In the Ventura picture palace where Linda Lovelace once dominated, Blanca Guerra now flirts coyly--and clothed--in Latin melodramas.
Gone is the infamous Pussycat Theater, with its salacious titles and often furtive customers. Last month, the owners of the downtown Ventura theater took the movie-audience pulse and decided that Spanish-language films would draw better than X-rated ones.
Today's fare runs to mariachi musicals, slapstick mojado (wetback) comedies and romantic charro (cowboy) films.
Soon, live mariachi bands will take the stage on weekend nights, says the new manager of the Teatro Mexicano, a former Mexican rodeo promoter named Daniel Zavalza.
Plans are also under way for a live appearance by Venezuelan film star Astrid Carolina Herrera, Miss World 1985. Zavalza plans to advertise the live shows on local Spanish-language radio stations, but says that until he finishes rebuilding the wooden stage, he can't set dates.
The Teatro Mexicano, which flies a Mexican flag and lights up the night with vibrant pink, yellow and green neon, is somewhat of an anomaly in the mixed-use, mainly Anglo neighborhood near Ash and Santa Clara streets.
But neighbors couldn't be more pleased.
"I'm delighted. It's long overdue," said attorney George Eskin, whose office across the street overlooks the theater entrance. "It's . . . more aesthetically pleasing to look at the Teatro Mexicano than the Pussycat Theater, with the . . . seedy billboards and exploitation of women that it represents."
Like many X-rated theaters in California, Ventura's Pussycat fell victim to the video revolution, which allowed viewers of adult fare to rent tapes at the neighborhood video store and watch them at home, in private.
The Pussycat's owners, Los Angeles-based Walnut Properties, operate more than 150 theaters nationwide but show X-rated films in only a handful, according to Zavalza. Several former adult houses owned by the chain have found new life as Latin cinemas, he adds.
Zavalza hopes to carve a niche for his theater in Ventura County and hopes to draw audiences from the area's large Latino population, especially agricultural laborers homesick for their native Mexico.
He sketches out ambitious plans for live shows from his backroom office, where signed photos of scantily clad Latino starlets compete for space with a photo of Zavalza and his horse at a charreada, or Mexican rodeo.
Fighting the Odds
But the theater manager is battling the odds, which show that Spanish-language movie houses are on the decline. One Los Angeles distributor estimates that 50 such theaters, nearly half of Southern California's total, have perished in the last three years as the VCR boom saturates the Latin market.
Inside the 800-seat theater, a faint whiff of ammonia rising from the red seats is chased by the stronger scent of jalapeno peppers. The snack bar offers a variety of Mexican sweets and authentic nachos.
The Teatro Mexicano will be spared the pressure the Pussycat received from fundamentalist Christian groups in Ventura County, which picketed the movie house for several weeks earlier this year.
Leaders of Horizon Foursquare Church across the street say they think their prayers helped bring about the Pussycat's demise.
"The people in our congregation and a number of others have been praying for that theater to stop showing X-rated movies for a long time, and I think that . . . had as much an effect as anything else," assistant pastor Steve Shepard said.
On a recent weekday, the management of the Teatro Mexicano might have prayed for a larger crowd.
About 20 patrons--some wearing cowboy hats, others gripping baby carriages--sat through a double bill of melodrama and comedy.
One of the movies was "Mojados de Corazon, " (Wetbacks of the Heart), a slapstick comedy that follows the antics of two Mexicans trying to sneak into the United States with La Migra, (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) in hot pursuit. The Mexican-made movie portrays the border guards as bumbling, simpering fools. The heroes are also bumbling, but more loveable.
"I like the movies because they remind me of home," said construction worker Jose Rodriguez Gonzales of Oxnard.
Gonzales, who said it was his first visit to the theater, said friends told him he should check out the new Spanish-language theater in Ventura.
Back in 1940, the theater was known as the Mayfair.
But the Golden Age of the picture palace began to tarnish in the 1950s, when TV started competing for viewers. In the early 1970s, the first modern multiplex sprung up in Oxnard, offering diverse fare on several screens.
Until that time, the Mayfair and the Ventura Theater--now a live music concert hall--were the two most popular theaters in the city. But even back then, the Mayfair had a reputation for more offbeat fare.
"During the 60s and 70s the Mayfair attracted more of the foreign films, the art films, than the Ventura Theater," recalled Eskin, a frequent patron.
Enter Marilyn Chambers
In the mid-l970s, the Mayfair became the Pussycat.
From his vantage point across the street, Eskin recalls that porn star Marilyn Chambers, who starred in such adult classics as "Behind the Green Door" and "Insatiable" once made a personal appearance at the Pussycat when one of her films opened in Ventura.
There were about 150 patrons at the Pussycat that night, but more often, Eskin observed a steady trickle of people who began wandering in for the Pussycat's first show each noon.
"I saw professional people I recognized . . . an incredible cross-section of the population," Eskin says.
The attorney adds that when he gives clients directions to his office these days, it's much less embarrassing to cite the Teatro Mexicano as a landmark.
However, "When you told people the Pussycat, everyone knew where it was."