Looking Back On - Avenue Theatre

DOWNEY - It was a typical Wednesday evening in Downtown Downey that year.Every business owner along the four-block stretch of Downey Avenue, from Firestone Boulevard to Fifth Street, busily restocked empty shelves, washed storefront windows, and swept up grimy floors in preparation for Thursday's clientele. Flanked by two markets, two hardware stores, two pharmacies, and two department stores, Downey Avenue offered everything local residents needed at the time. The year was 1937 ‚àí and on that particular day, 14-year-old John Stecklein was on the way to his first after-school job working at the small, one-screen movie house downtown, known as the Downey Theater. Every Wednesday and Saturday night, the old marquee, consisting of a square, wood and metal frame, had to be updated, and Stecklein was the boy with the job. Perched atop a 12-foot ladder in front of the brightly-lit marquee, Stecklein, whose parents owned Steck's Hardware next door to the theater, waited patiently as his 8-year-old brother, Jim, spelled out each word for him on the sidewalk. One by one, Jim handed his brother the metal marquee letters, which John carefully put in place, revealing the names of the latest films and their iconic stars. Today, more than 70 years later, Jim Stecklein fondly remembers those moments with his brother, and the small, 10 cent theater, which would later become the Avenue Theater. Built during the "Roaring Twenties," the Avenue Theater, located at 11022 Downey Ave., was the second movie house constructed in the downtown area. While little is known about the original developers, the theater, once known as the Downey Theater, opened during the golden age of vaudeville when live stage performances were still the most prominent form of entertainment. With 15 dressing rooms below stage, the Downey Theater hosted many live shows during its early years, but ultimately became a full-time movie theater in the late 1920s. By 1928, however, the Downey Theater already had competition as the city welcomed yet another theater venue: the Meralta Theater. The Meralta, located just one block north of the Downey Theater, was originally owned by a two-woman vaudeville act. The theatrical team, known as 'Merril and Peralta,' also built the Meralta Theater in Culver City. During this time, sound motion pictures, or "talkies," as they were more commonly known, were still just a novelty, but the one-screen movie theater quickly became the center of entertainment for eager Americans waiting to see their favorite stars in big budget Hollywood films. While many critics questioned the sustainability of movie theater venues and motion pictures altogether, local businessman Frank Valuskis saw the new technological innovation as an opportunity. During the 1930s, Valuskis began building, managing and leasing several community movie theaters in both Los Angeles and Orange county. In addition to operations in Bell, Los Angeles, and Buena Park, Valuskis also jointly owned the Norwalk, Downey, and Meralta theaters. Amidst dire economic conditions, Jim Stecklein says the Downey Theater remained popular among locals, who embraced the venue during Valuskis' days as manager. "Although people didn't have much money in those days, the theater was a great bargain," Stecklein recalled. "Four hours of entertainment for a dime, and you could stay in your seat and see it all over a second time if you wanted." The theater ticket booth was located in the center of the lobby outside. According to Stecklein, moviegoers could choose regular seating in rows 1-20 or sit in a loge seat in rows 20-25. The loge seats were large, lounging seats with a high back to rest one's head. Stecklein says younger patrons didn't care for the loge seats as they were too far back from the action on the screen. Towards the rear of the theater there was a balcony where a sound proof, glass-walled baby-viewing section was located. The projection booth was located in the center of the balcony. In the age of no television, the theater provided the only place where residents, both young and old, could "watch the news" and see the latest cartoons. "On Friday nights, teenagers 'went to the show.' It was always a big night at the concession stand as the parade of teens getting snacks never stopped," said Stecklein. "A box of popcorn was 10 cents and candy bars were 5 cents. "At Saturday matinees the theater was filled with kids 6 to 12 years old…who came to see the usual 'A' film, 'B' film, newsreel and cartoon plus the highly anticipated Action Serial with Dick Tracy or other comic heroes," Stecklein recalled. "These were depression times and the movies and radio were the primary source of entertainment and news." In 1939-1940, the theater's name was changed and the nearly 800-seat movie house became the Victory Theater. Showing only "B" movies and older films, the Victory Theater began to decline during the 1940s, but the plush and modern Meralta Theater, which