You see them up and down Colorado Boulevard—marquees, ticket windows, and arched roofs—the empty shells of some of Pasadena’s former movie houses. As we did in our signs feature, we take a look at the stories behind some of these picture houses of yesteryear.
Clune’s Pasadena Theatre/Fox Pasadena Theatre (1911-1953) – 61 W. Colorado Blvd.
Widely believed to be the city’s first movie house, Clune’s Pasadena Theatre occupied the tile-roofed building that now houses the Gap and Crate & Barrel. Little is known about what the theater looked like when it opened, but an electric “Clune’s” sign with 2,200 small bulbs once stood on the roof. Today, two faded paint signs high atop the building are the only indication of its former glory.
More is known about the interior of the theater, which opened its doors on March 1, 1911. It had a loge balcony, a large stage with dressing rooms beneath it, and its own central heating system. The building also contained “a number of store rooms,” according to the L.A. Times, and space for the Pasadena Athletic Club.
The opening night show was made up entirely of live performers, featuring “Miss Lilly Dorn, Dramatic Soprano,” a “saxophone sextette” and Frank M. Clark, a “story-teller.”
The theater could also boast of presenting composer John Philip Sousa, suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, and American explorer Frederick Cook, during its early years.
Some of the productions would have shocked today’s audiences. In March 1911, the Pasadena Elks Lodge staged a minstrel show featuring white actors in blackface portraying “Wild Congo natives with war clubs and tom-toms.” An actor named Eugene F. Kohler, “made a big hit” in the part of a “coon,” wrote the Pasadena Star-News.
Though minstrel shows were an accepted form of entertainment at the time, the theater’s decision to screen The Clansman, an early version of filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, caused more of a stir. Released in 1915, the film incited race riots and at least one murder in other parts of the country due to its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.
When the film arrived in Pasadena, the Pasadena Negro Taxpayers and Voters’ Association protested, resulting in a hearing before the city censorship board, and the cutting of several scenes from the film.
It’s worth noting that the theater’s owner, W.H. Clune, was friends with Griffith, and even financially backed some of Griffith’s films. (The Clansman had its world premier at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, on February 8, 1915.)
Clune’s eventually became the Fox Pasadena Theatre and continued to operate until 1953. Later, the building was converted into a thrift store for the Pasadena Salvation Army. The two original painted signs at the top of the building are the only reminder of the theater’s storied past.
United Artists Theatre (1931-1990) – 600 E. Colorado Blvd.
A classic example of art deco style, the United Artists Theatre was designed by architects Clifford A. Balch, P. A. Eisen, and A. R. Walker, and opened in 1931. Southern California architectural guidebooks frequently mention the theater when discussing art deco in Los Angeles. Two of its most distinctive features were twin artworks on either side of the building’s façade titled ”Unity” and “Artistry.”
Early in its existence, the theater was a popular “preview house,” where rough cuts of films were shown to gauge audience reactions. Famed director Alfred Hitchcock screened Suspicion at the theater on June 13, 1941, while RKO Pictures screened Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons on March 19, 1942.
These screenings proved to have a dramatic impact on the fate of both films.
Audience laughter at Suspicion‘s original ending caused Hitchcock to write and shoot an entirely new conclusion to the film, while tepid reactions to The Magnificent Ambersons were at least partly responsible for its eventual drastic re-editing by the studio.
A 1960 renovation covered the beautiful art deco façade of the theater, and added a new sign and unsightly aluminum panels that obscured its unique features.
After the theater closed in 1990, it stood empty for several years until a 1997 restoration costing $500,000 breathed new life into the building, transforming it into Angels School Supply. Though the auditorium was gutted, the art deco style from the theater’s early days was restored, and today the distinctive “Artistry” and “Unity” panels were revealed once again.
Warner’s Egyptian Theatre/Uptown Theatre (1925-1987) – 2316 E. Colorado Blvd.
This theater really is a ghost. Though parts of the original structure remain, the front of the building looks like just another empty storefront on Colorado Boulevard. Walk down Roosevelt Avenue, however, and you will see the raised shell of the auditorium, visible in the above photo—a clue to the building’s long-buried past.
Part of the 1920s Egyptian Revival fad, Warner’s Egyptian Theatre was designed by local architect Kenneth Gordon, who worked for Pasadena architectural firm J. H. Woodworth & Sons. “In preparing plans for this theater,” explained the Pasadena Star-News, “Mr. Gordon went to considerable pains to have his subject matter authoritatively sound and spent much time in studying Egyptian traits.”
Many faux-Egyptian features graced the interior of the theater, including pharaoh heads, winged scarabs, and double-headed snake gods. Most notably, an aluminum replica of King Tut’s throne stood in the foyer. Visitors were told that if they sat in the chair and made a wish, “the shades of the Egyptian monarch will see that the wish comes to pass.”
Warner’s Egyptian opened on May 6, 1925, and in the typically lavish custom of the era, a gala premier was thrown, which included a performance by the theater’s house orchestra, two films, a Pathé newsreel, and appearances by several minor celebrities, including silent stars T. Roy Barnes and Charles Murray.
Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Ramon Navarro all paid visits to the theater on various other occasions; and as late as March 2003, Beatle Ringo Starr scoped out the theater as a possible music video location. (He settled for the Raymond instead.)
Though its ornate designs were eye-catching enough to inspire a near-exact replica in Park City, Utah, Warners Egyptian shed its exotic origins early on, becoming the Uptown Theatre during the lean years of the Depression. Later, as with the United Artists, a new sign and marquee were added, covering the structure’s original façade. The Uptown Theatre nevertheless persisted for many years, finally closing in 1987.
Check back soon for a look at three more “ghost theaters,” including two beloved art houses.