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Racing Clock and Wrecking Ball to Save a Relic of Moviegoing in San Clemente

Given the national track record for preserving and converting old cinemas, the history-minded face an uphill job with the Miramar, built in 1937.

March 30, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The Miramar Theatre in San Clemente is from a simpler, quieter time when a guest could see a cartoon, a newsreel and a double feature for a quarter -- 35 cents if you wanted to sit in the plush, high-back loge seats.

But over the years, like so many single-screen movie houses, the Miramar succumbed to the big chains, unable to compete with stadium seating, surround sound and multiplex venues.

Built in 1937, a Spanish Revival design, the cinema is empty now. No movie has been shown at the Miramar since the mid-1980s, and its owner is thinking of knocking the place down.

A group of residents -- some who worked at the theater in its heyday, some who simply admire its place in the city's history -- is hoping to revive the Miramar. But like other grass-roots groups trying to bring the cinemas of a bygone era out of retirement, the San Clemente Historical Society has discovered a tough reality: The old buildings simply don't make for good theaters anymore.

So if the Miramar is to be reborn, it will most likely be as a performing arts center or a restaurant.

The efforts to save the Miramar -- originally called the San Clemente Theater -- reflect a national fondness for a long-ago era and an appreciation of the historic and architectural significance of old theaters. The National Trust for Historic Preservation put the nation's historic theaters on a list of "most endangered historic places" in 2001.

Saving these old theaters doesn't come cheap.

The Balboa Arts Theatre Foundation, formed in 1995 to save the historic Balboa Theater in Newport Beach, originally expected to spend $850,000 on renovations to turn it into a performing arts center. That price quickly jumped to $6.5 million when a variety of problems surfaced, one being the potential for flooding at high tide. The foundation had hoped to raise the curtain last year, but it is still several million shy of its goal.

The Port Theatre in Corona del Mar was sold recently by someone who had dreamed of returning it to its former glory as a movie house. But renovation costs were about $3 million. The new owner plans to restore the Art Deco building as a theater and add a restaurant, bar and coffeehouse for some financial punch. The Fox Theatre in Fullerton, a grand old palace, has been offered for office and retail space, but so far there have been no takers. It might be demolished unless a suitor comes to the rescue.

Originally the Miramar was part of a complex that included the Ole Hanson Beach Club and the Casino, where residents danced to live bands.

Don Divel was one of the first ushers when the theater opened, and his wife, Lois, was one of the first usherettes in the 1940s. Their courtship revolved around the theater.

"That's where everyone went," Lois said. The couple and their son Fred are part of the San Clemente Historical Society's effort to rescue the building and keep it a theater .

"The historical and architectural heritage in San Clemente is valuable to the city for the same reason that a national park is valuable to the country; it preserves something that looking at a picture of it in a book" can't accomplish, said Lee Van Slyke, president of the society.

"You just can't knock it down," Fred Divel said. "People don't build theaters these days."

The theater's owner, Richard Lee, is seeking permission to demolish it after a deal with a developer collapsed. The plan had been to convert the Miramar into a 7,000-square-foot restaurant with an ocean view, plus shops and office space. The developer, Steve Delson, is trying to revive negotiations.

If the historical society steps in with its plans, it would have to raise nearly $2 million to buy the building and $4 million more to transform it into a performing arts center. "That's a long reach," City Councilman Wayne Eggleston said. "If a community like Corona del Mar or Newport Beach is not able to successfully raise the money ... what makes San Clemente [Historical Society] think they can do it with a building that truly does not have significant architectural features?" Delson said a performing arts center would have to be enormously successful to stay afloat.

But Fred Divel is undeterred. He and others in the historical society believe the Miramar can sustain itself. Critics of the restoration plan, he said, have a different agenda.

"They want to turn it into a business center, or a place where people can have their nails done while looking at the San Clemente sunset," he said. "They're developers. They want to make money."

Delson, meanwhile, still hopes to turn the building into a restaurant. Lee, the owner, was not available for comment.

One thing Delson and the historical society have in their favor is that it's a long process -- at least a year -- from applying to demolish a building to the actual demolition.

"It's been a landmark for many, many years," Eggleston said. "I don't want to see it deteriorate more."

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