Archive for the ‘Theaters’ Category


Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely was one of the Big 3 honking tenor sax players out of L.A. – the others were later Long Beach resident Joe Houston (“All Nite Long”) and Chuck Higgins (“Pachuco Hop”).  But Big Jay got a head start, first recording with Johnny Otis in 1949 and having a huge national hit, “Deacon’s Hop.”  The stage was now set for his historic Municipal Auditorium appearance.

On Oct. 18, 1951, McNeely made his first known Long Beach appearance at Wilson High School and at the Dream Bowl at 2259 Orange Ave., all of which signaled an early R&B act had come to town.

According to accounts at the time, “in May 1952, there was quite a surprise. An unknown, billed as Big Jay McNeely and his band booked the downstairs Exhibit Hall, more or less sponsored by Ray Robinson, local disc jockey. Four thousand teenagers stormed the place. That dance is considered the first rhythm blues dance in Long Beach. McNeely now is one of the big rock-and-rollers in the east.”

After the Muni Aud gig, McNeely played at the Lakewood Theater on Carson near Lakewood.

That same year, 1952, Lawrence Welk turned off the bubble machine at his Aragon Ballroom home in Santa Monica and started on his first road tour drawing 3,500 (less than Big Jay the same year) at the Muni.

Twenty five years later, in 1975, the city fathers tore down the Muni, just like Big Jay had torn up the place in ’52.


The biggest dance crowd in the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium’s history  — 11,072 strong — gathered there to hear Harry James and his hand. Second biggest dance crowd — more than 10,000 — assembled to hear the Glenn Miller band.

Both of those dances were in 1942, the first full year of World War II.

Harry James’ big number in those days was “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, Baby,” and Miller went strong for “One o’clock Jump,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “String of Pearls.”

Judy Garland sang her “comeback, on to Broadway” concert in Municipal Auditorium in July 1955.

The place was packed. Judy sang to what she said was the most appreciative audience of her life. She sung six extra numbers, running the concert 45 minutes overtime,

Frank Sinatra chartered a bus and brought to Judy’s concert Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dean Martin, Van Johnson, Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Betty Hutton, Leslie Caron, Danny Davis Jr., Dick Powell, June Allyson, David Wayne, Edgar Bergen, Prince Mike Romanoff and composer Johnny Green — to name a few.  Then Sinatra took the stage in impromptu fashion and sang a duet with Judy.

Next:  rhythm and blues at the Muni

The fill for the auditorium and the Rainbow Pier was begun October 1928 and completed in December 1930.  Only then, could the $2.8 million Long Beach Municipal Auditorium, which was financed through a bond issue, be built.

It was completed in late 1931 and officially opened on March 6, 1932.  It was mainly a convention center for tournaments, dog shows, tennis matches, fashion shows, auto shows, rabbit shows and American Legion conventions.  The biggest crowds have been credited to Jehovah Witness meetings, which now are held in the newer convention center which replaced it.

In March 1947, famed show pianist Liberace supposedly made his stage debut a the Municipal Auditorium as a benefit for the White Shrine as is known as the “Liberace world tour inaugural” complete with 500 custom pressings of “Warsaw Concerto” and “The Fire Dance,” which were autographed and sold as souvenirs.

More on the Muni Auditorium.

Long Beach Movie Theater Goings On

Posted: August 21, 2010 in Theaters

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

Near Eastside:

Hoyt’s Ebell – 1100 E. 3rd

Art – 2025 East 4th Street., was Lee to 1949, Carter, 1930


Santa Fe – 2170 Santa Fe, 1950