It’s been awhile since we last looked at Colorado Boulevard’s “ghost theaters”—marquees and other relics along the street; skeletal reminders of Pasadena’s once-glorious picture palaces. In part 3 of our ongoing series, we examine the stories behind three more of these vanished movie houses.
Tower Theater (1930-1952) – 114 E. Colorado Blvd.
A parking lot occupies the spot where the Tower Theater once stood—between railroad tracks and the Anderson Typewriter Company. The theater opened in 1930, and sleuths on the Cinema Treasures website identify the architect as B.G. Horton, who also designed the Barney’s Beanery building across the street, and the elegant MacArthur Building at 24 N. Marengo Avenue.
Hardly a spectacular movie palace, the theater nevertheless attracted the youth of Pasadena. “We used to go there on Saturday mornings for serials—Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and Bob Steele,” recalled former Pasadena city councilman Chuck McKenney in a 2000 interview with the Pasadena Star-News.
Next door was a tobacco shop and a pool hall—The Tower Palace, and beyond that, the Sante Fe railroad line, which used to rattle the theater like a Southern California temblor. “My buddies and I went there on a Saturday afternoon to see the old movie San Francisco,” remembered former Star-News editor Charles Cherniss. “Its famous earthquake scene hit the screen at the same time a train rumbled by, shaking the theater building. The place emptied out.”
This was, evidently, the theater’s biggest failing. “Oh, how that theater would rock and roll when the train passed!” writes one poster on Cinema Treasures. In 1930, would-be robbers even phoned the Tower claiming a train had jumped its track and was headed for the building, in hopes managers would evacuate the theater and leave the cash register unattended. No train ever did jump its tracks, but because of the Tower’s “rocky” location—and possibly other factors too—it closed in 1952.
The Los Angeles Public Library has a 1937 photo of the theater in its glory days.
United Artists Marketplace Theatre (1986-2004) – 64 W. Colorado Blvd.
“Sitting in the back of the UA Marketplace Theater in Pasadena on May 31 , at the first test screening of their new comedy, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ […] Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner were understandably nervous, their congenital Angst cranked up several notches.” So wrote L.A. Times columnist Gregg Kilday on July 16, 1989.
Built in 1986 on the former site of the two-story Taylor Hotel, the UA Marketplace was known for hosting test screenings of films for Hollywood’s major studios. It was also “one of the first nice businesses in that part of Old Town,” according to Eugene Sotela, who worked at the theater from 1987-1989. “The others were Barney’s, the Rose City Diner. Everything else in between were run-down old buildings.”
Designed by San Francisco architect Daniel T. Uesugi, who also worked on theaters in Hong Kong and Honolulu, it had six screens, including one equipped with a 70mm projector, but “wasn’t that remarkable of a place,” recalls a commenter on Cinema Treasures. Nevertheless, the theater was an important part of Old Town’s revitalization, and became a popular fixture.
For a brief period, from 1986-1990, United Artists also operated a single-screen movie house at 600 E. Colorado (the current home of Angels School Supply). “At one point I was offered the manager position to the single house,” explained Sotela, “but I turned it down as I saw no future for single house theaters anymore.”
The future was limited for the UA Marketplace too. Perhaps it was an evil omen when the 1987 Whittier Earthquake left a permanent crack in the ceiling of the theater’s lobby, which was never fixed. Competition from more modern theaters—like the Paseo Colorado’s Pacific Theaters multiplex (now the Arclight) eventually caused the UA to close in 2004.
Bard’s Egyptian/Fox Colorado/Academy Theater (1925-present) – 1003 E. Colorado Blvd.
History permeates this multiplex, along with the occasional smell of fresh cobbler from the next-door Cobbler Factory. Among the theater’s claims to fame: Fred Astaire once had a $1,200 cigarette holder stolen here by an ardent fan during a 1946 movie premier.
The Academy of today differs starkly from the theater of years past. In the early ‘80s, it looked like this; in 1927, it looked like this. It’s gone by four different names, including Bard’s Egyptian, Bard’s Colorado, the Fox Colorado, and finally the Academy. Little if any trace remains of its original architecture.
The theater was commissioned in 1924 by Lou Bard, a Los Angeles-area theater chain owner. Lewis A. Smith, prolific movie theater architect, designed the original Spanish/Egyptian revival-style house, which had a proscenium arch, fly gallery, dressing rooms, balcony, $50,000 organ, and orchestra pit that could seat 40 musicians. The Digital Library at the University of Washington tells us that Smith also designed the Rialto Theater in South Pas, the elegant Highland Theater in Highland Park, and the Vista Theater in Los Feliz.
Constructing the theater was a massive undertaking. A steel girder weighing 40 tons provided the main support of the balcony. It was “the largest single piece of structural steel turned out by its manufacturers in 1924, and […] the heaviest piece of metal in any theater in California,” according to the Pasadena Star-News. Cost for construction was roughly $500,000—about $6.6 million in today’s dollars.
When the theater opened, it was christened Bard’s Egyptian, but shortly after it became Bard’s Colorado—then the Fox Colorado, then the Academy. In 1942, a remodel took place, and most of its Egyptian features were removed or covered. A terrazzo tile entrance from that period remains to this day—one of the oldest artifacts of the Academy’s early years.
Another revamp took place in 1957-8. This included installation of “the latest in refrigerated air conditioning,” and a “push-button automatic elevator,” according to the L.A. Times.
Star-studded movie previews continued through the 1960s. “Almost every Friday or Saturday night, Warner Bros. would preview one of their just finished pictures,” recalls one poster on Cinema Treasures. “Jack Warner and his group would always be there along with many of the stars of the picture [...] After these films were finished, the audience would fill out preview cards and the Warner group would read them in the lobby. I remember seeing Robert Preston at The Music Man preview and Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty at Gypsy.”
By the late 1970s, the golden age of single-screen cinemas was coming to an end, however. Several theaters in Pasadena, including the Raymond and the Oaks, switched to an adult format, and an adult theater, the Venus, even opened across the street from the Academy at 964 E. Colorado. By 1979, the Academy was beginning to look the worse for wear, causing the L.A. Times to note, “the management wisely keeps the lights low during intermissions lest someone see how dingy and dirty the interior of this once proud Art Deco and Moderne palace has become.”
Around 1984, the theater closed for yet another remodel, reopening in 1986 as a six-screen multiplex. It continues to operate as such today, showing second-run films for $2-$3. Battle-scarred as it may be, the Academy can nevertheless claim the honor of being Pasadena’s longest-running movie theater.
A few more views of the Academy through the years:
- Mezzanine lounge, 1950.
- Artist’s sketch of the theater, 1957.
- Side view of the Academy, 1983.
- Front view of the Academy, 1983.