Remembering Downey's old movie theaters of the '50s and '60s

The Meralta Theatre in 1953. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society.

The Meralta Theatre in 1953. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society.

After reading about the theaters in Downey, in the Downey Patriot, felt compelled to add some more history.

During the 1950s-60s, about once a week in the summertime, during a heatwave and smog days, we would go to either the Meralta or the Avenue Theater in Downtown Downey. They were both located on the east side of the street, just north of Firestone Boulevard, a few blocks from one another. We would like to go there to escape the excessive heat wave or the extreme smog days, as we got tired of going swimming every afternoon in our friend Anthony’s swimming pool or the public pools. Also, many other mothers were pregnant, so they were glad to get us kids out of the house so they could have a little peace and quiet.

Most Downey moms did not drive, did not have a driver’s license and most families had only one car, which dads used for transportation to their jobs. Many kids in Downey did not even own a bike; money was scarce since the economy was still recovering from WWII and the Korean War. Moms were only recently given the opportunity to drive and girls did not have bikes, as girls bike were just becoming vogue but non affordable.

Both walk-in theaters cost between 10-25 cents to watch a movie on a weekday PM -- it all depended on the length of the movie. Also during that time they started rating movies, which were also published in the Tidings newspaper and other newspapers, plus the theater marquee advertised the ratings too. Being raised in an Orthodox Catholic family, this meant everything to our parents. They felt relieved knowing that us kids were going to a non-adult type of movie.

Movies during this time period were mostly rated PG and later the PGs were replaced by R movies. Real adult movies were rated X for sex and blood.

An advertisement for the Meralta Theatre that appeared in the Downey Live-Wire in 1946.

An advertisement for the Meralta Theatre that appeared in the Downey Live-Wire in 1946.

The Meralta Theater and Avenue Theater were both old buildings, not the cleanest and had average seating. Rooms were dark and the floors were slippery from spilled soft drinks and sticky from candy falling on the floor. Theaters were lean and not very architecturally designed nor furnished. I sometimes noticed puddles of urine on the floors in both theaters. The cloth seats were so old and worn out we had to change chairs often as the framework was popping through the cushions.

Movies lasted a couple of hours, then there was an intermission, followed at times by a second movie and possibly a preview of future movie trailers. Movies for the most part were filmed in Hollywood or New York. Most of the films used English speaking and were white movie stars, cars and animals. I never remember seeing Mexican, Latino nor Asian movies stars and patrons to the theaters were always white kids, teens and parents. Downey at this generation was a white man’s town.

One afternoon we went to the bathroom at the theater, think it was the Avenue. We noticed a lot of blood on the men’s bathroom floor; back then it was very common for people have nose bleeds, so we just thought it was a nosebleed until we saw a little boy, laying on the floor, bleeding all over the floor. We ran to get help at the front desk. We didn't know anything better to do except to get help.

The theater was vacated as no one knew what had transpired. Later we learned that the boy was sexually molested and then assaulted with a knife. The theater was closed for that summer’s showings and after that we never went to the theaters again.

An advertisement for the Downey Theatre from August 1949. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society.

An advertisement for the Downey Theatre from August 1949. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society.

We were really too young at that age to know what a pervert was, and being raised very Orthodox, a lot of that kind of sexual education was not appropriate for us little kids to learn. Our parents did tell us we were never to go to the bathroom solo and always to go to the bathroom as a group.

PTA's blamed this incident on the lack of movie ratings and the circulation of Playboy magazines everywhere. I een heard the possibility that sexual magazines were sold too close to theaters, schools, playgrounds and so forth. It was just a lot of wagging tongues trying to create gossip. Southeast news and the Herald Examiner both wrote stories after stories about the sexual revolution we were entering.

For me, this is not a happy story to write, but history is history. We can't change history, and after reading the recent series in the Downey Patriot, it registered what happened to us as little kids.

The only other theaters which we knew about were down towards Hollydale-Paramount; seemed those cities had drive-in movie theaters. Sure there were other theaters, but we had very little communication and no computers. We relied on newspapers for advertising theaters and shows.

Parents and teens who had nicer cars, lowriders or custom cars never went to walk-in theaters, as theaters’ rear parking lots were notorious to have your car stolen from and found a few days later, stripped and left in easements in the city of Watts and nearby areas.

Back then, we had no videos and no DVR, although some families did make their own 8mm movies.

Features, NewsJim McMahon