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Theater to Shut Down but History May Stand

November 03, 1990|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mann's Studio Theater in Studio City, one of only two operating single-screen theaters in the San Fernando Valley, will go dark in February, a victim of the burgeoning trend toward multi-screen complexes.

But the 50-year-old landmark may be saved from the wrecking ball and restored to its original grandeur. The landlord, a family that has owned the Ventura Boulevard property for generations and leased it out to Mann Theaters, reportedly has no interest in redeveloping the site and hopes to sign a lease with a Texas-based book chain that has turned two other old theaters into stores.

"They actually have some sentimental attachment to this building," said Bruce Bailey, a real estate broker representing owner Ray Rothman and his family.

"They, like a lot of citizens, are against some of the types of developments that have gone on and believe that residents should have some say in what goes up in the community."

Bailey said the family had originally hoped another motion-picture chain would replace Mann Theaters, which is expected to leave the site in February.

He said Mann decided against renewing the theater's long-term lease because single screens are no longer profitable and the 65-foot-wide movie house was found to be too narrow for multiple screens, among other factors.

The prospective tenant--the Austin-based Bookstop Inc.--approached the family after a number of other movie chains were dissuaded from operating there for similar reasons, Bailey said. Bookstop, which opened a store last February in San Diego's Loma Theater, is part of a division of Barnes & Noble that operates under the name Book-star Inc. in California.

Thomas Christopher, president and CEO of Bookstop, said details remain to be worked out before a lease is signed. He confirmed his company wants to open a discount book store in the theater that would include 120,000 volumes and a newsstand of 3,000 titles.

The Studio Theater opened in the late 1930s in the streamline Moderne style of its time--but it was rather plain in design compared with its more elaborate Art Deco sisters, according to theater historian Preston Kaufmann of Pasadena, who described the movie house as a "pleasant neighborhood theater" if architecturally unremarkable.

Kaufmann cited the Highland Theater, the Fairfax Theater and the Pacific Hollywood Theater as examples of single-screen movie houses converted to three screens since the 1970s. There were about 230 single-screen theaters in metro Los Angeles in 1950, according to the Film Daily Yearbook of Motion Pictures. Kaufmann estimated there are fewer than 50 today.

It was not immediately clear whether the Studio Theater ranks as the last single-screen theater in the Valley. Bailey and Jill Doland, managing director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, said it is. However, Kaufmann, a foundation member, noted that the Fox Theater on Van Nuys Boulevard also remains in operation with a single screen.

Studio City neighbors said they are sorry to see the old movie house go, but praised the landlords for trying to preserve the building and for shunning the retail-office centers that have replaced one traditional shop after another along Ventura Boulevard. Representatives for the owner and the bookstore met with the Studio City Residents Assn. last month to discuss their plans.

"There's no way to turn that theater into a bunch of theaters economically so the Rothmans are looking for a viable lease, and I'm really pleased they didn't just say, 'We'll tear the whole half-block out and do a retail center or something,' " said Polly Ward, the association's president.

Ward and others expressed some concern that the site may eventually be redeveloped into either a multiplex cinema or shopping center. The Rothmans own approximately 3.5 acres of increasingly valuable property, from the theater west to Vantage Avenue, according to Bailey.

But Bailey said that competition from multi-screen movie theaters in nearby Universal City, coupled with the lack of parking included in the proposed Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, left the prospect of a large redevelopment project unlikely.

He also maintained the landlords have no secret agenda.

"I've known the Rothmans for approximately 10 years now and I can tell you they've had unbelievable offers on their property from developers and I'm absolutely convinced they will never sell those properties," Bailey said.

"I'm also convinced they won't change the property unless it is falling down. They are against mini-malls. They like the look of Studio City. They've had tenants ask if they could clear a portion and they won't do it."

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