NEWPORT BEACH — The Balboa Cinema, one of the county's few venues for foreign and art films and home to midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" since 1978, will close its doors Dec. 1.
A spokesman for Hollywood-based Landmark Theatre Corp., which has operated the Balboa theater since 1979, said the company's lease on the site is ending and the theater's owners "wanted more rent than we can pay" to renew it.
"Our lease is up so we're going to confine our (Orange County) operations to the Port for the time being," said Paul Richardson, Landmark's vice president of operations and acquisitions. Landmark operates the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, which also shows foreign and specialty films.
Officials of Walnut Properties, owners of the theater, would not describe their plans for the site, including whether it would remain a movie theater. "I can't tell you anything," said company President Jonathan Cota. "It's going to be a major upgrade for the area. People down there are going to love it."
Cota said that "lots of money" will be spent on remodeling the building and that the process should take four to five months.
Even with its worn and tattered interior, the theater has been a Balboa Peninsula landmark for decades. On Monday, patrons ranging from "Rocky Horror" aficionados to foreign-film fans lamented the news of the Balboa's planned closing.
"It's been there since I was a kid," said Linda Boucher, a 50-year resident of Newport Beach. "We'd go to the (former) Seashell Cafe and have clam chowder and walk down to the Balboa." Boucher called the theater "something individual to Balboa" and asked, "How many theaters have a balcony?"
Said daughter Dania Boucher, 20: "I used to go to the 'Rocky Horror' every single Saturday night for an eternity. Every week there were hundreds of people there and the line went around that corner." She pointed out the way the movie's fans wrapped around the side of the building in the pre-midnight lineup.
Others, like Huntington Beach resident Shari Hudak, said they hadn't been to the odd, little theater in years but still had fond memories of films and dates there and would be saddened to see it go. "It's a landmark. I think they should save it," Hudak said.
Walnut Properties, parent company of the adult-film Pussycat Theaters chain, bought the Balboa in 1975. It operated the cinema as a Pussycat Theater for 18 months in 1975 and '76 before turning it over to another operator.
Landmark took over in 1979 and featured a revolving repertory of such classic and cult films as "Casablanca" and "Eraserhead" until 1985, when it switched to offerings of first-run foreign and art films. Among the offbeat fare have been animation festivals and the 1986 screening of "Shoah," a 9 1/2-hour documentary on the Holocaust.
But the Balboa's biggest draw has been a 1975 musical cult film about a clean-cut young American couple who stumble into a castle full of kinky Transylvanians. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" has been playing at midnight Fridays and Saturdays since 1978 at the Balboa, where it has been the focus of an increasingly intricate fan ritual.
Audiences recite dialogue along with the film, toss rice and pieces of toast at the screen at appropriate moments and even dress up in character.
" 'Rocky Horror' has been the mainstay of the theater," said Landmark's Richardson. The company has no plans to move the film to the Port, he added.
General business at the Balboa has been about average recently, Richardson said. "It's been doing about the same as it has for the past five years. It's up and down based on product."
At the Tom Foolery coffeehouse and bake shop next to the theater, the manager said the movie crowd is an important part of the cafe's business. "All I know is, if they close, we're hurting for business. We stay open till 11 (p.m.) just because they're there," said manager Tara Bender, adding, "I'd be sad. I always go to the movies down there. They show intelligent-type movies that you can't see in a mall."
But shop employee Karen Richardson, who works at a boutique called Cool next door to the theater, complained that the midnight movie crowd was often unruly, leaving their trash on the street front and crowding the sidewalk, making it difficult for patrons to come to the store.
The loss of the Balboa leaves Landmark with only one theater in Orange County, the Port. The company's plans to renovate the Fox Theatre in Fullerton (closed since 1987) remain stalled, although a spokesman for the company said he expects them to be finalized early next year.
Landmark operates 44 theaters and 83 screens nationwide, about half of them in California and all of them specialty theaters.
The Port and the Balboa are the only Orange County theaters that regularly feature first-run art and foreign films. The Bay Theatre in Seal Beach and some of the Edwards outlets occasionally offer specialty films.