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The Frida is anything but your typical theater

A large wooden moon sculpture fills the lobby at The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana.
(Kevin Chang, Daily Pilot)

A whispered word of dialogue — “Silencio!” — had just ended David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.,” and Logan Crow waited in the lobby to greet an audience that probably hadn’t been perplexed by the dark, cerebral film.

The attendees who filed out of one of the Frida Cinema’s two auditoriums, after all, weren’t a standard multiplex crowd.

The 2001 film, which stars Laura Elena Harring as an amnesiac and Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress who becomes her confidant, had kicked off “Wild at Art,” a Lynch film festival and art exhibit at the Frida, and the screening elicited the kind of reactions — anticipatory chuckles, warm applause — typical from viewers who know a film inside out.

Crow, who founded the Frida in Santa Ana last year, is a Lynch insider if Orange County has one. As a child, he watched “The Elephant Man” repeatedly on cable; at age 11, he successfully lobbied his parents to take him to “Blue Velvet.” (They were shocked by its content but let him stay until the end.) On April 3, as he often does after Frida screenings, he mingled by the snack counter and traded “Mulholland” observations with emerging viewers.

“It’s such a great film,” Crow said. “I was watching a little bit through the projection room. It’s such a good movie. It’s so solid and beautiful — and sad. I think it’s his saddest film.”

In the Frida’s narrow lobby, the most prominent piece of decor was a large, wooden crescent moon — a tribute to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy “Paper Moon” — but the walls around it teemed with Lynch paraphernalia. A series of portraits depicted the director and stars from his movies, while a projector, set up by artist Sean Robertson, beamed a series of tinted film clips onto a spot above the snack counter.

On his way into the projection room, Crow had checked the number of tickets sold for the screening. The tally for “Mulholland” was 62, which left a fair number of empty seats. Crow, who expected more takers for Lynch’s 1977 feature debut “Eraserhead” later that evening, explained that vintage films entice more viewers if they’re more than two decades old — if the original theatrical release is more of a distant memory.

Still, Crow had hoped for a larger turnout for the Lynch festival’s first showing. But he reassured himself by putting the numbers in context.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “If we had played this exact movie at 8 o’clock on a Friday a year ago, we would have had 12 people here.”

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A new marketplace

On its street corner in Santa Ana’s rapidly changing downtown, it looks like the theater with no name. A marquee on Fourth Street advertises the films currently playing, but there are no ornate letters above it spelling out “Frida.” A passerby has to look for that name in regular lettering on the marquee — perhaps to confirm that it’s no longer the Fiesta Twin Theatre, which opened in the 1980s and moved out early last year before the Frida took its place.

Ryan Chase, whose family oversees the East End business district south of Fifth Street and east of Bush Street, has pushed in recent years to revamp the area as a cultural destination. In 2011, the Chases rebranded the Fiesta Marketplace as East End and set about targeting a wider demographic than the four-square-block district, set in a largely Latino area, had courted in the past.

That effort hasn’t gone unchallenged. When the Chases announced the name change, OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano chided them for “driving out every last vestige” of Mexican culture in the area. As Chase sees it, though, Santa Ana business owners no longer need to count on a predominantly Latino clientele — major chains have started advertising to them. When he set about adding tenants for East End, then, he aimed for a multicultural crowd.

The family first reopened the Yost Theater, a century-old venue that now hosts music and theater, and recently added the 4th Street Market, which brings together a slew of small restaurants and grocers. The Fiesta Twin, which showed mainstream movies, sometimes with Spanish subtitles, operated on a short-term lease, and Chase decided to make a change there as well. He emailed Crow, whom he knew through a mutual acquaintance, and arranged a deal.

The Frida, which has 680 seats and shows first-run releases and specialty screenings, opened in February 2014. Later that year, it hosted many of the screenings for the OC Film Fiesta, an annual film festival.

A few months later, Crow showed his dedication to bucking mainstream trends: He booked Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s North Korea-bashing comedy “The Interview” as many other theater owners opted out because of terror threats.

David Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theatres, which ran the Fiesta Twin, said he had no hard feelings about the Frida moving in.

“I hope it works out,” he said. “It’s a challenging industry, even when you’re showing mainstream films, especially when you’re surrounded by all kinds of theaters. So kudos to Logan for trying to do something different and make it work.”

