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Marquee Performer : James Edwards Still Battling Big Theater Chains at Age 88

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A towering construction crane is gradually chipping away at the postcard-perfect Pacific Ocean view from James Edwards Sr.'s corner office atop Edwards Cinema’s flagship theater.

Soon, the ocean’s blue will be hidden by the new auditoriums now being added to the theater. But the chairman and founder of Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc. won’t miss the view.

He’d rather grab the huge magnifying glass from his desk and scrutinize blueprints for nearly a dozen projects planned or underway around Southern California--or keep looking over his shoulder at “the big guys,” the powerful national chains that he’s somehow managed to keep at bay.

The intensely competitive Edwards is twice the age of most theater chain executives, but he still keeps regular office hours. And he still gets a call at 11:30 each night with the daily box office receipts.

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At a point in life when most would be content to reminisce about the past, Edwards is still focused on the future. Competitors and associates describe him as a tough-minded and quick-witted businessman, a shark who’s out to prove that he’s still got plenty of teeth.

Never more than a regional player in an industry dominated by giants such as United Artists and AMC, Edwards has nonetheless built a solid regional circuit with 425 screens, including 207 in Orange County.

The privately held company won’t discuss its finances, but more than 25 million customers will file into his theaters during 1995. And the company will tighten its grip on Southern California during coming months with the addition of 40 new screens.

Edwards also has two pet projects underway that have set the industry buzzing. He’s crossing the state line for the first time in 65 years through a deal with a Washington, D.C.-based mall developer, aiming to open 21-screen theaters in Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio.

And he’s presenting an 89th birthday present to himself in the form of a $27-million, state-of-the-art megaplex in Irvine that will house the West Coast’s first 3-D sight-and-sound Imax.

Slated to open Nov. 22, the day before the octogenarian’s birthday, the complex marks the realization of a long-standing dream: a return to the grand theaters of yesteryear. Edwards also views his “big one” as a heavyweight attraction that will draw from throughout Southern California.

The cineplex with 20 traditional screens--including four that will be among the biggest on the West Coast--will seat 6,000 and cover 156,000 square feet, making it the nation’s largest theater complex. It will be the Irvine Entertainment Center’s magnet, drawing thousands of people each day to the neighboring restaurants and retail stores.

The taciturn businessman, who opened his first multiplex theater in 1939, describes the Irvine project and the out-of-state expansion as necessary maneuvers in the ongoing turf war with the deep-pocketed national chains that have forced dozens of other regional players to close down or sell out.

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“I pride myself on being a survivor,” he says. “There’s always been a bigger guy out there who wants to beat me up. I’ve been in this business for 65 years and I get beat up every day. So, out of self-defense, I’ve had to get better than the other guy.”

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Those who know Edwards say that his competitive nature was forged during the Great Depression, when he purchased his first theater and was forced to scramble constantly to survive.

Along with Bernice, his wife of 63 years, Edwards sold tickets, screened the movies and cleaned up afterword. “We missed payroll one Friday and held it over to Saturday,” Edwards recalled. “Then we held it over to Sunday, then Monday. Then we held it two weeks. But we did make it.”

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Edwards parlayed his original theater in Monterey Park into a 10-screen chain. Along with two partners, he started another circuit that eventually included 80 screens. He sold his interest in the larger chain after a heart attack during the 1950s.

The Edwards and their three young children moved to Newport Beach, purchasing what they thought would be a retirement home. But the retirement didn’t stick, and, after two years of contemplating the Pacific Ocean, Edwards was back in action. “I was sicker in those days from thinking about being sick than I was from being sick.”

Edwards quickly set to work creating the Newport Beach-based theater circuit that’s now the nation’s 15th-largest chain.

Competitors talk about the times when Edwards has refused to take no for an answer. In 1979, for example, he lost a bidding war with Mann Theaters to build a five-plex in Irvine’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

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Edwards relentlessly pursued Mann, hammering its executives with offers to buy the complex. Eventually, Edwards made an offer that Mann couldn’t refuse, and on opening night Edwards’ crews were changing the marquee and replacing Mann’s candy with his own brands.

Competitors also say that Edwards has a reputation for being frugal.

“He’ll build great theaters, but he’s known to pinch pennies on operating them,” one competitor said. “I remember a story about him not wanting to buy a copy machine--and then breaking down and buying a secondhand machine to save money.”

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Edwards has played a big role in shaping the character of the local theater industry. He convinced Hollywood during the 1960s that there was a market for first-run films, sparing Orange County moviegoers the need to drive to Los Angeles for the newest movies. Said Edwards: “They thought we were rednecks down here.”

He has refused to show X-rated films and NC-17 films, and wouldn’t screen “The Last Temptation of Christ” on the grounds that it offended religious groups.

His own taste in films is eclectic, ranging from action pictures--he loved “The Fugitive” with its fast pace and digital soundtrack--to sweeping epics like “Dr. Zhivago,” his favorite film and the first that Hollywood released at the same time in both Orange and Los Angeles counties.

