It takes some keen architectural detective work, but if you look closely along Colorado Boulevard, you’ll see telltale traces of some of Pasadena’s lost movie houses. Repurposed marquees, empty ticket windows, and distinctly arched roofs give us clues to where they once stood. In the second part of our Ghost Theaters feature, we look at the stories behind three more of these cherished cinema houses of yore.
Florence/State Theatre (1918-2000) 770 E. Colorado Blvd.
The above comparison shot is somewhat deceiving. The current façade of the office and retail building at 766 E. Colorado is actually a convincing reproduction of architect Oliver P. Dennis’s original Florence Theatre, known from 1935 onward as the State. The only original remnant of this cherished cinema is a 1950s neon sign—now owned by the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles, who plan to display it when they move to their new headquarters in Glendale.
For younger generations, the theater’s heyday was in the 1990s, when it alternated classic films like West Side Story and A Man For All Seasons with newer indie features. The prices were cheap and you got what you paid for—a slice of an older, unpretentious Pasadena.
The theater was a popular spot for films festivals, at various times hosting the Aviation Film Festival, Festival of Animation, DOCtober Fest, and Method Fest.
In the ’80s, the State became an adult theater, then a Chinese-language cinema, and finally a revival house specializing in classic films. Though it was never in good shape during its last decade, it compensated with ramshackle charm. Perpetually understaffed, it often saw the same employee manning the ticket window, concession stand, and even projection booth.
The State was forced to close in 2000, however, after failing to meet an expensive seismic upgrade. Soon after, the building was demolished to make way for the current mixed-used office/retail building. Shortly before its destruction, an epitaph appeared on the marquee that read: “State Theatre, 1918-2000 – Was Open Daily.”
Esquire Theatre (1964-1999) – 2670 E. Colorado Boulevard
A former pizza joint redesigned by a famous art director, the Esquire’s origins were as eclectic as the films it showed. Though nondescript, with a basic travertine façade, the theater was much-loved among Pasadena’s bohemian circles.
It began life as Magoo’s Pizza Parlor before being purchased by the Laemmle family in 1964. With the assistance of art director Eugène Lourié—known for his work with directors Jean Renoir, Samuel Fuller, and Charlie Chaplin—the Laemmles converted the unlikely space into a 525-seat cinema. It was the first theater built by the franchise, which had previously leased its cinemas. “Pasadena’s first art theater, the Esquire, combines elegance and comfort,” wrote film critic Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times on April 3, 1964, just after the theater opened.
Though not much to look at, the Esquire was equipped with a wheelchair platform, stereophonic sound, and “acoustical accommodations for the hard-of-hearing.” A no-frills art house, its programming epitomized the independent spirit of the Laemmle franchise. It hosted an annual Cinéma Français series, ballet film festivals, performances by the Youth Theater Workshop, and periodic retrospectives devoted to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and others. It was also noteworthy for presenting live acts such as singer Marni Nixon and pianist Lillian Steuber. (The Esquire could even boast of having violinist Jascha Heifetz attend one of its classical music performances, according to a 1988 L.A. Times article.)
When Laemmle opened the Playhouse 7 in 1999, the Esquire became a victim of competition from its own franchise. The theater closed that year after a final showing of the Oscar-nominated film Hilary and Jackie, and in 2004, Washington Mutual purchased the building and converted it into a branch bank. Today, Chase Bank owns the building, and a scarcely discernible marquee and ticket window stand as the only remaining elements of “Pasadena’s first art theater.”
Colorado Theatre (1949-2001) – 2588 E. Colorado Boulevard
The above photo at left shows a stripped-down version of what this theater once looked like. Slightly bigger than the Esquire, with 650 seats (more than 700 when it first opened), the Colorado’s lamella ceiling and arched Quonset hut roof made it a distinctive architectural curiosity. The auditorium was long and tunnel-like, the screen small, and the ceiling resembled something from a botany textbook. In later years, actual crickets could be heard chirping in the auditorium during the quiet stretches of a film.
Nevertheless, like the State and the Esquire, the Colorado had charm. The theater opened in January 1949 with a showing of The Mozart Story and a premier that promised “Stars! Lights! Glamour!” The event was broadcast live on local radio station KXLA.
The Colorado played a small part in a local censorship battle in 1952. When the theater announced it would show Japanese film Rashomon, a 1951 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, city officials objected, and Pasadena Mayor A.E. Abernathy, stated that he didn’t think the city should be “opened up to a certain type of foreign film.”
A strangely archaic notion today, until 1961 Pasadena had a film censorship board, and any film shown in the city had to meet the approval of a panel of censors, and be issued a certificate stating that it was family-appropriate. Films could be arbitrarily pulled from theaters if they did not meet the panel’s standards.
It took a letter of complaint from Westates Theatres, testimony from a prominent Pasadena art critic, and a strong protest from the Colorado’s owner, Terry McDaniel, before Rashomon was eventually approved by the censors—a process that took several weeks.
The Colorado was the first in a planned ten-theater chain operated by Westates Theatres, who used the Colorado as their central office, but the theater changed hands many times over the years, being operated by SRO, Pacific Theatres, and from 1986 onward, Laemmle.
As the years progressed, wear and tear took its toll on the theater, and as with the Esquire, the opening of the Playhouse 7 signaled the inevitable end of the Colorado. The theater went out with a bang, however. Foreign film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played for six weeks straight at the end of 2000, selling out shows two hours in advance, and, according to a Laemmle spokesperson, becoming “the biggest hit in the history of the theater.” In January 2001, the Colorado shut its doors for good.