by Maureen Neeley
The recent vote by the Redevelopment Agency to explore an adaptive reuse of the Atlantic Theatre, rather than razing it, started some residents wondering about the fate of earlier theaters in North Long Beach.
The Atlantic, the Towne and the Crest theaters were built during the boom decade of the 1940s in North Long Beach. After World War II, the growth of the city spread outward, with the northern area seeing young ex-military families moving in to capitalize on work in the post-war industries of aeronautics, the shipyard, and other factories.
On May 21, 1942, the Atlantic Theatre on Atlantic near South Street opened to great fanfare. Designed by Carl Boeller, who was described in the Long Beach Argus as one of “America’s foremost architects,” the theatre was ultra-modern. The Argus article was careful to note the strength of the structure’s steel reinforcement, mindful of the earthquake that leveled much of the city just nine years earlier. The interior design and murals were created by Tyler-Lindstrom in “painstaking detail.”
Four years later, northern Long Beach got its second movie house, named the Towne Theater. This building was situated south of Atlantic at San Antonio Drive in Bixby Knolls. Not nearly as grand as the Atlantic Theatre, the Towne focused on comfort and sound system innovation. A low-lying structure with air conditioning and plush loge seats, the Towne was touted in the Press-Telegram as being “ten years in advance of the times.”
The next year, in 1947, North Long Beach saw another theater open to accolades. Called the Crest, it was a magnificent structure. Hearkening back to the glamorous era of movies, the Crest Theater was sponsored by Fox Theaters. It was the first “pre-fashioned” theater in the world, having been designed, cut and constructed at a factory, then assembled on its site on Atlantic near Carson. This idea of pre-fab theaters was the brainchild of Fox Studios’ Charles Skouras and the steel king Henry Kaiser. The Crest put Long Beach on the map in terms of creating a technically advanced structure that looked like it was hand fashioned.
One can ask any North Long Beach resident of a certain age about their memories as a child and it is a sure bet they will talk about seeing movies at any of these theaters. So, where are these theaters today?
The answer to that question epitomizes an era of Long Beach history that saw abrupt and often painful changes to the city’s architectural environment. The post-war boom led to tremendous growth in the city, much of it taking place outside of the urban core. Developers quickly built residential neighborhoods on the eastern and northern reaches of the city boundaries; Lakewood and Orange County received record numbers of new, mostly Caucasian, families capitalizing on affordable, new housing designed with convenience in mind.
The downtown core lost its cache as suburban malls catered to large department stores and expansive parking lots for the automobiles.
By the 1970s, these demographic changes were in full swing. In 1973, the Naval Station was shuttered by the Pentagon, taking with it over 25,000 jobs. Poverty, older housing stock and a change in demographics had created a situation in Long Beach where business could not continue as usual.
City leaders attempted a renaissance of sorts, starting with the downtown. Implementing a redevelopment program with government funds, the city began to modernize its urban core, starting with the civic center. Once on this path, the wrecking ball was unstoppable. Down went the Carnegie Library and City Hall (1973), the Municipal Auditorium (1975), the Julia Morgan-designed YWCA (1979).
It wasn’t just the downtown. The northern neighborhoods were not immune to the march of progress. People wanted change. They wanted safety and modern buildings that spoke to the future. The love affair with the automobile was entrenched, and for the theater industry this meant competition with the TV and even with a new kind of theater– the Drive-In. The Atlantic, Towne and Crest followed similar paths of declining revenue and unsustainable uses due to changing demographics.
Two of the three theaters stood in the way of the 1970s renaissance of Long Beach and were razed. In 1977, the Towne Theater’s roof caved in, sealing its fate. As the Towne’s director stated, “It was a beautiful theater in its day, but that day has come and gone.” The theater was sold to IDM Corporation in 1978, which razed it and built the 22,000 square-foot Knolls Business Center.
Next to go was the Crest Theater. The L.A. Times lauded IDM’s prowess for turning old theater sites into prosperous new centers, noting its 1979 plans to erect the 20,000-square-foot Crest Business Center on the site of the old movie house. Today this center has been reinvented as Trader Joe’s.
This renaissance, however, was not without its detractors. In 1978 eight citizens got the approval to form the Cultural Heritage Committee, dedicated to slowing the destruction of the city’s historic structures. This committee had little power, and when it wasn’t accused of being obstructionist, it was benignly viewed as appeasing the fledgling preservationist movement. Even with their grass-roots activism, they were unable to save the Pacific Coast Club, the Jergins Trust, the Heartwell or the Omar Hubbard buildings. They did establish, however, the Willmore Historic District, which paved the way for saving the integrity of many more neighborhoods.
In hindsight, razing the Towne and, certainly, the Crest, might seem shortsighted now, but revisionist history is not necessarily productive. These two theaters were fighting an uphill battle within two decades of their erection. The urban planners of the 1970s viewed old neighborhoods as relicts of the past. The concept of adaptive reuse was virtually unknown and unexplored.
The recent decision to take another look at re-using the Atlantic Theater for today’s lifestyle, be it a library, a theater or something else, is indicative of the new direction in urban planning. Those original eight members of the Cultural Heritage Committee must be congratulated for their efforts. They fought a battle with very few soldiers, yet the movement has slowly gathered enough steam to turn the tide of demolition for the Atlantic Theater.
Maureen Neeley is a local reference librarian and owner of HouStories, a history consulting business through which she has researched more than 70 properties in Long Beach.