“It had everything in it,” Edwards says of “Zhivago.” “It had the war, it had Russia and the fall of the empire, and sex, excitement and murder.”

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Edwards’ new ventures mark a dramatic departure from his decades-long strategy of building theaters close to where people live.

The new Irvine complex and the megaplexes planned in Phoenix and Columbus, will be located at what the industry calls “destination centers"--places where people go to have fun.

Edwards senses that moviegoers want to be pampered in a way that’s not possible at a four-screen theater in a neighborhood mall that’s surrounded by a pet emporium and a discount drug store.

But the risky ventures are sure to draw heat from the big guys. Already, a competitor is talking about a 24-screen complex at Foothill Ranch Towne Centre in south Orange County and a 26-screen theater in Arcadia that would challenge Edwards’ claim to the nation’s largest cineplex.

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Some industry observers question the wisdom of building megaplexes that could end up siphoning off business from local theaters.

The out-of-state ventures also have industry executives scratching their heads because Edwards is venturing deep into enemy territory.

Just as word leaked out that he intends to build a 21-screen theater in a Phoenix suburb, a leading national chain, AMC, said it will build a 24-screen giant at a proposed mall across the street. Then Phoenix-based Harkins Theatres, which dominates the Phoenix market, popped up with plans for a 20-screen theater in the same neighborhood.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how all of these screens survive,” said Jay Butler, a movie buff and director of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University. “They will definitely have an impact on older screens in the neighborhood.”

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As he approaches his 89th birthday, Edwards--Jimmy to longtime industry players and Mr. Edwards to newcomers--is slowing down a bit.

But he’s no mere figurehead at the family company. He never opted to retire and enjoy his collection of classic cars--over the years he’s owned as many as 30 rare and antique cars, including a 1931 Cadillac once owned by Clark Gable.

“Dad’s traveling more, to his places in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Catalina, so he’s taking more time off,” said James Edwards III, 50, president of the family company. “But he’s here in the office a lot.”

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Edwards sets his work clock by the theater business. He regularly pops into the office at 1 p.m. The younger Edwards notes that “it’s not unusual for him to go home at 10 or later.”

Edwards rebuffs questions about retirement plans, politely noting that his wife is still reminding him that they moved to Newport Beach nearly 40 years ago to retire.

But he’s grooming his children for the inevitable day when he isn’t able to report in for work. His son is president. Joan Edwards Randolph, 63, is chief financial officer, and Carole Ann Ruoff, 56, is a corporate officer. Don Barton, 35, a grandson, is vice president and general sales manager.

The Edwards family members “make a wonderful team,” said Frederick O. Evans, president of the Irvine Co.'s retail properties division. “They’re each playing a major role at the company, and it’s clear that [the elder Edwards] is preparing [the son] to lead the company.

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“He’s also done a wonderful job of passing along to his family his attitude of being open to technology and technological changes,” Evans said. “He has a tremendous desire to stay abreast of the newest things in the business.”

“Jimmy has the advantage of knowing exactly what he wants to do,” said Phil Barlow, head of Buena Vista Distribution and former Edwards executive. “Unlike the competitors, he doesn’t have to talk to a lot of people. He just gets together with his son and daughters and does it. That’s what happens when you’re an entrepreneur.”

In his typically succinct fashion, Edwards offers his own assessment: “We’ve succeeded by being an originator, not a follower. There’s no point in just trying to keep up.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Profile: James Edwards Sr.

Position: Founder and chairman, Edwards Cinemas Inc.

Age: 88

Residence: Newport Beach

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Family: Wife of 63 years, Bernice; three grown children help run the company.

Saw his first movie: 1910

Opened first theater: 1930 in Monterey Park

Opened first multiplex: 1939

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Attitude: “I pride myself on being a survivor. I started in the heart of the Great Depression, at a time when many people were out of work.... And I’ve always had big guys trying to beat up on me.”

Source: Edwards Cinemas Inc.

Top U.S. Theater Chains

Newport Beach-based Edwards Cinemas is the nation’s 15th-largest theater chain with 425 screens and 75 theaters. *--*

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Chain Headquarters Screens Theaters 1. United Artists Theatres Englewood, Colo. 2,295 423 2. Carmike Cinemas Columbus, Ga. 2,037 467 3. AMC Entertainment Kansas City 1,632 233 4. Cineplex Odeon Toronto 1,631 357 5. Cinemark, USA Dallas 1,224 164 6. General Cinema Theatres Chestnut Hill, Mass. 1,202 202 7. Sony Theatre Management New York 946 170 8. National Amusements Dedham, Mass. 870 98 9. Regal Cinemas Knoxville, Tenn. 861 116 10. Act III Theatres Portland, Ore. 575 116 15. Edwards Cinemas Inc. Newport Beach 425* 75*

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* Includes operations outside Orange County

Sources: Edwards Cinemas Inc., Exhibitor Relations Co., Times reports; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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