An old theater is cast in a new role

Times Staff Writer

Mention the Yost Theatre to old-timers among Orange County Latinos, and they become nostalgic about a memorable night.

From the 1940s until it closed in 1985, the Yost screened Mexican movies, hosted concerts and attracted visits from Mexican stars such as singer and actor Pedro Infante.

After it sat nearly dormant for two decades, a developer is bringing the Yost back to life, hoping it will boost declining sales at shops he rents out in Santa Ana’s downtown, one of the largest Latino shopping districts in Southern California.


After a recent Mexican folkloric concert drew more than 600 people to the theater on Spurgeon Street, the owner decided to renovate it and has offered local groups use of the theater for free.

“What we are trying to accomplish is to bring as many people as possible into the downtown. If the Yost puts on programming that is first quality and very culturally oriented, there will be other people who will come,” said Irving Chase of Fiesta Marketplace Partners, the theater’s owner. “I might be a dreamer, but I feel that the Yost has value.”

Last week, Chase and his son, Ryan, were making a list of needed improvements. So far, they have put the restrooms in working order. Irving Chase would not say how much money he expects to spend or how long it will take.

Merchants are elated that Chase has informally allied himself with the nonprofit Centro Cultural de Mexico to bring in music and shows.

“What’s going to happen in the Yost is going to help us,” said Jose Romo, owner of a downtown shoe store whose sales have dropped 30% in the last year. “There are fewer and fewer people coming to the downtown.”

Mohammed Saleh, owner of Brian’s Boy’s and Men’s Wear, said that because of declining sales, he has cut back from two part-time employees to one part-timer.

Saleh and others attribute sales declines to the sagging national economy, competition from malls and big-box retailers and to rumors about the possibility of immigration raids in the downtown shopping area.

The revitalization of the Yost could help draw customers to shopkeepers who rent from Chase, but to many community members, it’s also a chance to turn a historic site into a vital community center.

Zeke Hernandez, the Orange County district director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights group, remembers the night, three decades ago, when he went to the Yost to hear Mexican movie star Miguel Aceves Mejia, who had turned to ranchera singing.

“Reviving the theater is something that is very much needed in downtown Santa Ana,” said Hernandez. “We don’t want the history to be lost.”

Last month, when two bands played folkloric music from Veracruz at the Yost, Santa Ana merchant Sam Romero was nearly in tears.

“It’s a theater that has a meaning for old-timers,” Romero said. “It means a lot to us that the community will be able to experience it again.”

An evening of bolero music, plays by a Latino theater company and a Mexican folkloric ballet are being considered, said Andrea Ramirez, a Centro Cultural de Mexico board member.

“This is a big opportunity to do things that we haven’t had the space to do,” she said.

Although weathered by time, elements of the theater, such as its ornate lighting and expansive tin ceiling, are reminiscent of its past.

The Yost, originally called the Auditorium Theater, became a landmark movie theater soon after it was built in 1912.

Long before it was a Latino venue, it attracted stars such as silent-film comedian Ben Turpin and vaudeville star Eva Tanguay. After Ed Yost, owner of several other Santa Ana theaters, bought it in 1919 and changed its name, it was expanded from 950 seats to 1,700.

Luis Olivos began leasing the theater in the 1950s and bought it in 1960. After he defaulted on a loan in the 1980s, the city bought the property.

The theater was incorporated into Fiesta Marketplace, a redevelopment project owned by Chase’s family.

The city paid $7.5 million for several downtown properties and sold them to the partnership for just under $1 million.

Chase, whose partnership owns four square blocks of downtown Santa Ana, which includes about two dozen retail shops, said he initially contemplated using the Yost for cultural events, but the plan never came to pass.

He rented the Yost to churches, which he regrets, because he says they ran it down without contributing to the shopping area.

Louie Olivos, Luis’ son, once booked singers Vicente Fernandez and Tina Turner into the Yost.

Now an actor who has led Latino theater troupes, he recently choked up as he thought about the possibility of going to the Yost or acting on its majestic, albeit aging, stage.

Forcing words through tears, he said, “It would be an honor to perform at that theater. It is, after all, a theater not only in my family’s history, but in the history of this community.”