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HEARTS OF THE CITY

Remake of a Classic : 1930s Movie Palace in San Pedro Is Getting a New Life

September 18, 1996|DEBORAH BELGUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The restoration of the 65-year-old Warner Grand Theater in downtown San Pedro has mobilized a battalion of residents and business people bent on seeing one of their tarnished baubles returned to its original beauty.

Joe Martino donated $1,200 worth of lightbulbs. John Monaghan and a paint manufacturer anted up 15 gallons of paint. John Whittle carved out three weeks of his busy schedule to direct the painting of the intricate facade. John Blazevich reached into his pockets and came up with $30,000 for new neon. Even the local cemetery chipped in a few thousand dollars for carpeting.

They hope that when the first phase of the finishing touches is completed by the beginning of next year, the theater will serve as a performing arts center that can help revitalize the downtown area, which is dominated by aging businesses, halfway houses and thrift stores.

The first big event is scheduled for Friday, when three blocks on 6th Street will be closed for a celebration and the lights of the restored marquee will be turned on for the first time in nearly two decades.

Early next year, the theater will open for its first performances; organizers are hoping to rent it to dance and music companies or community groups needing a meeting place. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will give a concert March 16.

For decades, the theater hasn't looked like much as you walked down the sidewalk. Just a nondescript, fading building, long past its 1930s heyday as a movie house. But walk inside, and--boy!--it looks like something out of Hollywood.

"It was an incredible thing at the time," noted Gary Larson, one of the leaders of the crusade to save the picture palace. "It's like Grandpa's Model T that has been on blocks for so long. It hasn't been destroyed or altered. It's a prime candidate for rehabilitation."

On the ceiling is an extravagant copper, gold and silver sunburst design. Art Deco chandeliers hang from the rafters, and original tapestries cover two walls.

The theater's previous owner was Lee Michaels, a restaurateur and 1970s rock star who bought the structure in 1991 for concerts.

By 1995, he was advertising it for sale in church newspapers, hoping a religious group would buy it for meetings or services. Or that someone would use it for a swap meet.

That's when Larson, a businessman who has restored several historic buildings in San Pedro, began negotiating with Michaels. Larson formed the Grand Vision Foundation to help buy the theater.

When he realized he and the foundation were thousands of dollars short, Larson approached Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich about the city of Los Angeles buying it.

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Svorinich, whose district covers San Pedro, agreed it was a historic treasure. It even held some endearing personal memories for him.

His parents had their first date in the Warner Grand's balcony. And he remembers standing in line as a boy to see such movies as Walt Disney's "Jungle Book" at the theater.

Last December, the city of Los Angeles, at Svorinich's urging, bought the movie palace at 478 W. 6th St. for $1.2 million to pump some economic hope into San Pedro's downtown.

The city will be putting in new plumbing and fire doors and bringing the structure up to code, but it is up to the Grand Vision Foundation to raise restoration funds.

So far, the group has taken in about $80,000, foundation President Bob Clark said, and received various in-kind donations and volunteer help. While the theater will soon be open for public use, foundation members are looking for $4 million more to make it into a stellar performing arts center. New curtains, a new roof and a refurbished interior are among the needs.

The movie house was one of a handful of Warner Bros. neighborhood theaters built in Los Angeles to showcase the company's films.

The one in Beverly Hills was torn down by Columbia Savings & Loan in the late 1980s. Another in Huntington Park has been split into two theaters.

The Warner Grand opened Jan. 20, 1931. That first night there was much fanfare with the opening of "Going Wild" with Joe E. Brown. Tickets cost 50 cents--twice the normal price.

Over the years, there have been several owners. In 1978 the theater was transformed into a Spanish-language movie house called Teatro Juarez. Then-owner Arnulfo Estrada, a Wilmington grocer, installed new carpet and recovered all the seats--one section in red, one in beige and one in green to resemble the stripes on the Mexican flag. The seats are still covered in the same vinyl.

In 1984, Ray Howell, a former manager of Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, bought the San Pedro theater. But hard times came in 1989 when a new six-screen complex opened on Western Avenue in Rancho Palos Verdes. Howell stopped showing first-run movies.

People who live in San Pedro, a community of 75,000 residents that was incorporated into the city of Los Angeles decades ago, didn't want to see the theater die.

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Maxine Patton, a Lomita resident in her 80s, worked as a cashier when the movie hall first opened.

"It was a gorgeous theater," she recalled fondly. "I can still hear the boys downstairs dressing where the ushers dressed. When they came upstairs, they had to stand at attention."

Matty Domancich, 74, remembers the theater as one of the places he and other boys would take their girlfriends. "To impress our first date, we would sit in the loges, where the seats were 50 cents," he said with a laugh. "The next date, you'd move to the lower, cheaper seats that cost 25 cents."

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The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on efforts by the Grand Vision Foundation to help refurbish the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro. For information about helping, call the foundation at (310) 833-4813.

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