Like the grand old lady she is, the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas always has had character and a touch of class. Over the years, she has played host to the likes of Errol Flynn, Judy Garland and Roscoe, the Roller Skating Dog.
When today’s audiences step inside the dimly lit foyer to attend a reggae performance, a showing of “Amadeus” or “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” these patrons mingle with the ghosts of thousands of theatergoers and entertainers who have appeared live or on film during the theater’s 58-year history.
Six decades ago, Encinitas was little more than the dusty halfway point between Tijuana and Los Angeles. Two blocks from the La Paloma lies Moonlight Beach, its name acquired from the late-night landings of rumrunners who defied Prohibition to hustle their wares off to parts unknown via the railway link in Encinitas.
Sturdy black model Ts, open land and wood storefronts dot old photos of the era. Thanks to the Lake Hodges Dam, water was plentiful, and flower-raising an industry in its infancy in the small town of Encinitas.
Enter a man with a dream.
In the 1920s, Aubrey Austin, a wealthy Santa Monica bank president, bought up large chunks of land, convinced that Encinitas would become a major resort. Tourists would mean culture and culture required a theater. Austin had the financial resources, the connections and the audacity to zero in on Encinitas as the site of an elegant, good-sized theater.
Two years in the making, the La Paloma Theater opened in 1928 at 1st and D streets, amid much fanfare. The theater’s sturdy construction prompted a building inspector, after a 1970s tour, to note, “She’s built to last. She’ll be here 100 to 150 years from now.’
The La Paloma, called an “architectural gem,” was billed as “the most beautiful theater on the South Coast.” Its opening was hailed as “a red-letter occasion in the history of Encinitas.”
Austin added one more touch--talkies. In 1928, the La Paloma became the first rural theater to install sound equipment for talking movies, which originated in 1927.
The size of the building (it seated 600 originally, 500 today with smaller seats and the balcony taken up with lights and a sound booth) and the exotic interior were perfect for both live theater and film, representing an opulence new to a town where the purchase of a new car was front-page news.
Aubrey spent $50,000 executing the plans of Santa Monica designer Edward J. Baum. Despite periodic renovations, the theater looks much the same today as it did in 1928.
The interior still boasts its original ornate decor, variously described as “Babylonian,” “Moorish” and “a cross between Spanish missionary and Hollywood Art Deco.” Longtime resident Betty Hammond added: “Ralph Willis, the artist, was sent over from Paris. He designed and painted the interior.”
Rippled beams arch across the ceiling. A huge scroll, painted gold, frames the stage, while twin mosque-like facades guard stage left and right. A mosaic-patterned wallpaper, added later, graces the upper side walls and ceiling.
On the ample stage, fully equipped with banks of lights and sound equipment, a back wall, large enough to wheel a piano or stage props through, opens onto the parking lot.
A yellowed handbill details the Feb. 11, 1928, program: “Cohens and Kellys in Paris” (the first feature picture), a “screen color classic,” a comedy titled “Red Hot Bullets” and a Fanchon and Marco live stage production of “Jungle Idea.” At the Kilgen Wonder Organ, Lewis Culling played the popular overture, “La Paloma"--"the dove” in Spanish--for which the theater was named.
Back then, a night of live theater or cinema cost only a dime.
In the ‘30s, despite the Depression, the La Paloma flourished. “It was the place to see a movie in the old days,” Hammond said.
‘Big League’ Minstrel Show
Citing the theater’s long history of community access, Hammond recalled a minstrel show that was “big league stuff” staged by music teacher Morris Anthony and featuring Betty Hammond’s husband, Sam, and many other local residents. Retired public accountant Bob Grice remembers when the La Paloma was the site of the San Dieguito High School graduation ceremonies while a new high school was under construction.
In the ‘40s, new owner Jim Keogh made sure that every child in Encinitas could get a free movie ticket each birthday. Keogh’s bluntly factual ads declare: “Almost always a good show.”
During the ‘50s, the theater featured movies from Mexico in addition to its other offerings.
But hard times lay ahead.
In 1963, the busy theater encountered financial woes. Old-timers recall seeing rats, bats and slashed seats in the deteriorating interior. With the showing of “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” the La Paloma shut down.
For the next few years, the La Paloma masqueraded as a homeless bag lady, a far cry from the classy dame of earlier days. With her house lights darkened and doors locked, rumors circulated that she would be razed.
But the old girl bounced back.
