became city engineer. He worked at the Cabart while going to school,” Lamont recalled.
Cabart was the conjunction of two names, Cabrillo and Milton K. Arthur, Rivoli was a show biz type name. In the early 1950s, country guitar star Billy Strange was a Cabart usher.
The only one of these theaters that remains in active operation to this day is the Art Theater at 2025 E. 4th St.. Known as the Carter in 1930 and as the Lee until 1949, when it became the Art, probably after Milt Arthur himself. “The Art was strictly a small neighborhood theater as I recall,” said Lamont.
When Lloyd Whaley built homes near Santa Fe and Willow in the 1940s, Arthur opened the Santa Fe at 2170 Santa Fe Ave. However that latter theater was short-lived and was apparently shuttered before the end of the 1950s. “The Santa Fe didn’t last too long. They made a bowling alley out of it. It was a new theater and it was one of the first to go.” Besides the Art, Arthur also owned the Ritz at 681 Redondo Ave. and the Brayton on 2157 Atlantic Ave. near Hill. By the time he opened the Towne in 1947, Arthur already owned or partly owned a half dozen theaters in Long Beach.
“I was the first manager of the Towne Theater,” said Lamont. The first movie shown at the Towne was likely “The Bells of St. Mary’s” with Bing Crosby as well as a preview for the Burt Lancaster movie, “The Killers.” “Tickets were .75 cents all the time and there was a federal tax on each ticket. We had to keep track of that.”
Milt Arthur opened the Towne Theater at 4425 Atlantic on Sept 29 1946, and put his Cabart Corp. headquarters at that site. Four months later, on Jan 19 1947, the Crest Theater opened at 4275 Atlantic Ave. It was advertised on the opening-night marquee as the “world’s first pre-fashioned theatre.” “The Crest was a couple of blocks south of the Towne,” according to Lamont. “It was supposed to be a largely prefabricated theater. I think they used cookie-cutter plans and were supposed to build others.”
“Milt Arthur lived in Long Beach,” said Lamont . “He was a member of the recreation commission for awhile. He was pretty well known locally. He lived out near the Cerritos Country Club area. He had been involved with theaters for one time and might have been with another major operator that began in vaudeville.”
According to company literature, the Crest, owned by National Theater Amusement Co., among other attributes, the 129-ton (steel columns and beams) theater featured a “TV tower” (though no known TV stations were based in Long Beach), a “germ proofed roof” (no germs either entered or exited) and “no glare lighting.”
The Towne and the Crest also had stylistic differences. “The Crest was more traditional with neon all over it, Towne was more modern and clean in design and less garish.” Others remembered the Towne as “sort of boxy looking.” Nearby was “the real fancy Welch’s Restaurant at San Antonio and Atlantic,” making a visit to this area a real event.
“I suppose the State was the showcase until he built the Towne,” said Lamont. “The Towne was pretty successful from the beginning. They gave him a good spread when he opened the Towne. Arthur didn’t show up that often, but he came in fairly regularly. Once, I caught hell because the mops weren’t hanging in the closet. We were booming for a while, right after the war, but that didn’t last too long. Arthur built an ice cream parlor in the lobby. That was unusual. It had tables out there, but it didn’t pay and it was eventually changed.”
At about the same time, Lamont’s assignment also changed.
“It was pretty nice for the most part. It was so damned busy, I could hardly stagger home,” said Lamont. “That place was full from noon to midnight, but I was there for a short time. I was bounced back to the Cabart Theater by Milt Arthur in about 1948. The Cabart (a contraction of Cabrillo and Arthur) was a first-run theater, but after the war, it became a second-run theater,” going from noon to midnight operation to “just evenings when I came back. I had people who’d come to the Cabart once a week on the same day of the week, they’d say ‘gee, I already saw this movie.’ It was a habit. It was just not as big a theater.”
As the east side population base began expanding, theaters began joining the Belmont (4918 E. Second St), up-and-running before 1930. The two most prominent were the Lakewood (4501 E. Carson at Norse Way) and the Circle Drive-In (1633 Ximeno), both begun in 1950. The latter theater’s screen was positioned in a direction that it could be viewed by patients at Community Hospital up the hill, so speakers were installed so that women who were there to deliver a baby could enjoy that month’s latest feature from the comfort of their bed. The Circle closed in 1985.
Other drive-ins were the Lakewood at 2200 E. Carson and the Los Altos at 2800 Bellflower Blvd, demolished in the late 1990s to make way for K-Mart, Starbucks, Denny’s and Lowes, among other tenants.
Also featured in the post-1960 era were at least two shopping center theaters: the Plaza on Spring St. near Palo Verde and a Viking Way theater with several names (the Paradise was the best-known) which started out in about 1972 as the Coronet with a free showing of “Fiddler On the Roof.” The Paradise later became a second-run and then live-performance theater and in 1991, then known as the Triangle Theater, it closed and the space was remodeled into the current Cirivellos.
Maybe the Towne’s time began running out when its roof collapsed in 1977, trapping one workman. Lamont recalled that the hey-day for the classic walk-in theaters lasted about a decade. “It was the whole entertainment package back then when TV wasn’t the competition. The theaters were bigger, don’t have the matchbox theaters you have now, it was more of a complete experience.” According to Lamont, “TV was coming in, eventually that knocked a bunch of these theaters out.”
Hoyt’s became Strand
Capitol – 145 E. Seaside Blvd.
New Strand – 207 E. Seaside Blvd., 1951, was Follies, The Pike, 1930
Tracy – 219 E. Seaside Blvd, 1930, was Capitol, 1925
New Strand 237 The Pike
Rialto, 117 The Pike, 1930
Palace – 30 Pine Ave, 1920 (Fahey’s Palace Theatre – 1917), became News Palace, 1951.
Laughlin Theater – 347 Pine Ave., 1930 (bldg. built 1914-15. Architect: Irving Gill.)
Roxy – 127 W. Ocean – 1950, was Stanley, 1936, Liberty, 1916
State – 104 E. Ocean – 1921
United Artists – 215 E. Ocean, 1936
Imperial – 315 E. Ocean Ave. – 1928
Fox West Coast – 333 E. Ocean – 1925
Home – 1625 E. Anaheim, 1930
Cabart – 2342 E. Anaheim, 1951
Lee – 2933 East Anaheim Blvd., 1947, was Dale, 1922
Atlantic and Northtown:
Brayton – 2157 Atlantic – 1930
Towne – 4425 Atlantic, Sept. 1946
Crest – 4275 Atlantic – Marquee reads, “Grand premiere opening, World’s first prefashioned theatre.” Photo was taken during its premiere festivities. Photo dated: March 27, 1947.
Atlantic – 5870 Atlantic, 1950
American Ave. or Long Beach Blvd:
Long Beach – 34 American Ave., 1936, Lyrics Mission, 1934
Fox Egyptian – 234 East 4th Street. – 1930
Rivoli – 525 American Ave.
California – 1045 American Ave., 1930
Oriental – 5341 American Ave. or Long Beach Blvd.
La Shell – 5384 American Ave. or Long Beach Blvd. 1936
Hoyt’s Ebell – 1100 E. 3rd
Art – 2025 East 4th Street., was Lee to 1949, Carter, 1930
Santa Fe – 2170 Santa Fe, 1950