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Martinis for a marquee

Crow needs help to make it work, and he hasn’t been shy about that. The website for the Frida, which Crow named after Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, includes a wish list of items ranging from sound-system upgrades to marketing support to, simply, volunteers.

Some of the wishes have come true — and not always from expected sources. Last summer, members of the grass-roots group Gay Neighbors, Families and Friends of Santa Ana stopped by the Frida and offered to host a fundraiser to replace a part of the exterior that was worse for wear.

“The marquee was looking kind of sad, the old one,” said group member Dave Hoen. “It had a big crack on one of the panels, all the way through it, and the lettering was not in the best of shape.”

Crow accepted the offer, and the ensuing benefit, Martini and Movie for the Marquee, charged $25 for a martini bar and a screening of the 1939 comedy “The Women.” About 200 people showed up, and the evening amassed enough to buy the marquee as well as letters and a changing stick.

In the last year, the Frida has also gotten donations of a iPad and 25 gallons of paint. The “Paper Moon” installation in the lobby came as a gift as well. Cynthia Blass, who hosts the Cal State Fullerton radio program “Squeeze My Orange,” used it as a prop at her wedding and donated it to Crow after interviewing him on her show.

Whatever fixes are still needed, Crow is happy to have the venue. In 2009, he founded Long Beach Cinematheque, which sets up screenings and other cultural events around the Southland. Many of them took place at the Art Theatre of Long Beach, where, co-owner Jan Van Dijs said, Crow would often call to ask if the venue had a night open for the next film he wanted to show.

“He was a movie operator in search of a home,” said Van Dijs, who noted that one of Crow’s favorite traditions was to screen the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” about the love affair between a young man and an elderly woman, on Valentine’s Day.

Crow, who was born in Fountain Valley and lives in Long Beach, often aims to target movies for specific occasions. After Robin Williams’ death in August, the Frida hosted 1991’s “The Fisher King” and donated the proceeds to a local suicide prevention group. When news broke of Leonard Nimoy’s passing earlier this year, Crow raced to obtain a print of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and screened it within a week.

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‘The Room,’ anyone?

Crow will gladly tailor an event to his own cinematic tastes — he names “Blue Velvet,” whose poster hung in the lobby during the Lynch festival, as his favorite film — but he’s keen on querying his audience as well. Before some screenings, he invites patrons to write their favorite films on name tags. And he tries to chat with as many customers as possible after showings, even with a first-run film like “It Follows.”

For some, at least, the personalized approach turns into repeat visits. Lisa Tedersen of Orange, who had seen “It Follows” at the Frida the night before, said the Lynch program lured her back. She had met the director several years ago at Amoeba Music, a record store, and gotten his autograph. Gabriel Escobedo, a Santa Ana resident (“born and raised”) who came to see “Mulholland Dr.,” said he had frequented the theater in the past and even checked out “The Interview.”

“I like it because hardly anybody knows about this place,” he said. “It’s not like AMC. AMC’s always packed, and the theaters are way too loud. Usually when I come over here, there’s always only, like, four people in the theater watching the movie.”

As the Frida moves into its second year, Crow is watching those numbers intently. He jokes that he doesn’t have a wife or children because “they would starve to death” with the income he makes running an art-house theater. The Frida website’s staff page contains a list of volunteers who have donated more than 50 hours to keep the venue running.

When Crow feels that the Frida’s audience has solidified enough, he will celebrate the breakthrough with a film he has in mind — and it’s far removed from “Blue Velvet.”

That would be “The Room,” the 2003 independent romantic drama by writer-director Tommy Wiseau that has gained a cult reputation as one of the worst movies ever made. Like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which the Frida screens monthly, Wiseau’s opus has birthed a midnight-movie tradition, with audience members attending theaters dressed as the characters and shouting out dialogue in advance.

“That is No. 1 — I’m not joking — No. 1 on our list of ‘we need to develop our audience first,’” Crow said. “Honestly, if we have that list of films we want to show, where it’s like, ‘We’re not there yet, I don’t think,’ that is literally No. 1. We’ve gotten requests from a lot of people, and I’m like, ‘You guys don’t get it. We’ll have 20 people.’

“It is what it is. Like, we’re getting there, soon. But we need to really be established as that sort of destination for cinephiles in Orange County.”


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