NEWPORT BEACH — A towering construction crane is gradually chipping away at the postcard-perfect Pacific Ocean view from James Edwards Sr.'s corner office atop Edwards Cinema's flagship theater.
Soon, the ocean's blue will be hidden by the new auditoriums now being added to the theater. But the chairman and founder of Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc. won't miss the view.
He'd rather grab the huge magnifying glass from his desk and scrutinize blueprints for nearly a dozen projects planned or underway around Southern California--or keep looking over his shoulder at "the big guys," the powerful national chains that he's somehow managed to keep at bay.
The intensely competitive Edwards is twice the age of most theater chain executives, but he still keeps regular office hours. And he still gets a call at 11:30 each night with the daily box office receipts.
At a point in life when most would be content to reminisce about the past, Edwards is still focused on the future. Competitors and associates describe him as a tough-minded and quick-witted businessman, a shark who's out to prove that he's still got plenty of teeth.
Never more than a regional player in an industry dominated by giants such as United Artists and AMC, Edwards has nonetheless built a solid regional circuit with 425 screens, including 207 in Orange County.
The privately held company won't discuss its finances, but more than 25 million customers will file into his theaters during 1995. And the company will tighten its grip on Southern California during coming months with the addition of 40 new screens.
Edwards also has two pet projects underway that have set the industry buzzing. He's crossing the state line for the first time in 65 years through a deal with a Washington, D.C.-based mall developer, aiming to open 21-screen theaters in Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio.
And he's presenting an 89th birthday present to himself in the form of a $27-million, state-of-the-art megaplex in Irvine that will house the West Coast's first 3-D sight-and-sound Imax.
Slated to open Nov. 22, the day before the octogenarian's birthday, the complex marks the realization of a long-standing dream: a return to the grand theaters of yesteryear. Edwards also views his "big one" as a heavyweight attraction that will draw from throughout Southern California.
The cineplex with 20 traditional screens--including four that will be among the biggest on the West Coast--will seat 6,000 and cover 156,000 square feet, making it the nation's largest theater complex. It will be the Irvine Entertainment Center's magnet, drawing thousands of people each day to the neighboring restaurants and retail stores.
The taciturn businessman, who opened his first multiplex theater in 1939, describes the Irvine project and the out-of-state expansion as necessary maneuvers in the ongoing turf war with the deep-pocketed national chains that have forced dozens of other regional players to close down or sell out.
"I pride myself on being a survivor," he says. "There's always been a bigger guy out there who wants to beat me up. I've been in this business for 65 years and I get beat up every day. So, out of self-defense, I've had to get better than the other guy."
Those who know Edwards say that his competitive nature was forged during the Great Depression, when he purchased his first theater and was forced to scramble constantly to survive.
Along with Bernice, his wife of 63 years, Edwards sold tickets, screened the movies and cleaned up afterword. "We missed payroll one Friday and held it over to Saturday," Edwards recalled. "Then we held it over to Sunday, then Monday. Then we held it two weeks. But we did make it."
Edwards parlayed his original theater in Monterey Park into a 10-screen chain. Along with two partners, he started another circuit that eventually included 80 screens. He sold his interest in the larger chain after a heart attack during the 1950s.
The Edwards and their three young children moved to Newport Beach, purchasing what they thought would be a retirement home. But the retirement didn't stick, and, after two years of contemplating the Pacific Ocean, Edwards was back in action. "I was sicker in those days from thinking about being sick than I was from being sick."
Edwards quickly set to work creating the Newport Beach-based theater circuit that's now the nation's 15th-largest chain.
Competitors talk about the times when Edwards has refused to take no for an answer. In 1979, for example, he lost a bidding war with Mann Theaters to build a five-plex in Irvine's Woodbridge neighborhood.
Edwards relentlessly pursued Mann, hammering its executives with offers to buy the complex. Eventually, Edwards made an offer that Mann couldn't refuse, and on opening night Edwards' crews were changing the marquee and replacing Mann's candy with his own brands.
Competitors also say that Edwards has a reputation for being frugal.