CORONA DEL MAR : Port Theatre: A Taste of Yesteryear

You won't find pulsating marquees, six screens, plush seats or slasher movies at the Port Theatre.

You will find yesteryear ambience, a down-home style and sophisticated films.

So say patrons, employees and owners of the specialty theater that has for more than 40 years stood as a landmark in this seaside community.

According to newspaper clippings collected by William Hendricks, director of the Sherman Library in Corona del Mar, the 1,000-seat theater was built as a first-run movie house on East Coast Highway just after World War II. It cost $100,000, including furnishings.

"There was barley growing along the highway then and there was very little along Coast Highway except probably lots of billboards," Hendricks said. "The most interesting thing about it is the Gunite construction, a process for blowing concrete using a big gun."

Today, the building sports a nautical-blue, rudder-shaped sign that features a sailing ship and is abutted by other busy downtown businesses. Since 1989, it has been owned by Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatre Corp., owner of 96 theaters across the nation.

Landmark spokesman David Swanson said the theater, which shows primarily foreign and art films, is the county's only single-screen showplace that caters to sophisticated adult audiences.

"It's done very nicely for us as a single-screen," Swanson said "But we wish we had more screens in the area because we get such strong films that they play (at the Port) for months and months at a time. A big part of the film diet is foreign films, but we do have English-language films, too."

Swanson said the Port strives "to be something other than the local mall multiplex that plays 'Jurassic Park' on every screen."

"In the '70s and '80s, the multiplex became the theater du jour and what happens is that screens got smaller and smaller," he said. "People like the Port's great big-screen presentation and older style."

While Landmark doesn't release ticket sales figures, theater manager Mike Peterson said thousands of people, primarily from Corona del Mar and Newport Beach, frequent the movie house each week.

"People think of it as their theater," said Peterson. "They come to every single new movie and I see the same faces over and over."

Newport Beach resident Suzanne Volski, 31, calls the Port a "foundation of this town where people are more at ease and friendly."

She says she goes there as often as the movies change.

"They bring to town good films and the way the theater is set up seems like an appropriate place to see them," she said. "It has more character. I get some Indian food and go up to the balcony to watch some mind-stimulating movies."

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