As a boy, J.E.T. Rutter spent his Saturday afternoons watching Buck Rogers movies at the Lido Cinema--in those days the swankiest theater in Newport Beach.
When he got older, he and his friends would go to the theater to "mess around"--releasing jars of moths from the balcony after the lights went out, sipping Cokes spiked with rum they'd smuggled past the ushers and sneaking peeks at the couples making out in the back rows.
"Of course, I never put my Coke in my popcorn and tossed it over the balcony," Rutter says innocently.
Rutter and the Lido grew up together. He was just 8 years old when the theater opened in 1939.
The Lido will celebrate its 50th anniversary Thursday with a gala fund-raiser to benefit the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, and Rutter will be there. As president of the museum, he will present a slide show of the harbor's early days.
Among those also attending will be Pete Barrett, 64, a Newport Beach resident since 1938 who remembers the hoopla of the Lido's opening night.
"I was a teen-ager and we were all really excited," Barrett recalls. "The Lido was the biggest thing in town. There were a couple of other theaters in the area, but nothing as grand as what they had built--it was different from anything we'd ever seen."
Built by the Griffith Co. for the then impressive sum of $100,000, the theater was the sole building at the entrance to the Lido peninsula, an area now crammed with tall banks and shopping centers.
"It sat out there in the open with the tumbleweeds rolling by," says Joe Carver, a 79-year-old Newport Beach resident who was 29 when the Lido opened.
Newspapers of the day touted the Lido's "modern Mediterranean style of architecture, in complete harmony with the homes on Lido Isle."
Actually, the building had more of an art deco design. With its long decorative columns and round marquee, the pink cement building stood out like a lavish birthday cake.
"It was pretty fancy, even for '39 when they built bigger theaters," Rutter says.
Local papers also lauded the theater's 800 "slide in" seats, "with velour upholstering, the final word in ease and comfort," a 15-by-23-foot screen that "can be seen from every chair without undue craning of necks," rust and gold velour curtains and a new projector that "eliminates much of the flicker . . . heralded as a great saver on the eyes of moviegoers."
What really amazed residents, however, were the murals of underwater scenes painted on the huge theater walls in newly developed fluorescent paint.
"It was the first theater with fluorescent paint, and they just thought that was the cat's pajamas," Rutter says.
The General Electric Co. had introduced the paint only months before. When shown under ultra violet light, brightly colored fish glowed in the darkened auditorium. One over-enthusiastic reporter promised: " . . . the Ultra (Violet) Ray kills all germs and purifies the air in the building, so if you go in with your clothes full of--well, things--you come out clean as the driven snow."
Manager Mason Siler owned and operated the theater until 12 years ago, when he sold it to Edwards Theatre Circuit Inc. Siler promised to show only first-run movies in his new theater, and set an admission price of 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.
Many longtime Newport Beach residents, including Barrett, took their first dates to the Lido.
Jean Ritter has lived in Newport Beach since she was 6 and worked as a cashier at the Lido during her senior year in high school.
"The Lido was new, pretty and exciting--a fun place to work," Ritter says. "I sold the tickets, and they said I filled the theater faster than everyone. That's my big claim to fame."
Years passed, and the Lido began to show its age. The seats and carpeting became worn and dingy. The high ceiling, painted with waves so that, as one newspaper gushed, one could imagine "a vast boat on an iridescent sea," became discolored and stained with water.
Many old theaters decay and die, the victims of neglect. Instead of abandoning the Lido, Edwards is spending about $250,000 to "bring the theater back to the spit and polish of its heyday," says James Edwards III, president of Edwards Theatres.
Workers have been sandblasting the outside of the Lido and painting it a pale salmon color similar to its original pink hue. Inside, they're putting in new drapes, carpeting and seats. The theater's legendary murals are being touched up with fluorescent paint.
Those who attend the gala anniversary will find a restored Lido. A searchlight used at the 1939 grand opening will guide guests to the party. A red carpet will be rolled out to greet guests Hollywood-style. Antique cars will be parked near the theater and old-time newsboys will hand out copies of papers from 1939. Movie star impersonators will mingle with the crowd.
A wine and hors d'oeuvres reception catered by Pavilions Place at the Via Lido Plaza will begin at 6:30 p.m. The historical slide show will begin at 7:30 p.m., followed by a showing of a 1939 Donald Duck cartoon and the movie "Hollywood Cavalcade," the first film to be shown at the Lido.
Jim Edwards Sr. will open a time capsule buried at the 1939 opening containing old newspapers and signatures of guests at the opening. Those attending the gala can sign a scroll to be placed in the 1989 time capsule.
Coffee and dessert will follow the program. The gala costs $50 per person and is sponsored by Edwards Theatres, the Vons Cos. and the Fritz Duda Co., owner of the Via Lido Plaza where the theater is located.
For reservations, call Lucy Roberts at (714) 557-5100.