Reflections: A cinematic history of La Jolla’s lavish movie theaters
by Carol Olten
Published - 01/26/11 - 02:56 PM | 5188 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Grenada movie house opened in La Jolla in 1925, proving to be the most ornamental movie house La Jolla had seen to date. Located at Girard Avenue and Wall Street, it was one of several theaters that mark the community’s rich history. Photo courtesy of the La Jolla Historical Society
The Grenada movie house opened in La Jolla in 1925, proving to be the most ornamental movie house La Jolla had seen to date. Located at Girard Avenue and Wall Street, it was one of several theaters that mark the community’s rich history. Photo courtesy of the La Jolla Historical Society
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Ninety-eight years ago, the old bath house at La Jolla Cove was the setting for a historic event that was mindboggling to the small group who witnessed it on Jan. 22, 1912. No one could literally believe their eyes as the first motion picture flashed upon a screen with Willis Zader, a local entrepreneur, presenting the new marvel on an Edison machine with the flickering light shut off by a piece of tin to keep the bath house itself from going up in smoke. After two months, Zader’s operation was shut down because it was considered a fire hazard.

What did La Jolla’s first motion picture viewers watch? No records appear to be available, but popular fare of the time ranged from Biograph melodramas to Lubin bank robberies and reels of President William McKinley waving to crowds. Whatever, the new motion picture phenomenon took off, and by the summer of the same year, an outdoor theater was set up at the corner of Drury Lane and Silverado Street. It was also operated by Zader. (Although Zader’s work with movie presentations was short-lived, he later opened an automobile garage in La Jolla and published a curious calendar devoted to agriculture according to astrology.)

Thus began La Jolla’s love affair with movies and, more particularly, movie theaters, ending with the demise of one of the really great ones — the beloved Cove on Girard Avenue, which closed its doors about a decade ago, marking the last of motion picture houses in the Village.

Today, we reflect on the good old days when theater proprietors jockeyed to create the most ornate movie palace on Girard Avenue and drew huge crowds to enjoy plush seats, gilded ceilings and screens behind rich red velvet curtains, where silent films seemed to flicker on forever. La Jolla pioneer Anson Mills recorded in his diary of Feb. 1, 1915, that he had seen the 16th episode of “The Perils of Pauline” and added plaintively to his notes: “Will they never end?”

Mills and other early La Jollans were frequent visitors to the ornate Orient Theater, which opened at Girard Avenue and Wall Street in January 1915. It seated 500, more than the population of the town, and remained the major La Jolla movie house until 1924, when it closed under the name of Garden Theater. Meanwhile, another movie house called the La Jolla Theater had opened in 1914 across Girard Avenue, but it stayed in business only a short time.

A new building went up in 1925 where the Garden had been, housing the most ornamental movie house La Jolla had seen to date. Moorish and Spanish-inspired, it was called the Granada and seated 712 people. Lantern slides, including some business ads, were shown between the silent pictures until 1929, including the curious reminder: “All the ladies have removed their hats. Thanks.”

On May 29, 1929, the Granada showcased its first talkie, Mary Pickford in “Coquette,” and continued to flourish with the top of the first-run venues from Hollywood until finally closing in 1952.

With the closing of the Granada, the era of the Cove entered La Jolla movie history. It first opened in March 1948 as The Playhouse at 7730 Girard, with a seating capacity of 650 and a façade inspired by the colonial architecture of the East Coast. A few months after opening, its name was changed to Cove Theater and Spencer Wilson was entrenched as the venerable manager, a position he virtually retained until its unfortunate demise.

Will La Jolla ever have another movie house? The possibilities seem dim. Multiple issues are involved, including bookings, parking and the viability of audiences in today’s marketplace.

“The End” seems final now, but the past was sweet.

— Carol Olten is the historian at the La Jolla Historical Society.
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