The Palace of San Pedro

Paul Brownfield is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

If you want to bemoan the multiplexing of the American cinematic experience, Ray Kaufman is your man.

In addition to running the antiquated sound and light board on Wednesday nights at San Pedro's Warner Grand Theatre, Kaufman serves as the refurbished old movie palace's house manager and de facto historian. It is Kaufman, a 30-year San Pedro resident, who will tell you what film officially opened the Warner Grand in 1931 ("Goin' Wild," starring Joe E. Brown), what cryptic hand signals ushers used to get patrons seated, and which orange-haired rock musician-turned-seafood-restaurateur later owned the theater (Lee Michaels, who had a hit single in 1971, "Do You Know What I Mean," and now co-owns Killer Shrimp, with three locations in Southern California).

You don't expect to find a grand old picture palace in San Pedro, a town still associated with the blue-collar fishermen who dock here after days at sea trolling for tuna, mackerel and sardines.

But the venerable Warner Grand, bought by the city of Los Angeles about two years ago for $1.2 million and now run by the city's Cultural Affairs Department, is enjoying a return to its glory days, thanks to a program of Wednesday night double features from the Turner Classic Movies library.

They are double bills that range from the classic to the classically campy; one week it's Bogart and Bacall in "To Have and Have Not' and "The Big Sleep," the next it's "Mad Love" and "Devil Doll," the latter an unintentionally hilarious 1936 film starring Lionel Barrymore as an escaped convict who enlists human dolls to take revenge on those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment.

Some of the prints are restored--not because they were in poor shape, but because scenes had been excised to conform to the codes of the 1930s and '40s that targeted sexual and political content.

Since the program began in September, crowds at the Warner Grand have been underwhelming. San Pedro is, after all, an island, where downtown revitalization has been planned and hoped for but never quite realized--not the sort of place the people of stratified L.A. are liable to venture to on a weeknight.

"But that's what I like about this place," says Ben Schwartz, a 31-year-old Los Angeles screenwriter who made the drive recently to see "Mad Love" and "Devil Doll." "In L.A., if they played a movie like this, it'd be filled with film students who had a term paper due. The people here live in the neighborhood, and they're just out to see a movie. It has a small-town feel."

Meanwhile, even if you're only a casual film buff, there's something holy about experiencing a cavernous old one-plex in which the seats creak, there are no previews and the screen, a 30-by-50-foot square behemoth, isn't revealed until the movie is about to start. At a time when going to the movies has been transformed by any number of innovations, all designed to make the experience more convenient and efficient, the Warner Grand, with its magnificent, refurbished marquee, is a reminder of an all-but-buried era.

Says Lee Sweet, the Warner Grand's business manager: "This place is a church for those of us who don't go."

On a recent Wednesday night, Kaufman could be found backstage, five minutes before the evening's first showing--"Mighty Joe Young," a shameless 1949 ripoff of "King Kong."

"The whole idea is that movies are supposed to be magic," he said. "You sit in your typical movie theater today and you're staring at ads flashing on a screen. But that ruins the magic. We start our pictures with the title curtain closed."

Kaufman interrupted his lecture; there was business to attend to. The business involved a giant panel of knobs and switches that looked like something an apartment building super would consult during a blackout. In a manner of minutes Kaufman cued an assistant, the theater darkened, the curtains parted, and a movie ripe for the wise-cracking robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" played to about 30 people. Kaufman, meanwhile, treated the experience as though it were the premiere of "Citizen Kane."

Such reverence is appropriate, given Los Angeles' fickle relationship with its grand picture palaces. Precious few are left--Broadway in downtown L.A. is a veritable cemetery of Hollywood's golden age, the decrepit marquees like tombstones.

The Warner Grand, under the name Warner Bros. San Pedro, was built in 1930 at a cost of $500,000, part of Warner Bros.' expansion into suburbs and bedroom communities. Designed by architect B. Marcus Priteca, the theater was a sister project to the Warner Bros. Beverly Hills and the Warner Bros. Huntington Park. The facades were made of Italianate marble, the interiors marked by Art Deco fixtures and stylish molding and detail work, though what looks like wood inside the Warner Grand is actually carved plaster, a more fire-safe material.

