Cruise Down the Nile Aisle

A pair of serpents coil around a gold disc, ready to strike from above the stage. Mounted eagles stare from jet-black eyes. Massive busts of goddesses watch regally over patrons. If archeologists in the third millennium were to stumble on the ruins of this magnificent site at the unlikely intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards and mistake it for a long-lost tomb of Ramses, who could blame them?

The Vista Theater’s recently completed $100,000, 2 1/2-year renovation might pale next to the $14-million overhaul of the Egyptian Theater, which reopened last year to much ballyhoo as the American Cinematheque’s new home. But the Vista, a spectacular single-screen house with a Spanish Renaissance exterior built by J.H. Woodhouse & Son in 1923 as the Lou Bard Playhouse, is every bit as dazzling.

“I hate when they demolish an old theater and put in 20 screens,” says interior designer Ronald Wright, who oversaw the Vista’s loving renovation. Wright, who previously helped restore Whittier’s historic Bank Building and Santa Barbara’s Savoy Theater, visited the Vista in the ‘80s and admired its grandeur, but found it tacky and falling apart. His solution? Drape the theater’s walls and stage curtain with yards of dramatic red velvet and add new gilding to the faded Egyptian busts. And he gained a knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics that might make the British Museum--or Hollywood--come calling.

Working from a book that documents Queen Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Wright built a new stucco box office shaped like a shrine within a tomb, painted gold and engraved with hieroglyphics. Inside, he covered the small lobby and women’s restroom walls from floor to ceiling in glyphs, meticulously hand-painting the gods Thoth (depicted with an anteater head), Anubis (jackal) and Horus (eagle) in rich blues, reds and golds.

Each of the symbols is authentic, Wright insists, but free form, so they have no meaning--at least none he knows of. “If I could read hieroglyphics,” he says with a laugh, “I’d be off in Egypt digging up tombs.”