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.
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 recalls 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, and the name remained 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, remembers 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.”
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 explains. “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 isn’t more public interest in historic preservation.
“I think even people who aren’t preservationists innately understand the value of preserving our history,” she explains. “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.