It was a gaggle of people moving back and forth – many with signs – in front of a Newport Avenue business. There was about twenty of them, many women, some children, and they began chanting:
“Get the smut out of OB! Get the smut out of OB!“
It was the Summer of 1982 and the picketers were in front of the Strand Theater – then OB’s movie house (the present site of Wings). The theater had just gone porno and people were pissed! It was mid-July and the neighborhood was about to heat up.
A group was thrown together called “Citizens for a Better Ocean Beach” to organize community response to the sole theater going exclusively X-rated. Mike James remembers that first meeting at Scrimshaw Square where the group was formed:
“I was at the initial meeting of the opposition group. The meeting was at Scrimshaw Square. I’m thinking the group was called SOS, Save our Strand. I know Rich Grosch was a key player. I was never with the pickets out front, but I believe they were instrumental in keeping attendance down.
It was a porn theater for a while. Maybe 2 or 3 months. It was owned by Walnut Properties who owned most the porno houses in San Diego.”
The battle plan was concocted: the group was to gather signatures and throw up a picket line in front of the Strand. So picket they did.
Passersby in cars waved and honked in support. People coming out of restaurants applauded the picketers. For weeks and months the picketers mustered their lines from late afternoon into the late night, in at times a frustrating and exasperating challenge for locals, which once in awhile seemed like a comedy routine in a back and forth with the X-rated manager. But it’s a story to be told now, some 28 years later.
How did this situation come to pass? How was it that OB’s single-screen movie house was taken over by the Pussycat Theatres?
This was a time when Ocean Beach had its own theater, a time before multiplexes, before VCR players, before DVDs, and the movie house sat right there in the middle of the block in OB’s busiest section of town. The Strand Theater, a 700-seat venue, had opened in 1924 or ’25 as a talkie theater, with Spanish mission revival style architecture. (Go here to the San Diego Historical Society for an image of the original Strand.)
For decades it provided OBceans and their families with cheap, fun-filled entertainment, even with Saturday mornings kids’ shows. Adults would take in the first-run films that would change every Saturday night. The Strand survived the Depression of the thirties, the war years of the forties, the glorified fifties, and the surfin’ sixties.
By the late 1970’s, the Strand had become a “second run” movie house – that is it played fairly recent films that were no longer being shown in the more mainstream theaters for about a quarter of what the “first run” houses charged. The Strand also showed some indies that probably wouldn’t have been shown anywhere else. Beginning in 1977, on Friday and Saturday nights, the main event was the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
As the commemorative plaque that now is bolted to the outside wall says, “As the audience changed, so did the theater.” As the crowds swarmed to the multiplexes or rented VHS movies to slip into their new VCRs (video cassette recorders), fewer and fewer OBceans filed through the doors of the Strand.
By the early eighties, the then-owner, Don Smith, was having deep troubles keeping the place afloat, or so it seemed.
In November of 1981, Smith decided he had to sell, and he sold the Strand to Great Western Theaters. The then-manager of the theater Martin Saul told a reporter from the San Diego Union that he had become disgusted with the turn of events, and had resigned.
“The Strand was making money. We had a repertoire theater changing the movie titles every two or three days. We charged $1 for all seats, then Great Western raised the price to $2, and now it’s $4.”
“We kept hearing that Pussycat Theatres wanted to show X-rated movies here, but the building owner, Don Smith, wouldn’t allow it.”
So, in the end, Great Western couldn’t turn a profit either, and they ended up leasing it to Vincent Miranda and his Walnut Properties, Inc., operators of the well-known exclusive X-rated chain, the Pussycat Theaters.
The first night of X-rated movies was Friday, July 16th. Twenty picketers met the movie goers. There were more picketers outside than patrons inside. Saul Martin, the former manager, defended himself outside to the picketers, and he told a reporter that he had checked who was in the movie house at that moment and there were only ten patrons by 7pm.
Longtime resident and OB activist Rich Grosch co-chaired the new group, Citizens for a Better OB. Earlier this year, he told me:
Our picket lines lasted well after the TV cameras had left and stayed there for months, every night. My son came to term a night after my wife walked the picket line. …
We picketed the theater for almost 6 months. … Surfers, seniors, community leaders, even bar customers coming out of the bars would pick up a sign for an hour or so. Vincent Miranda [the new owner] said he had never seen such a diverse group picket his Pussy Cat theaters anywhere in the nation.
Rich now works for State Assemblyman Marty Block, and sits on the Community College Board.
Denny Knox , the current CEO of the Mainstreet Association, remembers being pregnant the nights she joined the picket line some 28 years ago:
I was pregnant with my son and Beth Gilmore was pregnant with her daughter. We marched on Friday nights with Rich Grosch and a bunch of other people.
It was hilarious actually. The cabs would pull up in front of the Strand Theater to drop off some young men and the guys would take one look at two very pregnant women with signs walking around with Rich and others. Those guys couldn’t get out of OB fast enough.
MaryLou D.was on the picket line. She recalled (in a review of the BBQ House on yelp) that,
“…the Pussy Cat Theater chain bought the Strand and immediately the neighborhood united to picket and protest the place. We used to take breaks and get drinks either at the Bar-B-Que place or across the street at Margarita’s. I’d take my kids over to Buford’s for hot dogs before we started picketing. After about 6 weeks we convinced them to show their films in another area with less families and got our local theater back, at least for awhile.”
Marily Reed walked the line with her 3 year old daughter Lucy.
“I vaguely recollect walking the picket line in front of the Strand with parents from OB Elementary School, pushing a stroller.”
