San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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February 24, 2003

Curtain Call

The Cove Theater closed its doors a few weeks ago, bringing the number of old cinemas in San Diego down to two. After the New Year, I’d just discussed the old theater with a friend who was new to La Jolla, mentioning that it was one of the only surviving single-screen houses. When I picked up the Reader on January 16, the unfortunate news was printed at the end of the weekly review—that the Cove would quietly close its doors, and nothing could save it.

Like an old friend that lived nearby, it died before I had a chance to visit. It was kind of shocking, then disappointing. The changes in the city seem to happen so damn fast. I can’t remember what existed in some places. This was almost as bad as the demolition of the Jackson and Blanc building in my old neighborhood. The empty lot, littered with rubble, echoed inside of me. It was sad to see. It had been there since I was a kid…

The Cove Marquee

As far back as the 80’s, multiplexes began lay waste to old cinemas the same way tornados devoured trailer parks. I began to notice this when the old drive-in on Midway Drive suddenly disappeared, without a trace. From the backseat of the family Impala, I had caught my first glimpses of cinema off that enormous screen. In particular, I recall a certain hockey-masked killer, and a certain lightsaber duel. My dad came back early from work one day, and took us to see Star Wars (my first-ever movie) at the Mann’s Valley Circle in Mission Valley. The last movie I saw in that theater was Aladdin. It’s foundation now lies below a Gordon Biersch.

The Loma Theater still stands, but as a bookstore. The beautiful marquee, and the interior ceiling illustrations have been “preserved”. However, there is nothing else besides to suggest movies once played there. Creaking seats and a snack bar have given way to rows of books. It had been cavernous to the eight year old me. I had seen “Star Trek, the Search for Spock” there. “E.T.” ran there for over a year. But, with Mann and United Artists just down the street, the Loma was doomed. The multiplexes offered ‘dollar Tuesdays’. Next door was the Sports Arena, and a video arcade. There were other advantages, too. We could pay a buck to see a PG film, but then sneak into the ‘R’ rated features. It was a 13 year-old’s mission to see films like Porky’s. We would have given it an Oscar.

In high school, I rediscovered the old cinemas, because of a growing interest in independent film. I was also learning how to speak Italian, and realized that foreign films actually played in these theaters. Soon I was visiting the Ken, the Park and the Guild, all located in the older neighborhoods of Hillcrest and Kensington. Frequent trips to these cinemas allowed me to get to know these places intimately, as well as enjoy some of the greatest films ever made. The Park had a 60’s vibe to it. Even abandoned, it still has a certain vibe. I had heard that it doubled as a porn theater once. I saw a few films there, but for some reason, the lobby was what stuck with me. They had a fantastic collection of movie posters, foreign ones – the Italian poster for the “Deer Hunter” comes to mind. An illustrated DeNiro would gaze menacingly at patrons lining up at the snack bar.

The Guild. Inside were old seats with red upholstery, and ornate floral wood decorations painted in gold. Red curtains were draped on either side of the screen. There was even balcony seating. The building was an old southern California Spanish-style. It was beautiful, and a staple of Hillcrest. Seated comfortably in one of those old chairs, I had seen a young Jeremy Davies and Liv Tyler’s make their film debuts. After the closing, the building was razed. They rebuilt it to look like the old Guild, even reattaching the old sign. Under the new marquee sits a furniture store.

The Strand in Ocean Beach closed in the early 90’s, during which you could still catch a double feature for three bucks! I had seen “Jurassic Park”, the brand new THX sound maxing out the theater’s ancient speakers. They had been mounted on the wall, right next to the screen, their grilles torn and hanging. The scene of T-Rex chasing the Jeff Goldblum was comedic, instead of scary. The giant dinosaur’s thudding footsteps bottomed out the speakers, making them vibrate against the walls. T-Rex’s roar was tinny and metallic, like an AM radio. It was so O.B (Ocean Beach).

To me, the Mann Cinema 21 was the last big fish before the Cove. It was San Diego’s largest movie screen at 70mm. Many had the pleasure of seeing films like “The Godfather”, “Mars Attacks” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” in that cavern. The building still stands, but was converted to a revival church of some denomination.

It’s just the Park now, over in Kensington, that’s left. Burning the midnight oil, perhaps, but still going. I’m glad. It reminds me of the old San Diego, the town that was once a slowpoke, but is running the race to catch up with the other big cities. That kind of vibe still exists, even with all the construction cranes dotting the skyline. They sit there like ugly giant steel flamingoes, kicking back in a big urban pond. In spite of all this, I believe that someday, these little treasures will live again. I’ve read that The Balboa, the California, and the North Park are scheduled to reopen. Slowly but surely, of course…

Posted by sfilippone at 09:57 PM