Going to the Movies in La Jolla: When The Lot opens this fall, it will join the storied list of cinemas that operated in the Village
On the evening of March 25, 1925, a splendid fete was underway at the corner of Girard Avenue and Wall Street. 1920s flivvers (Model Ts) beeped and crowded the streets. Flappers in gala garb waved and smooched. Everyone gazed up in wonder at a movie marquee that gazed back offering fantastic gilded minarets and the promise of the world premiere of “The Boomerang,” three vaudeville acts direct from Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, Paris Fashion Revue in natural colors, a comedy riot called “Crushed” and “the first showing of Cetalla’s historic run to the North Pole in his race with death” — all for 25 cents.
This was opening night at the Granada, the grandest movie palace yet to be built in La Jolla inspired, no less, by the magnificent architecture of the great Spanish city’s Moorish history. La Jolla’s Granada had 712 seats all upholstered in the finest Spanish leather and a sonorous Robert Morgan pipe organ.
There was a glass crystal bead curtain that opened when the movie started and behind it a drop curtain with a Spanish horseman as the major motif. Gold-framed antique mirrors lined the walls of the lobby. The theater ceiling was a baroque celebration in colors of blue and gold. In a last nod to Spanish grandeur, ushers at the opening were attired in black mantillas set off with flirtatious red roses.
For 27 years the Granada served La Jolla as the one and only truly grand movie palace ever to operate here. Its opening in 1925 bears remembering because today a movie “palace” of entirely another tone is opening its doors in the community. While the old Granada was ornate and old-fashioned, this one called “The Lot,” and featuring seven screens created within the framework of the former Jonathan’s Market on Fay Avenue, is lean and modern, edgy in technology and adds infinitely more high-end levels to what we have come to know as cinematic experiences.
Adolfo Fastlicht, major partner in The Lot’s development, sums up the new project as “the 21st century neighborhood theater, a product that in today’s parlance offers a much more diverse exhibit space.”
In contrast, the early days of movie history in La Jolla were lucky to feature a projector, a screen and a venue. The first movies shown in La Jolla in 1912 were in the auditorium of the bathhouse at the Cove, the first show presented in January by operator Willis Zader, whose Edison machine lacked a fire shutter, thus closing down the entire operation within two months as a hazard.
But Zader persisted in his endeavor to bring films to La Jolla and in the summer of that same year opened an outdoor arena at the corner of Drury Lane and Silverado Street. That endeavor also proved short-lived.
Through its movie history, La Jolla has been blessed with eight theaters, the last being the beloved Cove, with Spencer Wilson as its equally beloved manager of many years. The Cove opened at 7730 Girard Ave., with “Spence” in charge in 1952. It closed in 2002 shortly after his retirement. La Jolla has been without a movie theater since — all the better to hail the coming of The Lot!
Before the Granada and The Cove, La Jolla entertained a variety of other movie houses. A year after Zader’s outdoor operation, a large theater seating 500 opened its doors as a silent film venue at the corner of Wall and Girard. It was called the Orient, first operated by the Hansbrough Electrical Co. and then by the Stutz Brothers, starting in 1915 and continuing into the 1920s. They changed its name to the Garden Theater.
In 1914, a rival called the La Jolla Theater opened across the street on Girard Avenue, attempting to catch the attention of the quickly growing movie audience. (Movies, after all, were about the only thing to do besides hunting abalone and sitting on the beach!) This new theater, however, closed in a short time.
By 1924, one of the Stutz brothers, Louis, decided that La Jolla, with its growing number of resort hotels and more sophisticated population, would support a larger and more up-to-date theater in tune with the ornamental movie palaces popular in Los Angeles and downtown San Diego. He tore down the Garden and announced plans for a new theater appropriately to be named The Jewel. It would be the star attraction within a larger structure containing a bank and several stores, both on Wall Street and Girard.
By the time of its debut in March, 1925, The Jewel had been renamed The Granada — heralded in opening ceremonies as La Jolla’s “finest playhouse of any city of her size in the land.” The Granada was designed by architect William H. Wheeler and built at a cost of $170,000. The opening night featured a speech by the San Diego mayor and a packed house.
A scribe in the La Jolla Journal newspaper recorded the festivities: “The wonderful pipe organ with Robert Gaderer at the console pealed forth in ecstasy as the picture hungry La Jollans marched down the aisle over nice soft carpet to their more than comfortable seats. … La Jolla’s prettiest girls dressed in their natty uniforms (a rare description of black mantillas as ‘natty’) ushered each expectant individual.” Another scribe noted he hadn’t “seen the town so lively since the Fourth of July.”
After opening with “The Boomerang,” a full 70-minute silent comedy/romance starring Anita Stewart and Bert Lytell, The Granada continued with popular first-run movies from Hollywood such as Buster Keaton in “Navigator,” Will Rogers in “Hustling Hank,” “The Red Lily” with Wallace Beery and Ramon Navarro, plus an occasional oddity with a title such as “The Galloping Fish: The Picture That’s Different.”
The theater also continued to be used for live performances of both vaudeville and light opera. On May 29, 1929, it hosted the first talkie to be shown here: “Coquette” starring Mary Pickford as a flirtatious Southern belle. Of her performance, a critic, in lieu of many silent film stars being unable to use their voices in the new medium, wrote “she talks as Mary Pickford ought to talk.”
By the time the Granada closed its doors in May 1952, the new Cove theater had been built on Girard, seating 650 and financed by Major John H. Haring as a memorial to his parents. It originally was called the Playhouse Theater. A few months after the Playhouse opened, it was purchased by the Granada’s owner and renamed the Cove. Wilson took a giant step across Girard from being manager at the Granada to managing the new venue.
No history of movie theaters in La Jolla would be complete without an ode to the Unicorn Cinema, the unique art house that opened in 1964 at the corner of Pearl Street and La Jolla Boulevard. Although small and tucked into an out-of-the-way location, the Unicorn became a highly regarded repertory operation known for showing avant-garde and experimental films from around the world, as well as selections from the silent era and vintage Hollywood.
The Unicorn opened with Adolfas Mekas’ “Hallelujah the Hills” and Francois Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.” It closed about 20 years later with the same bill.
I spent many nights in the Unicorn enjoying its ephemeral ambience, its coziness, its whimsical potpourri. It was my education in movies — real movies — and when it closed, I did shed a tear.