ENCINITAS — Like the grand old lady she is, the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas always has had character and a touch of class. Over the years, she has played host to the likes of Errol Flynn, Judy Garland and Roscoe, the Roller Skating Dog.
When today's audiences step inside the dimly lit foyer to attend a reggae performance, a showing of "Amadeus" or "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," these patrons mingle with the ghosts of thousands of theatergoers and entertainers who have appeared live or on film during the theater's 58-year history.
Six decades ago, Encinitas was little more than the dusty halfway point between Tijuana and Los Angeles. Two blocks from the La Paloma lies Moonlight Beach, its name acquired from the late-night landings of rumrunners who defied Prohibition to hustle their wares off to parts unknown via the railway link in Encinitas.
Sturdy black model Ts, open land and wood storefronts dot old photos of the era. Thanks to the Lake Hodges Dam, water was plentiful, and flower-raising an industry in its infancy in the small town of Encinitas.
Enter a man with a dream.
In the 1920s, Aubrey Austin, a wealthy Santa Monica bank president, bought up large chunks of land, convinced that Encinitas would become a major resort. Tourists would mean culture and culture required a theater. Austin had the financial resources, the connections and the audacity to zero in on Encinitas as the site of an elegant, good-sized theater.
Two years in the making, the La Paloma Theater opened in 1928 at 1st and D streets, amid much fanfare. The theater's sturdy construction prompted a building inspector, after a 1970s tour, to note, "She's built to last. She'll be here 100 to 150 years from now.'
The La Paloma, called an "architectural gem," was billed as "the most beautiful theater on the South Coast." Its opening was hailed as "a red-letter occasion in the history of Encinitas."
Austin added one more touch--talkies. In 1928, the La Paloma became the first rural theater to install sound equipment for talking movies, which originated in 1927.
The size of the building (it seated 600 originally, 500 today with smaller seats and the balcony taken up with lights and a sound booth) and the exotic interior were perfect for both live theater and film, representing an opulence new to a town where the purchase of a new car was front-page news.
Aubrey spent $50,000 executing the plans of Santa Monica designer Edward J. Baum. Despite periodic renovations, the theater looks much the same today as it did in 1928.
The interior still boasts its original ornate decor, variously described as "Babylonian," "Moorish" and "a cross between Spanish missionary and Hollywood Art Deco." Longtime resident Betty Hammond added: "Ralph Willis, the artist, was sent over from Paris. He designed and painted the interior."
Rippled beams arch across the ceiling. A huge scroll, painted gold, frames the stage, while twin mosque-like facades guard stage left and right. A mosaic-patterned wallpaper, added later, graces the upper side walls and ceiling.
On the ample stage, fully equipped with banks of lights and sound equipment, a back wall, large enough to wheel a piano or stage props through, opens onto the parking lot.
A yellowed handbill details the Feb. 11, 1928, program: "Cohens and Kellys in Paris" (the first feature picture), a "screen color classic," a comedy titled "Red Hot Bullets" and a Fanchon and Marco live stage production of "Jungle Idea." At the Kilgen Wonder Organ, Lewis Culling played the popular overture, "La Paloma"--"the dove" in Spanish--for which the theater was named.
Back then, a night of live theater or cinema cost only a dime.
In the '30s, despite the Depression, the La Paloma flourished. "It was the place to see a movie in the old days," Hammond said.
'Big League' Minstrel Show
Citing the theater's long history of community access, Hammond recalled a minstrel show that was "big league stuff" staged by music teacher Morris Anthony and featuring Betty Hammond's husband, Sam, and many other local residents. Retired public accountant Bob Grice remembers when the La Paloma was the site of the San Dieguito High School graduation ceremonies while a new high school was under construction.
In the '40s, new owner Jim Keogh made sure that every child in Encinitas could get a free movie ticket each birthday. Keogh's bluntly factual ads declare: "Almost always a good show."
During the '50s, the theater featured movies from Mexico in addition to its other offerings.
But hard times lay ahead.
In 1963, the busy theater encountered financial woes. Old-timers recall seeing rats, bats and slashed seats in the deteriorating interior. With the showing of "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Gidget Goes Hawaiian," the La Paloma shut down.
For the next few years, the La Paloma masqueraded as a homeless bag lady, a far cry from the classy dame of earlier days. With her house lights darkened and doors locked, rumors circulated that she would be razed.