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Nostalgia’s the Main Attraction in Drive to Save X-Rated Theater

Times Staff Writer

Silver-haired Charles Hannan doesn’t look like the sort of guy who gets his kicks in dark, dank X-rated movie houses. The bespectacled 77-year-old with a goatee doubtless prefers the operatic glory of “La Boheme” to the steamy exploits featured in “Debbie Does Dallas.”

Nevertheless, the retired architect is piloting a campaign to save the X-rated Palomar Theatre in downtown Oceanside. This week, the adults-only movie palace, a favorite haunt of off-duty Marines, is featuring “Oriental Jade” and “X Factor” for only five bucks--$3.50 for senior citizens and military men.

It is not the spicy film fare, however, that Hannan and his small but determined band of allies are attempting to preserve; it’s the building. Constructed in 1924, the theater was for years a popular fixture on the downtown landscape, presenting vaudeville shows, silent movies, even ballroom dancing.

“Everyone you talk to around town has sentimental feelings about the Palomar,” Hannan said Thursday beneath the theater’s neon-lighted marquee. “It was the first theater built in North County. We consider it a treasure and a historical landmark.”

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Treasure or not, the rather ordinary-looking stucco structure on Hill Street--Oceanside’s major north-south thoroughfare--is scheduled to crumble under the bulldozer’s blade late this year. City officials plan to level the theater and adjacent businesses along the block to make way for a $17.5-million civic center complex that community leaders hope will spark an urban renaissance in the aging downtown.

Hannan and other Palomar fans have no quarrel with the ambitious civic center project--they just want to modify it a bit. Their goal is to see the 600-seat theater refurbished, converted into a cultural center and included in the complex.

“It would be a terrible shame for a city that has lost most of its culture to tear down this wonderful theater and lose this opportunity,” said Marie Chavez, 78, who recalls seeing Mary Martin in “Peter Pan” at the Palomar. “This building could blend in very nicely with the civic center. We need to hang onto all the history we’ve got.”

City Council members, however, don’t seem to agree, and Hannan and fellow theater boosters clearly face an uphill battle in their efforts to preserve the Palomar.

“That girlie theater simply isn’t an addition to our city,” Councilman Walt Gilbert said. “I think it would be a sorry thing to disrupt our beautiful, modern civic center by sticking something like that in the front yard.”

Councilman Ted Marioncelli, who recalls spending rainy Saturdays munching popcorn and watching triple-feature Westerns at the Palomar as a youth, agreed.

“That theater has really become run down over the years, and I frankly think it’s past its successful stage,” Marioncelli said. “The idea of a performing arts theater for Oceanside is a good one, and we should pursue it. But I think we could do a lot better than the Palomar.”

Council members also chided the pro-Palomar forces for waiting until plans for the civic center were well under way to protest its demolition.

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“The time to talk about this was ages ago,” Gilbert said. “Now, we’ve got a fine design for the center, and I can’t give in to nostalgia and support saving the theater.”

Hannan’s group also has failed to garner the support of the Oceanside Historical Society, which decided not to take a formal position on the issue. John Daley, vice president of the historical group, said he lacks a deep commitment to the structure because “it’s really not redeeming enough to merit saving.”

“To begin with, it’s not architecturally significant,” Daley said, “and secondly, I don’t believe it was the first or the best theater built in the community.”

But Hannan and many longtime residents with fond memories of enjoyable evenings at the Palomar say it would be a crime to sacrifice the theater. Opened during the silent movie era, the Palomar over the years featured vaudeville to the tunes of a Wurlitzer organ, and later brought Oceanside film classics like “Seventh Heaven” with Janet Gaynor and “The Thief of Baghdad” with Douglas Fairbanks. Upstairs, there was ballroom dancing.

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“My father was a tap dancer and a comedian there during the vaudeville days,” recalled resident Delores Davis Sloan. “When I was 10 or 11, I had my first kiss in that theater--and then a lot more kisses after that.”

Hannan admits that the theater, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a shoe repair shop, is plagued by its current, seedy use and has seen better days. But he maintains that, with a coat of paint and a few minor improvements, it could be restored to its former glory.

“Sure, she’s been through some bad times,” Hannan said. “But remember, just like Mary Magdalene, there’s always a chance for salvation.”

In addition to the Palomar, Hannan is pushing for the inclusion of two other buildings in the civic center: the existing City Hall and the council chambers, both of which were designed by noted architect Irving Gill. The civic center will be a campus-style complex, housing administrative offices, a fire station and a main library.

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Despite the less-than-encouraging position of council members, Palomar supporters remain hopeful that the hundreds of signatures being gathered on petitions supporting preservation of the theater will persuade civic leaders to embrace their cause.

But if they fail, Sloan has a plan:

“If our city fathers don’t see fit to keep our heritage alive, then I’ll just have to chain myself to the ticket booth when the bulldozers roll in.”

If that doesn’t work, “I guess I’ll just bid on the marquee.”

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