Former Cove Theatre manager Spence Wilson, 99, dies on Thanksgiving Day

Spence Wilson photographed in 2005 by Tom Mangelsen.
Spence Wilson photographed in 2005 by Tom Mangelsen.

Spence Wilson, former manager of The Cove Theatre who was a substitute “dad” to a generation of La Jollans, died Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 24, just nine months shy of his 100th birthday.

A La Jolla Kiwanis Club member for more than 70 years, Wilson was a close friend of wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen who has an art gallery in town.

“Spence Wilson died rather quickly on Thanksgiving morning,” e-mailed lifelong friend Nancy Miller. “He had a really good day the day before, but it appeared that his heart just got tired out. He was rushed to the ER at Scripps LJ.”

Of Wilson Mangelsen said, "Spence had a gift with people, although he didn’t necessarily like everyone he met, I never met anyone who didn’t like him. I think his early life was built on a strong foundation of family values that came from growing up in Randsburg, a small mining town, in the Mojave Desert. His parents taught him honesty, honor and hard work. He helped build the town jail when he was 7 or 8. He was not only an extra in the Will Rogers movies in Randsburg but went to school with Gregory Peck in La Jolla. He had regular coffee meetings with Charles Lindberg and he helped “Charlie” launch his gliders off the bluffs south of Pacific Beach. Spence also knew the likes of J. Edgar Hoover who secretly came through the back door of The Cove Theater when Spence was manager. He knew stories about J. Edgar that I’m sure never made it into the current movie. Spence loved the movies and I think took away the best of humanity and human qualities found in those honorable characters and roles played by Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda."

Mangelsen said of Wilson's character, "Spence’s kindness, generosity and deep love of family, friends, children and animals will long be remembered. His sparkling blue eyes and impish smile will always be there for us to reflect upon. Spence has left en enduring mark on many of our hearts. Edward Spencer Wilson had a rich life. I feel blessed and eternally grateful for being a part of it. 'Pops' you are missed very much but will never be forgotten."

Walter Robertson, Jr., another lifelong friend of Wilson’s, recalls Spence delivered milk as one of his many part-time jobs when he was a youngster.

“He managed the Granada and Cove theatres for 60 years and knew every adult and their kids,” Robertson said. “Many of us worked for Spence at the theaters. He was our ‘grandfather,’ and straightened us out when we got out of line.”

Robertson added Spence was “Mr. La Jolla” during the ‘40s through the ‘60s when “it was a small, quaint town.”

Wilson had been retired for many years. He had been living at the White Sands of La Jolla for several of those years, in an independent apartment for a few years, and then a full-care facility for the past 4 ½ years.

Edward Spencer Wilson was born on Aug. 22, 1912 in Ransburg, Calif. In the high desert. His father had been a captain the merchant Merchant Marine and then moved to Randsburg where he worked in gold mining.

When Spence was 8 years old, Will Rogers, Sr. was making silent films in Randsburg and included Spence as an extra in some of those films. This is where he first became interested in movies.

Spence’s uncle, Harry Wilson, moved to La Jolla in 1915 and opened the Western Union Telegraph Company office. Spence and his father came to La Jolla often to visit his uncle Harry, subsequently moving there permanently.

Spence began working at the Granada Theatre in 1929 while a sophomore at La Jolla High School. He graduated from LJHS in 1931. He managed the Granada and then the Cove Theatre from 1929 until his retirement in 1989 after 60 years of managing La Jolla theaters. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

“Spence has been an integral part of this community for several generations,” said friend Nancy Miller, noting Wilson “babysat” half the town at one time or another when they were young in his theater during La Jolla’s early days. “He has counseled many generations of children, teaching us all ‘theatre manners’ as welll as helping many with life’s lessons. Many adults give Spence credit for helping them to ‘get it together’ when they were youths.”

Wilson was a member of La Jolla Kiwanis Club since May 1937. He had “perfect attendance” as a club member and was present for nearly every event and fundraiser for 74 years.

From his retirement in 1989 until 2005, Wilson continued to help out at the Cove Theatre until it closed down.

Wilson knew the town so well, friends would always say if you really wanted to know what was happening in La Jolla, you asked him.

Wilson befriended nature photographer Tom Mangelsen while he was opening his Images of Nature Gallery on Girard Avenue. He worked at the gallery seven days a week and got great joy from going on photo safaris with the renowned photographer in Alaska and elsewhere, doing the only traveling of his long life.

He will be missed by many members of the community.

A remembrance is set for Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. at La Jolla Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 7708 Eads Ave. Bring stories to tell about Wilson. Those with pictures of Spence are asked to submit them to Leon Chow of C&H Photo for use in a slideshow.

Tax-deductible donations in his memory can be made to the Spence Wilson Scholarship Fund at La Jolla Kiwanis Foundation, P.O. Box 81, La Jolla, Ca., 92038.

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