Walkstreet History

Y'know, I felt like I gave the Fox Venice theater short shrift in my previous junk drawer column. So let's review it again, this time with some newly updated information.

In their heyday before World War II, the Fox movie theaters stood as neon-lighted beacons over hundreds of cities big and small. It was the era of the silver screen, before television, and movie theaters were a center of city life: places for Friday night dates, Saturday matinees for the kids, or a chance to escape everyday life into the fantasy of a western or a screwball comedy.

And the movie was only part of the experience. The Fox chain was known for the striking architecture of its theaters. The buildings' designs often blended with the styles of their communities.

In Westwood Village, the Fox theater featured a soaring tower, with ornate columns and plaster reliefs that mirrored the Art Deco style of the rest of the shopping district. In Fullerton, designers favored a Moorish look. The Fox in Riverside reflected the Spanish mission designs of nearby landmarks such as the Mission Inn.

The Fox Venice, our local part of the chain, opened under blazing klieg lights in 1951 as a grand Art Deco movie house, featuring a magnificent marquee and tower with scrolling curlicues and stars in neon. The stars would flash up and down in sequence. The effect was magnificent.

It was a proper monument to cinema, a glorious theater with murals on the walls, and a beautiful domed ceiling. A gold-leafed decorative rim hid the purple neon lights that circled the giant interior oval and gave off a mystic glow over the red velvet-upholstered seats. They had a "crying room" in the back, which was enclosed with its own window and separate sound system, so mothers could attend films with their young children. Much later, this facility turned out to be used mainly for smoking dope, but I digress.

Almost the last of its kind to be built, the Venice movie house was eventually sold with the rest of the Fox West Coast chain to National General Corporation in the early '60s, after many memorable premieres.

National General really wanted to run a neighborhood house but they were never able to succeed. You could occasionally go catch a movie and there'd be only 2 or 3 people in the auditorium. Sometimes they closed at 9 when nobody bothered to show up. So the management stopped putting any money into the place and the neon all started going out, and so on and so forth. It started becoming run-down.

Finally they got the idea of running exploitation product or double features for 50 cents. They did that for about a year. The product was really bad - mostly violent action films. This brought in crowds mainly of teenagers looking for cheap thrills, so the theater got much rowdier. Eventually, there were two security guards inside, one on each side of the screen. And local gang members would flick lit cigarettes at them throughout each film. Quite the neighborhood place.

Then National General went bankrupt as a large, single screen neighborhood theatre in the new era of multiplexes. "We knew National General didn't particularly want it back," remembered Rol Murrow, proprietor of the Cumberland Mountain Film Company and president of Cumberland Mountain Theaters. Cumberland Mountain Theaters was a spin-off of the Cumberland Mountain Film Company, which was housed in a loft space above the theater from 1969 through 1988. The upstairs office was authentically hippie shabby chic for the time, with tattered couches and windows that overlooked the marquee. From 1970 til 1978, The Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show also operated in that upstairs studio space. Check them out on-line, they were quite the happening thing.

"The fellow who had managed the place for them and three of us from the light show formed a corporation, Cumberland Mountain Theaters Inc., and proceeded to secure the lease. January 11th, 1973, was our first day that movies hit the screen. Our opening bill was 'The Magic Christian' and 'Superfly.' We toyed with that kind of exploitation product for a while until we realized that catering to a bad audience would never bring any good."

They decided to change tactics, showing nightly changing double bills running the gamut of film experiences. I personally remember seeing 'Don't Look Back' and another amazing double feature film there one night, changing my whole life about what films could mean to an average guy. Or the night they showed the Stones' 'Cocksucker Blues' and the whole place got peppersprayed or stink-bombed, and everybody had to leave the theater while they cleared the air. Radical visions of cinema. That's what made the Fox Venice great.

During the boom years of its existence as the quintessential Venice institution, a Fox Venice monthly schedule was the hip accessory for every self-respecting refrigerator door in Los Angeles. The theater's mailing list read like a who's-who of the entertainment industry. The schedules, printed by Peace Press, featured, on the front, pictorial representations of the films, usually double features, and on the back, capsule descriptions telling why each and every one was a must-see.

Over the years the theater also presented live concerts by Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Richie Havens, Oregon, Canned Heat, Little Feat, Caldera, David Bromberg, John Klemmer, the Japanese group Bow Wow, and many others, including many great blues players such as John Lee Hooker for its Blues Night series.

In early 1979, the Cumberland era ended and subsequently the Fox Venice was run for a couple of years by Parallax Theatres, which changed their name to the Landmark Theater Corporation. For its last few years, until its closing in 1988, Rafigh Pooya owned the business.

Discovery of asbestos in the theater's acoustic treatments in 1988 doomed the once vibrant hall, and after it was stripped of its furnishings, screen, curtains, and interior it never came back, writing the death-knell of the theater operation. Scores of theaters were being demolished at that time, and others were being converted for other uses. So now ours became the Fox Swap Meet, or Discount Mall, with a very tacky fox logo overlooking the rubble underneath and within the once-beautiful theater. I've never entered it since it was converted, and never intend to do so. So ended a great filmic legacy.