"What set these houses apart was that this was a neighborhood picture palace," Kaufman, 50, says. "It was ornate, but it didn't have the gaudiness of the Los Angeles [built on downtown L.A.'s Broadway for $1.2 million in the heart of the Depression].

"But picture palaces were the star. The movie was a short subject, maybe a two-reeler or three-reeler. You would have vaudeville routines, whatever the showman decided to put together. . . . Marcus Lowe used to say the show started on the sidewalk."

Today, the Beverly Theater is gone (torn down by Columbia Savings & Loan in the late 1980s), and the Warner Huntington Park has been cut up into multiple screens. Such a fate probably should have befallen the Warner Grand. But in keeping perhaps with the feeling, prevalent among locals, that San Pedro is the town L.A. forgot, the Warner Grand never found itself sitting in the path of progress.

Sold off by Warner Bros. in the 1950s, the theater traded hands among a series of owners and lessees, some of whom waited for San Pedro to boom, others now the stuff of colorful anecdote. There was Arnulfo Estrada, who took over in the late 1970s and turned the theater into a Hispanic movie house, changing the theater's name to Teatro Juarez, painting the walls lavender and recovering the seats in red, green and gold, the colors of the Mexican flag. In 1984 Estrada leased the theater to Ray Howell, the former managing director of the Mann Chinese in Hollywood, who immediately restored the theater to its original look and changed the name to the Warner Grand. Under Howell, the theater ran second-run movies and live events, including performances by Chaka Kahn and the Ramones.

But Howell had trouble competing with a six-plex that opened on Western Avenue in Rancho Palos Verdes in the late '80s. Enter Lee Michaels, who, along with business partner Rickie Jasper, bought the Warner Grand from Howell in 1991. Sixth Street shop owners remember well the guy with the hit song, bright orange hair and green tennis shoes who lived above the Warner Grand, though Michaels denies he ever actually took up residence in the theater.

A musician who co-owns Killer Shrimp restaurants in Marina Del Rey, Redondo Beach and Studio City, Michaels says he didn't have big plans when he bought the theater, beyond hoping it lived to see more prosperous days. Occasionally a movie or TV crew would rent out the theater for a location shoot--the Warner Grand stood in for Harlem's Apollo Theater in the film about pop diva Tina Turner, "What's Love Got to Do With It," Michaels says--but as San Pedro went, so went the Warner Grand.

"We sat there waiting for the street to become Main Street in Santa Monica," Michaels says. "But it never did."

Michaels and Jasper decided to sell the theater in 1995, listing it at $2 million and drawing interest from religious groups before a preservation project was started. Dubbed Grand Vision Foundation and led by local businessman Gary Larsen, the effort to save the theater eventually came to the attention of Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., whose district covers San Pedro.

"The city's investment in the Warner Grand is probably one of the most significant investments made in a couple of decades," says Svorinich, instrumental in the city's purchase of the property for $1.2 million.

"We're very optimistic about the recent interest in the classic movie nights and some of the cultural events coming," including matinees of children's movies, Hispanic artists in concert and performances of "The Nutcracker" in December from the San Pedro City Ballet.

"We really see [the Warner Grand] as being the cornerstone for a reinvigorated downtown," Svorinich says.

In 1995, when photographers Anne Conser and Robert Berger were scouting L.A.'s old movie houses for their book, "The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown," they were surprised to learn there was one still standing in San Pedro.

"Who would associate high culture with San Pedro?" Conser says. "It's longshoremen and run-down shops."

The image that dogs San Pedro was evident on a recent Wednesday night as Warner Grand patrons waited out the 15-minute intermission between "Mad Love" and "Devil Doll." Sixth Street at night is mostly dark and deserted; you can walk down the block to the coffeehouse Sacred Ground, and a nearby tattoo parlor is worth a look, but there are no lard-free-burrito or frozen-yogurt places to duck into between screenings.

"We had 170 people for 'The Thing' and 'Village of the Damned,' " Kaufman says hopefully, and then echoes a familiar local refrain.

"Most people still envision San Pedro as being low-income and industrial, and that's not true. It's virtually a stew. I call it a vegetable stew."

* Warner Grand, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro. Wednesday night double features, $5. For show times and information: (310) 548-7672.

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