“An amazing time,” says Mike Berrill, a teacher who also brought his kids to the picket line. Linda Taggert was there, as was Dennis Doyle – who wrote an article about the fight for the San Diego Newsline. Dennis was a major writer for the original OB Rag in the Seventies. Years later Linda was the principal of Correia Middle School. Dennis in years since became the school superintendent for the National City School District.
Others who picketed included: Nancy Church, Sally Loraso, Mary Lunday, and Helen Thompson.
The organizers of the protest also gathered signatures on petitions opposing the X-rated theater. Rich Grosch says that they collected 14,000 signatures and presented them to the City Council.
Grosch related the group’s strength:
“We had really committed people, willing to put in the hours. We went door to door, in all the stores and bars getting signatures. That’s why we had so many signatures.”
After about two weeks of picketing, the local Tribune evening paper ran this headline: “Strand’s X-rated films violate adult ordinance”, and stated:
Operators of the Strand Theater in Ocean Beach are violating the city’s adult entertainment ordinance that prohibits showing X-rated movies near a residential area, park or social service center, a city official says.
Joe Flynn, a city Planning Department zoning administrator, said today that investigators have determined that X-rated movies are being shown within 1,000 feet of apartments, a park (Ocean Beach) and the Ocean Beach Community Services Center.
The administrator Flynn told the press that his office had sent the owners of the Strand “cease and desist” letters and that they had a upcoming deadline to comply with the ordinance. “Ultimately, the Strand can be shut down,” Flynn had said.
Then, in what now appears to be a humorous episode, the X-rated Strand managers tried to pull a fast one. On the day that the theater was supposed to comply with the city ordinance, on the day of their deadline, they had someone change one word in the marquee. They had been showing an X-rated film entitled, “Same Time Every Year.” Then mysteriously, the marquee was switched to “Same Time Last Year,” a 1978 PG-rated movie starring Alan Alda.
Community leaders complained that the marquee was changed back the day after to the X-rated title. Grosch told the San Diego Union he thought the switch was “an interesting ploy.” But that OB didn’t buy it.
“It may have been just a simple mistake, but I think most people are viewing it the other way and they’re really upset now.”
Right after this episode, the City Attorney’s office took over the investigation. On August 2nd, 1982, the owners were slapped with a misdemeanor criminal complaint against them, alleging that they violated the ordinance prohibiting X-rated theaters from being near residences, churches, schools, and social service centers. Vincent Miranda, the theater operator, vowed to fight the charge, asserting that the ordinance effectively outlawed the creation of any new adult entertainment within the city limits.
In a larger context, the City of San Diego had been pushing adult entertainment out of parts of downtown in the vast redevelopment campaign of the eighties. This is the redevelopment that yielded Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District.
But OBceans were fearing that this effort to rid the city center of such businesses were forcing those businesses into the surrounding bedroom communities, like Ocean Beach. The billboards and posters advertising the movies “are degrading. We have to live and work here,” Sally Loraso said.
Mary Lunday added: “We ‘re against the smut. A lot of the mothers don’t want it, because the kids go to this theater.”
“The last thing OB needs is smut movies. We’re trying to make this a better place to live,” said Nancy Church to a reporter.
Bob Burns, a local lawyer, didn’t have a problem with adult entertainment, he told me recently, “but I didn’t like it monopolizing a community theater to serve an extra-community clientele.”
Rich Grosch, the key player in this battle, said then:
“This is not a First Amendment issue, it’s a community-rights issue. We’re not the Moral Majority … it’s a whole mixture of people that have come together.”
He vowed the picketing outside would continue on a daily basis between 4pm and 11:30pm.
Eventually, the people won. The X-rated movie house had to stop showing those films. Thousands of signatures were presented to the City Council, as the picketers hung in there, stubbornly and diligently walking around in a small circle, grouped in closely packed quarters. The nights turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. And in the end, community and political pressure was too much and Miranda and Pussycat decided to leave OB.
Listen to Grosch:
We are the only community in the US that stopped Pussy Cat Theaters from staying. And we did it with everybody and with class. … And we did it without a holier than thou attitude. We did it because we knew it would hurt the community. Regular people, business people, surfers, bar patrons, church people, homeless, students, well, just a cross section of the community.
Most people think it was a battle about morals. For a few, it probably was, but it was more a battle to keep the porno related businesses being displaced by downtown redevelopment from relocating to our community and preserving our community.
He summarized: Lots of good memories. It was quite a victory for our little community.
So the community of Ocean Beach had won that round. The X-rated movies left, and the Strand did reopen for awhile showing “straight” films. But even that didn’t last, as technology and people changed. They stopped going to one-screen theaters, period. The Strand finally closed in 1998.
Now it’s 2010 and the Strand Theater has been gone for over a decade. Wings came into the building in 2003, and the original theater was gutted. Newbies to the community don’t even know that we once had a movie house. But this story had to be told.
In order to tell this story, I started contacting folks I knew to be active in OB back in the eighties several months ago.
One funny thing that happened on the way to soliciting everyone’s comments was the year in which this all occurred. I had asked people what year the porno theater was stopped, and the answers I got back were all over the map: 1985, 1980, ’83, 1980-81. And the newspaper clippings I had picked up from Rich Grosch did not have dates. Thanks to goggle, I discovered that the year that July 16th was a Friday was 1982. (We couldn’t find any photos from this campaign, so if you have any, please let us know.)
Memories… they can fade easily. That’s why we need our collective memory to stay intact.
What do you remember about the Strand?
Here is Part 2 which includes more memories and a general history of the Strand.
Tip of the ol’ hat to Rich Grosch for saving all those clippings and to all who participated in this community battle.