But this movie theater wasn't the first one in Venice to open and close. Previous to the Fox's being constructed, there were two gala theaters right on the boardwalk, that showed all the hits of the day. Plus, movies were shown at the Auditorium, out on the Venice pier.

Back in 1911, the Neptune Theatre was the first movie theater to open, specifically for showing films. It was located at 1417 Ocean Front Walk, opposite the popular plunge, presently the site of the Art of Venice and the Peace doodad souvenir shops. The opening date was either May 22 or May 23, 1911, according to an ambiguous article in The Santa Monica Outlook. The 750 seat theatre was owned by David Evans, and was operated under a lease by Los Angeles vaudeville impresario Arthur S. Hyman (whose Hyman Theatre at 8th and Broadway in Los Angeles later became the Garrick Theatre and was finally demolished to make way for the Tower Theatre.)

Its facade featured a triple arched portico and covered walkway, much like Windward Avenue at the time. The 2-story structure was immaculate in its Italianate architecture.

1911 was also the year, later on October 27th, that David Horsley opened the Nestor Motion Picture Company, the first Hollywood motion picture studio. This probably wasn't lost on Venice. With the city so close to Hollywood, and that many stars made Venice their home or vacation spot, Venice's prominence as the local hot-spot created a close relationship between the two cities.

Movies were even being filmed in Venice on occasion. I do know one of the first started filming on October 21, 1907 - a Douglas Fairbanks production 'Reaching For The Moon' - which I've never seen, but would really like to view. I can only imagine the lonesome grandeur visualized in those early canal scenes. According to the February 3, 1912 issue of the regional entertainment publication, "The Rounder," the Neptune that year presented previews of a number of movies made by the Bison Company, a local Santa Monica studio.

All in all, Venetians probably were frequent moviegoers. The number of movie theaters in the community testifies to the popularity of the medium at the time. It is difficult to say what type of film Venetians liked most because of the wide variety of films shown: Westerns, dramas, mysteries, adventures, romances, news, travel, and slapstick. Charlie Chaplin was Venice's favorite male actor while Mary Pickford and Fay Tichner were two of their favorite female stars.

Venetians held a special place in their hearts for Miss Fay Tichner. Her victory in the 1915 Venice Bathing Suit Contest earned her a $50 first prize and a front page picture in the local paper. She decided that the best thing to do with her prize money was to spend it on her friends in the city that had been so good to her. She threw a big feast and party for Venetians at the Strand Cafe. Subsequently she appeared in a movie about the Bathing Suit Parade, which was also filmed in Venice.

In 1916, D. W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' was shown for the first time in Venice. It was popular and drew thousands of people to the Venice Auditorium.

And then there was the California Theater. Built in 1920, this new theater stood proudly at 1508 Ocean Front Walk, today the site of the open grassy area at the southwest corner of Market Street. Leonard Crandell, at the time, decided to raze his Scenic Railroad attraction along the boardwalk, in preparation of moving it to Ocean Park. In an article in the July 1, 1920 issue of The Venice Vanguard, Melvin P. Ogden was named as the new "Opening manager of the new California Theater at Venice." An earlier issue of Southwest Builder & Contractor magazine dated January 23, 1920 says that "D.D. Smith, Venice, has a contract... for the erection of a brick theater building... at the corner of Ocean Front Walk at Zepher Avenue. Mr. Smith is also the designer of this magnificent structure." And so it came to be.

Southwest Builder & Contractor magazine, this issue dated February 27, 1920 states "D.D. Smith has prepared plans and will superintend the construction of a theater and store building on the site of the previous scenic railway on Ocean Front Walk. The building will be 106 by 175 feet… and will seat 1500… cost about $50,000." This exaggerated seating capacity, which was actually 960, was characteristic of construction announcements of that era. Owners of the theater are named as C.G. Parkhurst and George J. Cleveland.

It's interesting to note that Mr. Parkhurst would later become the mayor of Venice. Eventually, sometime in the early 1940s, probably under new management, the name was changed to the Venice Theater. More hip and popular, I suppose. It remained open until 1952, when all the structures on the west side of the boardwalk were ultimately demolished. Another sad time in Venice's once-creative history.

Interestingly, in the 1950 movie 'Quicksand', there are a few scenes where this theater is visible. If you're interested in Venice or Santa Monica, circa 1950, this is the film for you, as the entire production appears to have been filmed in this area. It stars Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney and Peter Lorre. As auto mechanic Dan Brady, Mickey Rooney "borrows" twenty dollars from the cash register of the garage where he works to date the blonde waitress Vera Novak, and things get worse from there, plunging into a series of increasingly disastrous circumstances which rapidly spiral out of his control. Much like the theater featured therein. And with the Venice Theater's closure, it now only left the new Fox Venice as a local theater. So the circle came around. And then the Fox ultimately also demised.

So now, there's no theaters in Venice proper anymore. Such a shame, seeing that our town was always, and still is, heavily invested in the cinematic heritage of Southern California. The image seemed to be, back then as now, that Venice offered something to everyone. It tried very hard to be all things to all people, offering movies as another attraction, but mostly it was really just fun and games. Just as Venice was, and is.