Show Her Some Respect

No you’re not in Detroit or near the subway station somewhere  in New York City. This is the latest on how San Diego’s historic California Theater is being treated. It wasn’t a gang that let loose on this once regal movie palace. It is “art” commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.

Just what every local would like to show out of town guests. That we actually pay people to spray up buildings. Never mind that it is a historic landmark desperately trying to survive.

The California Theater is a Spanish Revival treasure. It was the most ornate of all San Diego movie theaters. The building itself was part of an evening’s entertainment; its magnificence a reason to see a movie there.

Sadly today The California sits nearly dilapidated. In the words of an urban poet: “She’s a wounded survivor, limping but displaying her teeth.”

Showing her teeth, or from this view, showing her bones–the distinctive California Theater bow string trusses.

The “In Spot” ad is painted on the theatre entrance and office tower along Fourth Avenue. That portion is nine stories high. The auditorium stands nearly five stories high and contains 2,200 seats–by far San Diego’s largest movie palace. The proscenium area facing third avenue is six stories high.

Besides the “In Spot,” The billboard art at the back of the California Theater also speaks to a different era of San Diego history, not to mention that of old Tijuana as well. For decades the Caliente Race Track was a major tourist attraction. The “fabulous 5-10” was a Caliente innovation that was copied widely at U.S. race tracks.

The Caliente dog racing advertisement was painted over. However, a bit still shows through. The race dogs used to chase “‘Pepito,’ the mechanical bunny.” The sport fell out of favor when when people became aware of the sports inhumanity.

Details of the Spanish Colonial Revival ornament.

It was upon opening in 1927 that the California was celebrated as “the cathedral of the motion picture” and “an enduring contribution to the artistic beauty of the entire Southland”

Cracks and damage to the figures.

At its grand opening on April 22, 1927, the theatre presented Constance Talmadge and Antonio Moreno in “The Venus of Venice”, Fanchon and Marco’s “Book ideas.”

The movies I saw here included several James Bond pictures. I remember seeing a Mel Brooks double feature of The Producers and Blazing Saddles. The California went dark as a movie theatre in 1976.

In 1978 an arson fire destroyed the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. The California became the temporary Old Globe Theater during reconstruction.

The interior was decorated in gold leaf and murals. The side walls of the auditorium were inspired by a Spanish church. A huge Wurlitzer organ was also a proud asset. Things were looking up for the California in 1988 when the building was spruced up a bit.

It was about that time I saw concerts there. English Beat and The Specials were two I recall.

The California’s run as a concert venue was short lived. By 1990 it was slated for demolition. However, the wrecking has been held off.

In the mean time it suffers demolition by neglect. Each passing year makes it more difficult to bring her back. And now the insult and degradation of her being used as a urban canvass for an “art” project. C’mon, let’s show her some respect.

California Theatre

“Open All Night” The California in the 1940s

Balcony Staircase



Reference Source, San Diego Historical Society

I am Dan Soderberg, award winning documentary film maker and phototgrapher specializing in architecture, historic preservation and nature.
  • Zack

    Beautifully stated plea for common sense. It’s insane that those who control the destinies of architectural treasures develop a grudge against a structures as if their very existence is an insult. What has the California Theatre done to make these people so mad? Architectural heritage has become a tourist attraction in some parts of the country, such as Savannah and Miami. It’s about time San Diego wised up.

  • Andrew

    Not only does it appear to now have “uncommissioned” work, being right next to the trolley line REALLY makes you feel that downtown isn’t a safe place.

    I’m a newcomer to the area and have only known her as a shuttered shell. If only the owners really cared…

  • punkybauer

    We actually have several photographs that were taken during the premieres that were held for Jerry Lewis, Robert Mitchum, and many others. My mom, who was an assistant manager, had a front row seat in the centered box office where she sold tickets to the masses of people that were frantically rushing to be the first ones inside. I worked as an usher during the film “Thunderball” and saw the movie so many times I can still remember the flaws in every clip that has a flaw. Later I became a more important employee and managed the concession. We celebrated the return of the Pueblo Crew and I was the hostess of that affair. There is great pleasure in thinking back to the days of great movie stars driving up in long elaborate limousines and ushering the stars into the theater on freshly rolled out red carpets. I miss those plush, elaborate, sophisticated days of yore that will never return as they were. Thank you for posting this information so my mom and I could relive the times we had.

    1. Dan Soderberg

      Thanks for sharing!

  • ilex

    Who owns this building? I walk past it most weekdays on my lunch break. Every time I look at it can’t help but think of all the possibilities for restoration. Such a waste…

    1. Dan Soderberg

      It’s owned by speculators from Los Angeles who bought it to demolish. They’re prepared to wait as long as necessary for demolition by neglect to occur. They have a pile of code violations issued by the City. No word if the City has bothered to collect any fines. Under the current Mayor the City doesn’t go after code violations. His developer friends don’t like the restraint. “Sunroad” built next to Montgomery Field thumbed its nose at the height limit next to an airport. It would remain a code violation today if it hadn’t been for the former City Attorney blowing the whistle on it. Otherwise it’s “anything goes.” Hopefully it won’t take a calamity or loss of life to put an end to the City’s negligence.

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