LAGUNA BEACH — It belongs to a bygone era, when managers in suits greeted moviegoers at the door, and ushers in uniforms guided them down the aisles.
Edwards South Coast Laguna is an aging landmark that opened 60 years ago this summer with a Jane Withers movie, a Mickey Mouse cartoon and a line around the corner. Still this city's only movie theater, it also is the subject of a tug-of-war between those who consider it a historical treasure and want it restored, and those who want it modernized.
"It's disgraceful," said Belinda Blacketer, president of the Laguna Beach Historical Society. "It's a beautiful, beautiful building, and it's just falling apart. . . . It could be restored and made a showplace for Edwards, just like they did the Lido [in Newport Beach]."
She and others were horrified when the theater was divided in half to add a second screen in an attempt to keep pace with the times.
City Councilman Wayne J. Baglin, who has been pushing the chain owner to overhaul the theater, said that until that happens, he will take his $6.75 elsewhere.
"I still frequent Edwards outside Laguna Beach, even though I've been told the downtown one is no longer a hazard to your health. It's an embarrassment to the corporation and is so radically inferior to any other theater they operate that it's time to do something about it."
While the lobbies of other Edwards theaters are lit by dripping chandeliers, here a wrought-iron light fixture with five naked bulbs hangs over the popcorn. The paint is peeling and the concrete is cracked, a far cry from the theater's glory days.
The theater opened June 26, 1935, to great fanfare. It was then called the New Lynn Theater after Lynndon A. Aufdenkamp, who with his father, Fred A., owned and managed it.
"Oh, it was so beautiful," said Thelma Aufdenkamp, Lynn's 91-year-old widow, a Laguna Beach native who now lives in Laguna Hills. "They all thought it was beautiful."
It was hailed as the first steel-and-concrete structure built in Laguna Beach, and the opening-night program boasts of its "modern air-condition system" and the "gas-fired furnaces."
"The intricate, mechanical details of this elaborate system would not interest you," the program says, "but you will appreciate an evening spent in breathing air as fresh and pure as the ocean breeze, tempered to bodily comfort."
Old-timers say the theater's interior was most definitely a showplace, with Edgar Payne murals on the walls and a brilliant starburst light fixture in the ceiling.
"The star in the ceiling was probably the thing you noticed most, other than the murals," said Jane Janz, a friend of the Aufdenkamps. "There was something about the coloring in there. It was not an ornate theater. . . . It had a quiet elegance."
When the dividing wall was installed in the 1970s, it cut through the star-burst light fixture, leaving half in each theater. The murals were blanketed with drapes.
After the second screen was installed, Aufdenkamp said, her husband, who died in 1992, would not go to it. "He wanted to remember it the way it was," she said.
James Edwards Sr., founder of the family-run movie chain, could not be reached for comment. But the cinema's new manager, Charles Lilly, said the movie house still has plenty to offer. In fact, Lilly said, it is improving with age.
He pointed out the stereophonic sound system and new chairs with cup holders. The renovation will continue with a remodeling of the lobby, he said.
"She's an old theater that's been put to good use, a good sturdy building," Lilly said. "It's coming along. They are taking some time and spending some money to make it a viable entertainment center. I think people here in Laguna Beach will be real pleased with it when it's done."
And perhaps most importantly, employees say this little theater feels like home to some people.
"We try to talk to customers as they come in," Lilly said. "We tell them, 'Good night,' and ask if everything went well and invite them back."
Except for the tourists, he said, "We'll eventually know all our customers."
The theater is an integral part of some residents' youth.
Robert Englund, of Freddy Krueger fame, said he recalls walking to the movies during childhood summers in Laguna Beach.
"That was where I began my love affair with the Laguna theater," said the actor, who still takes that stroll with his wife. "It's one of the few theaters in the country where you can go to a matinee and literally come out and see the sun setting over the Pacific."
Janz's memories are even more personal.
"More than one person got their first kiss in that theater." Was she one of them?
"No comment, but I'm sure it would be historically correct."