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Long Beach weighs fate of Atlantic Theater

Officials are trying to decide whether to adapt it to new uses, renovate the theater, which closed years ago, or tear it down.

February 04, 2010|By Lauren Williams
  • The theater's entryway features terrazzo tile. One proposal calls for using the building as a library
The theater's entryway features terrazzo tile. One proposal calls… (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles…)

The decaying 1930s-style theater stands in a tired neighborhood of shuttered businesses, old shops and vacant lots. Its Art Deco spire is dusty with years of neglect, its marquee empty except for a few mismatched letters. Nothing has been shown at the movie house for years.

For many Long Beach residents, though, the Atlantic Theater remains alive with history, a landmark of the city's past and the glory days of the cinema.

Now, some are worried that the old theater's terrazzo tile and signature neon spire will be lost if the north Long Beach building is demolished as part of a redevelopment push in the neighborhood.

For John Thomas, president of Long Beach Heritage and a board member of the city's Redevelopment Agency, buildings like the Atlantic Theater serve as giant reminders of a city's former splendor.

"When you actually have a building, it helps create a visual experience of how their community evolved," said Thomas, who has abstained from his involvement with the redevelopment agency on issues involving the Atlantic Theater because of his position with Long Beach Heritage.

The agency bought two blocks on Atlantic Avenue between South Street and 59th Street about five years ago, acquiring the Atlantic as part of the deal.

In an effort to breathe new life into the neighborhood, the agency is considering a mixed-use development with businesses and housing.

A community center and library might take root at the site where the Atlantic stands, according to Amy Bodek, general manager of the agency. The proposed North Neighborhood Library would replace the aging branch on Orange Avenue and 56th Street.

But in the doing, the old theater could be lost.

Built in the golden era of movie houses, the Atlantic fell on tough times in the 1970s when it became a pornographic theater and then, switching gears, a nondenominational church.

A gold lion, sword and Bible are still painted on the theater's windows, and a pink and white fountain with two doves sits in the padlocked entryway. A large neon sign for "New Direction Christian Fellowship" still hangs on the side of the building, which has been vacant for years.

Carl Boller completed work on the Atlantic Theater in 1941, the latest in a string of 316 movie theaters across the western United States he designed and built with his brother Robert. Thirteen of the theaters were in Los Angeles, including the old Fox Stadium Theatre on Pico Boulevard and the Largo Theatre in Watts.

Boller's architectural inspiration came in part from the time he spent traveling with a vaudeville troupe as a scenic artist, according to Dave Boutros, a historian at the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection in Kansas City, Mo., where Boller's firm was once located. Boutros said. It was this intimate knowledge of theaters that shaped his movie theater design.

The 1,000-seat, single-screen theater opened in 1942 in style. Newspaper articles chronicled the evening and advertisements gushed about the opening.

"More than a dozen celebrated stars of the stage, screen and radio will be on the stage in person to greet you at the grand opening," read one ad. Seats to the debut night sold for 25 cents.

It wasn't long, though, before the small theater faced challenges.

In 1946, theater owner Ivan C. Hanson and his wife filed an antitrust suit against 10 major motion picture companies, saying that the companies were conspiring to restrict the Atlantic's supply of films, according to archives from the Long Beach Independent. The suit was filed against 20th Century Fox, Loew's, MGM, RKO, Warner Bros., Republic, Universal, Columbia, Paramount and United Artists. Hanson settled with National and Fox West Coast Theaters for $38,000, but he posthumously lost the suit against the others.

After Hanson's death in 1950, his wife ran the theater for a few years before selling it to another operator, according to Hanson's relatives.

Over time, the building declined, finally becoming a pornographic theater.

Eventually the screen went black and the theater was used as a church. But the church left and the Atlantic has been vacant for years.

Now, Long Beach Vice Mayor Val Lerch says, the city is weighing whether the Atlantic should be bulldozed, restored or remodeled and used as a library.

"They didn't pay any attention to us at the onset," said Frances Gables, 82, who for the last 18 years has lived behind the theater in the house her grandparents bought in 1945.

"Everyone was up in arms. I just don't understand how you can take a quality building like that, tear it down and build a new one and say you're saving money," Gables said.

Instead of reusing the building, Lerch suggests keeping essential aspects of the theater, including restoring the terrazzo tiles in the entryway and framing photos of the original building in its glory along the lobby of a new building. Among the things to be restored would be the 80-foot neon spire, measured from the sidewalk to the top, on top of the theater.

But Michele Oltra, a cousin of the theater's original owner, has a simpler vision.

"I'd like to see them restore the theater," Oltra said. "And show old movies."

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