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Cinema in Despair: The Washington Theatre

Jan 21, 2010
washington theatre 630x472 Cinema in Despair: The Washington Theatre Washington Theatre Pasadena history Pasadena Heritage North Lake Avenue Cinema 21  photo

Washington Theatre

Growing up near the intersection of Los Robles Avenue and Washington Boulevard in the late 1980s and 1990s, I dimly remember “Cinema 21,” as it was then known. It was a mysterious, slightly seedy, endlessly fascinating building whose marquee with Spanish-language film titles (some of which may or may not have been adult films) intrigued me. Clearly the theater had seen better days, but what were they like?

“I’ve always wondered about that theater,” Pasadena residents muse. Now it is mostly known as an abandoned building with some vague mystique and Spanish charm. In fact, in an era where single-screen movie houses are practically archeological artifacts, it’s rather miraculous that the building has not yet been demolished.

Though hardly a palace, when it opened in 1925, the Washington was a spacious and elegant neighborhood theater, with 900 seats, a balcony, organ, and even small dressing rooms for the performers.

Designed by architects Clarence L. Jay (designer of Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena) and Henry M. Patterson (designer of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood), it shared much in common with South Pasadena’s Rialto Theatre, which opened the same year — it had a similar mixed-used aesthetic, with apartments and retail space adjoining it.

T2 12 Washington Theater 1940 300x189 Cinema in Despair: The Washington Theatre Washington Theatre Pasadena history Pasadena Heritage North Lake Avenue Cinema 21  photo

The theater in 1940, when admission was 9 cents. Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (T2-12).

In its first few years, the Washington featured silent films and vaudeville shows, promising “something on the stage every night” and enticing patrons with live appearances by Gene Serrell, “the personality girl of radio.” With the arrival of talkies, performances on the small stage became less common, though as late as the 1950s, it featured a live Christmas show.

Barry Kazmer, who spent part of his childhood in Pasadena in the ‘50s, has fond memories of the theater. “It was very nice inside. The seats were cushioned and had plenty of room. The snack bar was clean, and the people very nice and treated us kids well.” Kazmer recalled how he and his friends would arrive early for Saturday matinees of films like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, when a line of children would extend around the block. “It was my neighborhood theater and I loved it. I spent so many hours there.”

Some time during the 1960s, the theater changed its name from the Washington to Cinema 21, the name it retained until it closed.

In 1972, Cinema 21 broke ground when it became the first black-owned cinema in Southern California. Acquired by Ralph Riddle, a community relations specialist and Pasadena’s first African-American police officer, the theater made a point of bringing faces of color to the screen. André Coleman, a reporter for the Pasadena Weekly, recalls this period fondly. Profiling the theater in 2008 for the Weekly, Coleman remembered it as “pretty much the only place in town to see African-Americans on the big screen kicking ass and taking names.”

Under Riddle’s management, Cinema 21 mixed blaxploitation films like Shaft and Cotton Comes to Harlem with kung-fu movies, Clint Eastwood westerns and more mainstream fare. Riddle’s four young sons helped manage the theater. For Riddle, the theater was no mere business venture. Interviewed in a 1972 issue of Boxoffice Magazine, he explained that it was also a way to “provide jobs for young minority people” and teach them business skills. “We want them to have pride in our theater, as we have pride in them.”

T2 33 Cinema 21 300x412 Cinema in Despair: The Washington Theatre Washington Theatre Pasadena history Pasadena Heritage North Lake Avenue Cinema 21  photo

Cinema 21 in the 1970s. On the marquee are "Joe Kidd" and “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Photo by Elliot M. Gold. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (T2-33).

By the late ‘70s, however, the demographics of the neighborhood had changed. In 1979, Metropolitan Theaters Corporation, an exhibitor that catered to Latino audiences, took over the lease, transforming the theater into a Spanish-language venue.

This could have marked another important milestone for the theater, but sadly, a lack of repairs had given the place an air of dinginess. Like many other single-screen theaters in the 1980s, Cinema 21 also began to founder with the arrival of home video and competition from fancy new multiplexes, and it finally closed in 1989.

Gina Zamparelli, a historic-theater consultant and concert promoter, was the last person to manage the Washington, as a rehearsal studio, from 1991 to 1992. Then-mayor Rick Cole had asked her to conduct a feasibility study on the possibility of reviving the venue. She saw potential but was hampered by the owner’s unwillingness to open the venue back up to the public. “He offered to build a thrust stage and paid for the lease of sound equipment,” she explained. “However, he would not put money into building repairs.”

