WHITTIER — It's a gamble, and Tom Paradiso knows it.
But the telephone company employee fancies old movie houses and has set his sights on restoring some luster to the aging Whittier Theater, a city landmark at the corner of Hadley Avenue and Whittier Boulevard.
In an age when multiple-screen complexes are the rage, theaters like the Whittier have all but vanished. It is one of only a dozen movie houses left in Southern California that were built before the Depression.
The Whittier, a 1,000-seat palace with a planetarium-like ceiling complete with twinkling stars and swirling clouds, is owned by Pacific Theaters. The big Los Angeles-based chain wants to sell the Whittier walk-in and a string of small shops that flank it.
Business at the box office in recent years has slumped, according to city officials, and even a switch to Spanish-language films to tap the area's growing Latino population was a bust. And except for a karate school, the shops in the theater building are vacant.
But Paradiso, 30, says he is convinced that with a fresh coat of paint, new carpet and a 1980s-style marketing approach the Whittier Theater again can be a "beacon in the community," attracting people from throughout the Southeast area to Whittier. Paradiso, a commercial account executive with MCI, envisions a mixed use for the theater, offering special film festivals with family-oriented fare and foreign flicks as well as small live concerts, mostly jazz or pop music. He also dreams of adding a bar with outdoor tables in the courtyard leading to the theater as well as boutiques and speciality shops in the 25,000-square-foot facility.
The idea has support from several city and regional historical groups, which view Paradiso's effort as the best shot at saving what many consider to be a landmark worthy of permanent protection. Paradiso has also cornered interest in City Hall, where the fate of the highly visible theater is of more than passing concern. The theater is several blocks south of the city's redevelopment showpiece, Uptown Village, and some believe that a restored theater would go a long way toward pulling new business into town.
"We definitely like the idea," said Susan Moeller, a member of the city's redevelopment staff.
Paradiso said he and a private investor have made an offer to Pacific Theaters to buy the Whittier and the adjoining property, but he declined to identify his partner or discuss details of the offer. Hugh Finley, an executive in Pacific's real estate division, also refused to talk about the Whittier Theater, its troubles at the box office or Paradiso's offer. He would only confirm that the theater is for sale.
On Nov. 12, the City Council bought negotiating time for Paradiso when it unanimously passed an emergency ordinance preventing the theater from being sold or torn down for 45 days. The action was taken under the city's new historic preservation law which allows officials time to determine the historic value of a building before approving a new use or its demolition. The council, stung by criticism in the past for not doing enough to save the city's historic buildings, moved quickly to protect the Whittier Theater upon learning it was for sale.
On Monday, the Planning Commission will meet at City Hall to decide whether to ask the council to add the Whittier Theater to the city's list of historic buildings. Once it is on the list, a developer would be required to wait six months--while the city reviews plans for the destruction or renovation--before receiving approval for a project.
Theater historian John Miller, president of the California Society of Theater Historians, said he believes Pacific would rather see the Whittier Theater razed than operated by someone else because it might pose a competitive threat. The chain has two movie complexes, a six-screen and five-screen in neighboring La Mirada and a three-screen theater in Santa Fe Springs.
Paradiso said Pacific has told him that one of the conditions of sale is agreeing not to show feature films at the Whittier Theater. "It would seem that they are trying to discourage someone from buying it and using it as a theater," Paradiso said.
Both Miller's group as well as the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group, have sent letters to Whittier officials urging them to give the theater permanent historic status. The city's own historical society also favors saving the theater, according to Joe DaRold, executive director of the Whittier Museum.
Based on the architecture and age of the theater, Miller said he is convinced that the Whittier would qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. If it does qualify for the National Register, the theater would be eligible for tax credits that would help pay for the cost of restoring and developing the property.
Miller said the theater--built in 1929 as the McNees Theater--is the last "atmospheric theater" left intact in the greater Los Angeles area.