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The Alex: Dilemma in Landmark : Alternatives Posed for Owners, City

October 16, 1986|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Owners of the Alex Theatre in downtown Glendale have proposed trading the 61-year-old landmark to the city for a multiple-screen cinema elsewhere, clouding the hopes of preservationists that the Alex will be restored and retained as a movie house.

Jim Sheehan, president of Mann Theatres Corp. of California, which owns and operates the Alex, said he favors a proposal to turn the unusual neo-Greek-style theater into a city-operated performing arts center.

However, a position paper issued this month by the Glendale Historical Society argues that there is no need for an arts center in Glendale, which the city estimates would cost about $15 million to build and $250,000 a year to operate.

The society, instead, is urging that the Alex, built in 1925 and the largest single-screen theater in the city, be restored and kept as a movie house.

Sheehan said in an interview that patronage at the Alex has remained steady for several years but that the cost of operating the single-screen movie house has become excessive. He said that, if the Alex cannot be traded for a multiplex theater, it will be turned into a multiplex. "The Alex cannot continue indefinitely as a single-screen theater," he said.

No Plans on Closing or Sale

The Mann Corp. has no plans to close or sell the Alex, even though Sheehan said the theater, which has 1,117 seats, is sometimes difficult to fill. The balcony, which has several hundred more seats, has been closed for years.

Sheehan said that, because of the size of the theater, booking a movie that fails to draw large crowds can be disastrous. "If you have only 50 or 60 people there, it can feel pretty lonely," he said.

Sheehan acknowledged that the Alex is able to get many of the more successful movies because of its large size and central location. For instance, the current feature, "Crocodile Dundee," is drawing about 5,800 moviegoers a week--one of the highest attendances among theaters in the chain, Sheehan said.

But most films don't attract that kind of attendance, he said, which means the Alex must continually draw new audiences during the run of a feature, unlike multiplexes that simultaneously show a variety of films.

Mann Theatres is among six movie chains competing to lease a proposed multiplex theater to be built in a one-block, city-sponsored renovation project between Broadway, Wilson Avenue, Maryland Avenue and Louise Street.

Official Describes Plan

Susan Shick, deputy redevelopment director, said plans call for development of a theater with six auditoriums and a total of 1,600 to 2,000 seats. The new theater would be built across the street from a multilevel parking garage the city plans to build on Maryland Avenue.

However, construction of the theater is not expected to begin for a year or more, according to William Holderness of Brand Development Co., which will build the multiplex.

The city also is considering expanding the Glendale Galleria to include another multiplex theater.

Owners of all six theaters in Glendale's "Movie Row" along Brand Boulevard said they are interested in relocating to multiplex facilities, no matter where they are.

All of the existing theaters were built before World War II and feature large auditoriums that are sometimes hard to fill. With the exception of the 1,100-seat Glendale Theatre, which was split into a two-screen house six years ago, the existing theaters have single screens.

Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon, which has successfully renovated and converted several Los Angeles theaters into multiplexes, is one of the most active chains seeking a new outlet in Glendale, city officials said. A spokeswoman for Odeon confirmed that the chain would like to own a theater in Glendale, which she called, "a very viable market." However, she said Odeon has no interest in acquiring and renovating the Alex.

The position paper by the private historic group argued that there is a resurgence in the popularity of large theaters, which audiences prefer to "shopping mall shoe box" multiplexes that predominate today. The report said large theaters with giant screens, commodious seats and high-technology sound systems offer an experience far different from viewing a movie in a small neighborhood multiplex.

"The Alex is ripe for renovation," the historical society's report concluded. "In conjunction with quality dining and shopping on pedestrian-oriented Brand Boulevard, a restored Alex Theatre would be a magnet for both theatergoers and day visitors . . .as an architectural focal point for the City of Glendale."

In contrast, a city-sponsored study released in May made no mention of the theater district in Glendale but concluded that the Alex should be converted to a performing arts center. Consultants Mitze Productions suggested that the city acquire the Alex and substantially rebuild it as a 1,400-seat proscenium arch theater for live entertainment. The Mitze report recommended that only the lobbies, entries and marquee be retained in the proposed $15-million project.

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