Newly remodeled by partners Mark Dean and Jack Barnard, the theater recovered its pride as the building was cleaned, painted, repaired and refurbished. Debbie and Rich Bicher, managers during the next phase, remember an entire Boy Scout troop helping to spruce up the theater. Carpeted churchlike pews were added and seating was increased to 350. An almost-new velvet stage curtain was acquired from an Organ Power Pizza sale.
In March, 1972, the La Paloma reopened with a highly successful Woody Guthrie benefit. Will Geer and John Hartford organized and performed at the all-day event.
Theater life resumed at the La Paloma.
“We tried to offer as much variety as possible,” said Bicher, sifting through old monthly mailers, which announced “a worthy collection by such artists as Fellini, Bergman, and Bunuel. . . . trendsetters, first-run movies, shorts and silent classics.” In addition, there were live concerts, shows like “The Fantastiks,” art displays in the lobby and community events for high school and elementary school children.
Coincidentally, the Bichers’ San Dieguito Drive home was built the same year as the La Paloma by the subcontractors who worked on the theater.
With the theater thriving again, surfing films and concerts produced long lines outside. The La Paloma and La Jolla’s Unicorn Cinema were the only San Diego area theaters booking foreign language films.
Some of the groups who appeared at the La Paloma during the ‘70s were the Mark-Almond Band , Jerry Garcia, Roger McGuinn, Nils Lofgren (now Bruce Springsteen’s lead guitarist), and the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
In early 1978, Ed Seykota, a commodities dealer, bought the theater. He further upgraded it by adding Dolby sound equipment and permanent stage lighting. The orchestra pit was boarded over to extend the stage area.
On La Paloma’s golden anniversary in February, 1978, the Bichers celebrated by staging “The 100% All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing Revue,” hosted by Bob Chatterton, replicating the theater’s opening events 50 years before with a newsreel, short comedy flick, and vaudeville show.
But economic snafus recurred.
With a change of ownership and the ripple effect caused by the closing of the adjacent La Paloma Coffee House (originally a bank), the La Paloma again closed briefly in December, 1978, with the showing of “Lawrence of Arabia.” During the few months that followed, traditional seats were installed and bathrooms were remodeled.
In May, 1979, “Bimbo,” a live, mixed-media musical comedy satirizing the 1970s in a lampoonish “So what?” fashion, opened a four-week run to packed houses and rave reviews. An original creation of former part-owner and producer-director-actor Jack Barnard, together with a youthful troupe of local talent, “Bimbo” helped bring the La Paloma back into the limelight. The theater reopened for movies with “King Kong.”
Business Good These Days
Today, the La Paloma is co-managed by Mark Weisinger and Alan Grossberg. With frequent sub-run shows (shown two to four weeks after first release), the theater is doing well. Grossberg said: “People are learning about us. Business is up about 175%.”
Weisinger pulls in the live performers--headliners like Stephen Bishop, Jay Leno, John Sebastian and Jesse Colin-Young as well as jazz and reggae groups--while Grossberg handles the film bookings.
With the combination of stage facilities and large auditorium, the La Paloma continues to pull in concert performers for whom acoustics count. Because of the high ceiling and baffles originally created by New York acoustics experts, a performer on stage is easily heard from anywhere in the auditorium.
“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Grossberg said.
Other live performances range from body building events to fashion shows to fund-raisers and beauty pageants.
Continuing a long tradition of community involvement, Weisinger and Grossberg allowed Pacific View, a local elementary school, to perform a benefit musical in June. The children raised $2,000 for Ethiopia’s starving people.
Weisinger occasionally makes the perilous climb into the dusty rafters several stories above the stage to hand-adjust certain lights. “I won’t do it,” Grossberg said emphatically.
The theater’s exterior was redone by present owners David Winkler and Ivan Gayler in the spring. Designer Michael Gayler brightened it with a salmon and torquoise color scheme which included awnings on the adjacent shops and restaurant.
Despite the La Paloma’s periodic upgrading, many longtime Encinitas residents are unaware that the theater is alive and kicking, perhaps reflecting its deteriorating state back in the ‘60s. One older resident said: “I’m so glad. I’d given up on it as a lost cause.”
In the San Diego Historical Society’s records, yellowed newspaper clippings and hand-written notes by longtime residents attest to the fond memories the La Paloma Theater still holds for local residents.
The La Paloma, Encinitas’ grand old lady, has seen them come and go--a long string of movie patrons, live theater buffs, performers, managers and owners.
This elegant lady has always had old-time grace and class. At the La Paloma, the theater is part of the show.