Zamparelli instead organized friends and volunteers to clean, repair and repaint until it was in good working condition, and she used it for rehearsal space for local musicians (including Michael Jackson’s touring band), but barely a year later, the owner abruptly closed the building. He was later sued for allowing tenants in the apartments above the theater to be exposed to toxic mold, forcing their evacuation in 2003.

Gagik and Jacqueline Buickians bought the property in 2006, and there was talk of revitalizing the theater, but as of yet, nothing has been done with it. Stripped of its “Cinema 21” sign, it looks more forlorn than ever.

I asked Zamparelli, who fought for years to preserve Pasadena’s Raymond Theatre, if she sees any future for the Washington. “Absolutely! It would make a wonderful neighborhood theater that could show specialty films and could be used as a small performing arts/multi-use center. You could offer movies, concerts, dance, and layer in uses such as meeting and conference, rehearsals, movie, television and video shoots. The key to a good working theater is maximizing uses to maximize income, along with smart uses of all auxiliary spaces.”

That sounded reasonable, so I asked her why there is not more public interest in historic preservation.

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The theater's marquee in 2009.

“I think even people who aren’t preservationists innately understand the value of preserving our history,” she explained. “But it’s an issue of the owner of a historic building understanding its value and a city that supports preservation. We had no owner or city support to save the Raymond. I can only hope the same is not true for the Washington.”

As of two weeks ago, there is hope. Pasadena Heritage has taken on the challenge of saving the building, and they’ve won support from Pasadena’s Design and Historic Preservation staff, who have nominated the theater for landmark status. The Preservation Commission is holding a public hearing on Tuesday, February 16th, and if the nomination gets through that process, it will go to the City Council for final consideration.

It saddens me to think that the Washington may simply go the way of countless other Pasadena theaters. Aside from the Academy 6, which has existed in one form or another since 1924, the oldest operating movie theater in Pasadena is the Laemmle Playhouse 7, which opened in 1999. Not very impressive for a city that prides itself on historic preservation. Perhaps with landmark status, as well as a little nurturing and financial support, the Washington Theatre can be an exception to the trend.

Here’s a 1983 photo of Cinema 21, advertising two Mexican westerns.




17 Responses for “Cinema in Despair: The Washington Theatre”

  1. Caroline says:

    Our family, (and everyone we know who lives nearby) is obsessed with this theater. It would be a great venue for all the local schools to host events as well, especially those with no auditorium space. Let get this done!

  2. Petrea says:

    I’m sure it’s always a money problem, so I hope the funding can be found. I think it’s worth it.

    Just the fact that the windows have new boarding on them is hopeful. The top photo doesn’t show it, but the east corner of the building is damaged–and it has been newly boarded up after long neglect. So it’s looking like someone’s beginning to take some interest.

    Great article.

  3. Frank says:

    The sad fact is the City of Pasadena world famous for the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl has gone the route of not preserving a single theatre in the town… The town should learn from cities like Pomona… Yes you heard it Pomona the save the FOX!! It is a wonderful statement of restoration in the Downtown Business Colony.. Even Hollywood has saved a couple of there theatres.. Yes the El Capitan is a vital part of the Hollywood & Highland entertainment district.
    But Pasadena could have been a leading example but decided to be another Santa Monica meets Westwood by allowing developers destroy the Raymond Theatre.. Thanks to Pasadena
    The Buchannans destroyed a crown jewel that help revitalized Old Town Pasadena in the 80′s prior to the state of trendville it has become today… The City of Pasadena is not an example of a city that restores or cherish tradition but a city for developers..

  4. Preserving the Washington Theatre would be an excellent move on the part of Pasadena: it is precisely what that area of Pasadena needs: culture and preservation of it’s history. You can count on me, my family and countless others to be there on Feb. 1 to show our support in this effort. We will do anything it takes to save another priceless piece of Pasadena’s heritage from destruction. It’s the least we can do in the wake of the horror that was losing the Raymond theatre. SHAME ON GENE BUCHANAN – SHAME ON THE CITY OF PASADENA – WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? THE NEW RAYMOND COMPLEX *WILL* *FAIL*. PRESERVING IT AS THE AMAZING THEATRE IT WAS WOULD’VE BEEN *THE* SMARTEST MOVE FOR THIS BEAUTIFUL CITY.
    DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN.

  5. Jessy says:

    Wonderful article! I drive by the Washinton and see the box office has been demolished, which is sad and the building falling into disrepair. I agree the loss of The Raymond Theater (Perkins Palace) was one of the saddest days in Pasadena history. I hope the same does not happen to the Washington.