ran new films every week, steadily secured its place as the most popular theater in town. Theater veteran Evert R. Cummings soon took notice of the popular Meralta and in 1942, he bought the theater. Cummings, whose career dated back to at least the 1920s, established and operated theatres all across the country from Nebraska to Bakersfield, and from Oregon to nearby Norwalk. Once in Downey, Cummings, known to many as "Peg," also began leasing the Victory Theater hoping to revive the somewhat dilapidated theater. On Nov. 2, 1944, Cummings published an advertisement in the local Downey Live-Wire newspaper where he includes a personal letter to the community about his efforts to renovate the two community theaters. "To all theatre-goers, we are proud to announce that we have just signed new contracts for the season, 1944-1945, with every major motion picture company…for the earliest possible showing of all their outstanding productions in our Meralta and Victory Theatres," Cummings wrote. "With the signing of these new contracts it now becomes possible for us to present a much better grade of pictures at our Victory Theatre too." Cummings also announced major renovation at the Victory Theater, promising a new sound system in addition to fresh aesthetics inside the auditorium. By 1949, the E.R. Cummings Theater Corp. had spent nearly $200,000 remodeling the Meralta and the Victory, which Cummings renamed the Avenue. In addition to a new marquee, the theater's exterior was restructured and given a new mid-century modern design. From carpeting and drapes to seating and lighting, Cummings replaced everything, fueling new life into the Avenue Theater, which remained under Cummings management for the next 30 years. In the early 1960s, business owners in Downtown Downey began a wave remodeling on Downey Avenue, updating storefronts, modernizing signs and displays. Cummings took note and launched another remodeling program, spending $150,000 on both the Meralta and Avenue theaters. The reconstruction included a new marquee and front for the Avenue in addition to increased seating capacity and new restrooms. It was during this renovation in 1963 that the present Avenue marquee was installed. Nonetheless, the 1970s proved tough for both the Meralta and Avenue theaters. With the rising popularity of multiplex theaters and shopping malls, single screen theatres in many downtown areas around Southern California began to struggle. After spending many years trying to survive on family-friendly fare, the Meralta Theater closed its doors after more than 50 years in business. In December of 1978, the landmark theater, last owned by Downey resident John J. Kolbo, was demolished and the 9,750-square-foot parcel was sold. Today, the property serves as a parking lot. Similarly, the Avenue was closed in 1977, but remained intact as the theater changed ownership several times. By the early 1980s, James Jannopoulous, owner of the now defunct Downey Showcase Theater at Stonewood Center, had purchased the Avenue Theater, but later sold it to Javier Bueno of Los Angeles who began showing Spanish films at the Avenue. Residents' outrage was on full display as many Downey residents vehemently opposed the new use for the theater, but the Spanish films were short-lived as Bueno decided to lease the theater instead. From the late 80s until 2003, the theater continued as a second-run, "cheap" theater playing older movies for one or two dollars. Once closed in 2004, a developer planned to turn the theater into a banquet hall, but the deal ended up in litigation. Though the developer won in court, he eventually agreed to sell the property to the city of Downey. On May 12, 2008, the city agreed to pay $1.23 million in housing redevelopment funds to purchase the Avenue Theater, which was deemed structurally unsafe. Since the city used federal funds for the purchase, affordable housing must be a part of any future project on the site. In an effort to save the Avenue Theater from demolition, several groups petitioned the city to restore the theater and utilize the property as a cultural meeting place for live shows and community events, but city officials have called such plans economically unfeasible. Currently, the Avenue Theater is on hold as the city focuses on The View, the affordable apartment complex, which will take up much of the city's redevelopment funds when construction begins next fall. Today, the theater remains one of the city's oldest business structures. Though damaged and deteriorating, the single-screen theater is still intact nonetheless, sporting a marquee that has become a vivid staple in Downtown Downey for more than a generation. While it's unsure whether the Avenue Theater will survive redevelopment, it's undeniable that the movie house symbolizes Downey's heritage as a citizenry dedicated to innovation, entertainment, and architecture.

********** Published: September 22, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 23