WHITTIER — The curtain is scheduled to rise soon at the Whittier Village Cinemas, giving the city its first general-audience, downtown movie theater in more than a decade.
The three-screen cinema is housed in the old Wardman Theatre building, a 60-year-old movie house that had operated in recent years as an X-rated theater before being damaged in the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake. The theater, at 7038 Greenleaf Ave., has been closed since the quake.
City officials hope the theater's rebirth will help fuel a renaissance downtown.
They are counting on a slate of first-run movies to draw residents into the area for entertainment and shopping before and after dark. Commerce has been light during the day and almost non-existent after 6 p.m. since the earthquake, which caused nearly $30 million in damage. About 75 commercial structures were declared unsafe, and a number of businesses never reopened.
City leaders regard the Wardman Theatre's block, in the heart of the old downtown, as crucial in turning matters around.
The city has already provided the setting: tree-lined streets, old-fashioned signs and brick crosswalks laid out in fan patterns. New or renovated retail and office buildings line the streets. But many storefronts languish unrented, and empty lots gape like untreated sores on the block's south side.
"If there is any one single factor that is critical for the success of (the area's) retail businesses, it is getting first-run movies back in there," said Hank Cunningham, assistant city manager for community development. "And that will also generate restaurants. We see the theaters as being a catalyst."
For that reason, city officials welcomed Arman Akarakian and his son, Dan, who bought the property in March, 1989. They also own theaters in Highland Park and Tujunga.
"The city was very pleased that somebody was going to come in and remodel the building and not show X-rated films," said Dan Akarakian. "We had three meetings with the city prior to buying the property, and those were the only two requirements they had."
Since then, city officials have imposed 30 conditions on how the building could be renovated and used, Cunningham said. Although the original 1,000-seat theater was being converted from one to three screens, officials said they wanted to preserve the historical integrity of the lobby and the exterior.
Under the direction of the City Council and the Planning Commission, the city's Design Review Board and Cultural Arts Commission monitored the renovation to a degree unprecedented in city history, Cunningham said.
The Art Deco facade, with its fresh coat of green paint, remains the structure's most distinctive feature. With its row of storefronts to the south, the building suggests a squat version of the Wiltern, the Wilshire District's famous Art Deco theater.
Besides preserving the facade with its neon-ribboned marquee, the city required the Akarakians to preserve the lobby staircase and a painted iron chandelier. The requirements delayed the opening, originally planned for Memorial Day.
Construction superintendent Clinton Roberts said the owner's costs had risen "to the other side of a million the last time I asked. And that was a few hundred thousand ago."
He pointed out, for example, that the city selected carpet that cost $45 a yard. "It came all the way from Georgia," he said. "We can get good carpeting for $25 a yard.
"It took the city two months to decide on what kind of wallpaper," he added, "two months to decide on what kind of glass in the windows, two months to decide on what color paint."
Explained Cunningham: "We just wanted a quality project that was visually attractive and that preserved the interior and exterior look of the building. I understand that the property owner was frustrated at the amount of time it took, but there were legitimate questions. We're still on speaking terms, and they've done a very nice job. The interior looks terrific."
Nonetheless, city officials do not plan to rely exclusively on the entertainment lure of a small, independent cinema operation.
About two weeks ago, the city obtained a letter of interest from American Multi-Cinema Inc., proposing a six-screen cinema just down the street on what are now empty parcels and parking lots. Cunningham said the firm has spoken about such a project since December, when the city granted a partnership of developers the exclusive right to pursue a deal with the nationwide chain.
City planners have also approved a 10-screen cinema at the nearby Whittwood Mall on Whittier Boulevard south of downtown. That complex is scheduled to open before Christmas.
Cunningham said residents have both the desire and the dollars to support the cinema business in a town that could go from zero to 19 movie screens in less than a year.