Curtain rises again in Little Tokyo

Times Staff Writer

For three decades, the Linda Lea theater sat empty and boarded up on the edge of Little Tokyo, with the image of a kimono-clad woman looking down like a ghost from the marquee.

In its heyday, the theater was among the nation’s premier exhibitors of Japanese movies. But as downtown L.A. declined, so did the Linda Lea.

Crews completed demolition of the theater this week, and the act marks both an end and a beginning.


A new movie theater will soon rise on the site, the first downtown in more than two decades. And like the Linda Lea, it will show movies from Asia.

When workers were gutting the cinema on Main Street, they made a surprising discovery hidden behind the drywall above the crumbling venue’s pitch-dark balcony and projection room: 11 Japanese movie posters with cherry blossom festival and samurai scenes more than half a century old and in remarkably good condition.

The posters provide a tangible reminder of the theater’s history.

They were a welcome find, the property’s owners said.

“It was so exciting because we’re trying to preserve as much as we can,” said Sue Ann Kirst, who with her husband owns Cinema Properties Group, which bought the theater two years ago. “Because of our proximity to Little Tokyo and Chinatown and the history of this place, we wanted to keep an Asian American theme.”

Kirst struck a deal with an Asian American multimedia company headquartered in New York named ImaginAsian that runs a 24-hour cable television network and a cinema in midtown Manhattan. The company will operate the new theater, which will be called the ImaginAsian Center. It is scheduled to open late in the summer.

The goal is to lure not only young and trendy people who inhabit downtown’s lofts and condos but also Asiaphiles and Asian and South Asian Americans who want to see first-run movies from Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and India.

Kirst and ImaginAsian believe Asian pop culture has enough of a following to support the venture.


The new center will be a modern steel-and-glass building containing a theater with stadium seating for 256, a cafe, a mezzanine and space for live performances.

It was designed by Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates, an L.A. firm that restored Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater and the new shell at the Hollywood Bowl.

It will be a far cry from the original building’s configuration when it opened in 1924 as the Arrow Theater.

Workers over the last few weeks have unearthed Art Deco-era blocks with fleur-de-lis patterns, numbered in the back to form an intricate design on the building’s old facade.

At some point, the building was said to have been a Japanese burlesque house. The Linda Lea opened in the late 1940s, not long after most of its Japanese American patrons were released from World War II internment camps.

With its pastel plastic facade depicting butterflies and with the woman in the kimono, the Linda Lea was nearly the only place in L.A. to catch samurai flicks or yakuza thrillers with English subtitles.

“These were B movies from Japan,” said Jim Matsuoka, a regular there in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. “It had that down-home neighborhood feeling. They had a popcorn machine with a red heat lamp. It was nothing like these movie theaters in the mega malls.”

Matsuoka, a second-generation Japanese American, said the films were his only contact with his parents’ homeland. He said most of the movies shown at the Linda Lea ended in a blood bath and reckons he wrongly developed an impression of Japan as violent.

“I wondered how anyone there could have been alive after watching these movies,” said Matsuoka, 70.

One time, reality and film seemed to merge for Matsuoka. During a visit to the Linda Lea, he noticed one of his aunts sobbing in the movie house after watching a film about the yakuza, Japanese organized crime. When Matsuoka went home to tell his mother what he saw, she reluctantly told him that his great-uncle had been a yakuza member.

“She was neglected by him and was overcome by the movie,” Matsuoka said.

Those days in the ‘60s were said to be the theater’s best. Matsuoka remembers full houses and many other nisei -- second-generation Japanese Americans -- wanting a taste of their culture.

But later years were harsh. Japanese theaters showing newer movies began to sprout on the Westside. Other Japanese programming was available on tapes and TV. The Linda Lea’s patronage began to decline, and it closed in the early 1980s. The theater was bought by the Grace family, which owns the Metropolitan News Co. based nearby on Spring Street.

The family used it to store files.

When Kirst’s company took over the property, it had to clean up the mess made by thousands of pigeons, a leaky roof and squatters who lived in the projection room. When workers tried to take down the plastic facade in one piece, it cracked. The hot-riveted steel trusses that form the framework for the ceiling were left untouched after they were found to be structurally sound.

Workers also found Filipino handbills from the days when the theater was known as the Aztec, paper lanterns and a sign written in Japanese that read, “No Standing in the Hallway.”

Kirst said the Japanese posters were probably protected from damage by being rolled up and stored in an area surrounded by plaster and drywall. They measure 24 by 36 inches and appear to be hand-tinted from black-and-white photographs. They show dramatic actors in heavy white makeup prepared to battle with swords and women dancing with traditional fans.

Kirst is having them examined by experts but believes they could be scenes from Toei films, made by a Japanese movie company whose logo was displayed high above the theater.

The new center “means a lot to the Little Tokyo community,” said Tom Kamei, chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Council, which was presented with one of the posters, framed. “People have a lot of fond memories of the Linda Lea. It will honor the legacy of the old-time nisei who built up the area.”