    One champain of Pasadena’s theaters in Gina Zamparelli. She seems to be the only person who understands the importance of retaining spaces for the arts in Pasadena and preserving our history, bravo to her!!! She’s also one incredibly smart woman when it comes to preservation or theaters or promotion and production of shows.

    What are the plans for the Washington Theater is it facing demolition or redevelopment into condo’s?

  6. Dale Trader says:

    Hello All,

    The Historic Preservation Commission meeting of Feb. 1 has been cancelled and the consideration of all pending landmark designations, including the Washington Theatre, has been moved to the Historic Preservation Commission meeting Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010 (a Tuesday, since the regular meeting day of Monday is a holiday).

    Please inform your neighbors and associates who may be interested in these matters.

    Also, you may be interested in the following articles concerning the Washington Theatre with very interesting clickable, enlargable historic photos.
    http://hometown-pasadena.com/history/cinema-in-despair-the-washington-theatre/

    http://avenuetotheskylakeavenuepasadena.blogspot.com/2009/03/washington-theatre-845-e-washington.html

    Regards,
    Dale Trader

  7. Theatre Historical Society of America (www.historictheatres.org) supports the preservation and restoration of historic theater properties as important and often overlooked components in local history. And each “local” theater is an important part of the larger national tapestry of theater history. The City of Pasadena is urged to look closely at this remaining example of its city’s past and not allow it to succumb to the same fate and the storied Raymond Theater.

    Karen Colizzi Noonan, President
    Theatre Historical Society of America

  8. Matt Hormann says:

    Long Beach’s Atlantic Theater is currently going through a similar dilemma. Interesting article from the L.A. Times: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-atlantic-theater4-2010feb04,0,4992400.story

  9. Bill Peters says:

    The Washington Theater I remember was at the corner of Lake Ave. and Washington Blvd.
    In the 1940′s, the theater manager Robert St. Clair (something), a writer, stood at the door greeting theater patrons. He wore a tux. Every night. Admission was 25 cents.
    Saturday matinees included chaptered serials (I remember the Gene Autry ones). Feature films were the top Hollywood films. In those days, films were released anywhere else but California first. So, the Washington was sort of middle of the road as to dates we saw “newer” films.

    Our family would go together on Wednesday night (“Starts Wednesdays at a drive-in or theater near you”). A hamburger and malt at Larry and Carls was de rigeur. Larry and Carl’s was on the northeast corner of Lake and Washington.

    Because I was pretty good at collecting monthly on my Pasadena Star News paper route, I usually earned free tickets for Saturday matinees.

  10. Michele Zack says:

    Saturday matinees were a bargain at 25 cents (one needed only 30 cents to enjoy the movie and a Sugar Daddy. The latter could be nursed to last through a double feature and emceed pre-feature program). On Sunday it was a steal: only a dime! This must have been through the 1950s and early 60s.

  11. Deborah Gibson says:

    I agree with all the above having ben raised and still Living in Altadena yhe washington theatre was mys sisters and my favorite place they catered to kids and they had 10 cent sunday in the sixtys. you could go to the movies for 10 cents every sunday it is a tragedy what pasadena has done to a lot of landmarks and taxed the small buiness man right ou tdue ti there constant taxing and harassment. its a tragety my very faviorite opulent theatre was the crown theatre or the raymond. I would help to preserve it i remember when they closed it and the hastings we used to go to the drive in and see everyone on the weekend so very sad . thats why they have the problems they have nothing for the kids to do today

  12. Maria M says:

    I passed by yesterday and I heard work taking place inside. I hope that the plan works out. Would definitely like to see it up and running again. I was living in the apartments in 1994, I remember running down the hall and it’s red carpet. The memories never go away. If they decide to make it into a residential building I wouldn’t mind going back to live there again. It be like coming home after all these years.

  13. Andre Vaughn says:

    I have fond memories of both the Raymond Theater and the Washington Theater. The first movie I ever saw at the Raymond was “The Magic Christmas Tree.” I also remember seeing “The Sound of Music” there too. My pals and I would ride out Stingrays down to the Washington Theater. The last movie I saw there was 1970 “Anne of a Thousand Days.”

    Ahh…Those were the days!

  14. […] An article about a glamorous if modest Pasadena movie theatre that Clarence Jay helped design. […]

  15. Willow says:

    Great article so informative !!but please get you’re facts straight the theatre is on lake and Washington not on Los Robles and the oldest theatre in pasadena is the regency academy theatre on Colorado

  16. Matt Hormann says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Willow, but I never said that the theater was on Los Robles. I said that I grew up near the intersection of Los Robles and Washington.

    Both the Academy and the Washington opened the same year, 1925.

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