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The feature attraction: vintage movie palaces

A historic theater group travels back in time, and even the wrong way sometimes, for a look at the grand and graying.

July 22, 2006|Melissa Pamer | Times Staff Writer

When you're planning to spend 12 hours on a tour bus in traffic-clogged Southern California, you know there are going to be some delays, but going the wrong direction for the first 10 miles -- during morning rush hour -- is not an auspicious start.

For members of the League of Historic American Theatres who are in town for the group's 30th annual conference in Hollywood, the wrong-way detour was taken in stride on Tuesday's daylong trip to five aging theaters in the outer Los Angeles region.

"There's always a sense that we're already half inebriated before the party starts," Victoria Heim joked as the bus driver made a U-turn somewhere in Encino and headed for the first stop, the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

Heim, a 54-year-old poet who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., is a veteran of the annual theater "rambles" hosted by the league -- a nonprofit that advocates preserving old movie palaces, vaudeville theaters and performing arts stages. Less than one-tenth of the group's members are individual theater aficionados like Heim; the rest are professionally involved in restoration and preservation, according to Fran Holden, league executive director.

The league's yearly tours, which have taken place all over the country, are no longer the chaotic scramble they once were, said Heim. But elements of the past remain, she said, wryly smiling as the bus driver struggled with a map. About four dozen members chatted happily in the rows of seats behind Heim, patient with the delay. Many have been coming together for the league's theater tours for years -- decades, in some cases.

At the Alex, a 1925 theater restored in the early 1990s by the city of Glendale, conferees spilled from the bus and ambled across Brand Boulevard, many craning their necks to snap pictures of the marquee with its 100-foot neon tower.

"It brings back such a flood of memories, walking through that courtyard, seeing 'Ivanhoe,' trying to swordfight, going out with old girlfriends," said Randy Siefkin, a first-timer on the tour. Siefkin, 64, grew up in Glendale and is now the president of a local film society that shows classic movies in Modesto's restored Art Deco State Theatre.

In the Alex's auditorium, the group was greeted by theater representatives who were bombarded with questions about stage dimensions and other technical arcana. George Crittenden, a 78-year-old projectionist who began working at the Alex as an usher in 1944, charmed them with his memories of Ginger Rogers being whisked out of the theater by bodyguards.

"I think most people who have a passion for old theaters want to go back to a different era in life," said tour guide and league board member Joe Rosenberg later in the day. "In Fred Astaire movies, everything was Art Deco and everyone was dancing -- and they didn't give a thought to the Depression."

But preserving that pristine past takes hard work, and not all of the theaters on the tour had received the necessary elbow grease.

At a stop at South Pasadena's Rialto, a 1925 theater in need of restoration, the sweet smell of decay was stirred by the slight breeze that wafted through the theater's four open exit doors. As the group roamed around the theater, bright morning light poured in from the side doors, illuminating the crumbling plaster on the winged, bare-breasted female figures on either side of the theater. A large mask above the stage winked down at the audience, just one of its eyes lighted by a red bulb.

The visitors seemed disappointed by the theater's condition. "They need a benefactor," Heim said as she walked back to the bus.

Later, at the Fox Fullerton Theater -- built in 1925 as Orange County's first movie palace wired for talkies -- the group donned white hard hats and danced around bird droppings on the floor. The decrepit theater is undergoing restoration funded both privately and by the city of Fullerton.

"Oh, mercy!" cried one league member as she stared up at the peeling walls.

Over the course of the day, Jeff Greene, a board member who's been with the league for about 20 years, clearly reveled in his knowledge of architectural detail. "The people who are involved with theaters are all slightly eccentric," said Greene, who owns a business based in New York and Chicago that restores decorative painting in historic theaters. "It's a passion that's kind of intangible. If you could bottle it, you could sell it."

As the golden light of late afternoon came slanting down 6th Street in San Pedro, league members stepped inside the tour's last stop, the Warner Grand Theatre. The lavish design on the high ceilings had many staring up, mouths agape.

While theater officials spoke to the group, a lone figure ventured up to the balcony and pointed his camera up at the Art Deco detail. With his blond soul patch and brown Doc Martens, Herb Stratford, 41, stood out from the other league members. But, as director of the newly restored 1929 Fox Tucson Theatre in Arizona, Stratford said he's caught the same bug as some of the older enthusiasts.

"Something about these buildings hooks us and we can't let go," Stratford said. "My Fox just really struck me. It's almost like the theater spoke to me."

Over the next four days, the group would tour a dozen other historic theaters in Los Angeles. Holden said the L.A. area has so many fabulous venues that conference planners struggled to narrow their selection.

"This is the mother lode," she said. "It's an embarrassment of riches."

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