Here’s Part One
Mention the Strand Theater to an OB “old-timer” and a smile instantly embraces their face. And probably a laugh too. Now I don’t mean “old-timer” in the classic sense (the stooped-over scraggly white-haired old guy) – I mean somebody who experienced the Strand in its heydays of the Seventies. The Strand does brings back good memories to them. Funny memories. Incredible memories.
Things happened in the Strand that you’d think would have never happened in other theaters across this country. Wild parties during the showing of the weekly “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, motorcyclists roaring up the aisles, pot joints being passed from stranger to stranger during films, … a lot of it was just outrageous and crazy. Plus there were the edgy films, the surf films. There were the hot, summer evenings, and there was more booze being drunk by patrons than by the actors in some of the steamy movies. It lasted nearly three-quarters of a century, from 1924 (or 1925) to the official final curtain in 1998.
Perhaps there’s a few newbies to Ocean Beach who haven’t realized that the culturally-barren tourist store Wings sits in the great cavern that once was this beach town’s only movie house. Yes, the theater was once there; it closed in 1998 and Wings opened 5 years later after the interior was gutted, and except for the great hull of a building, there is no evidence that a movie house once existed in that space.
There is a reminder outside, however. Glued to the exterior facade, a plaque sets the record straight, and gives a quick history and meaning to the building for both tourist and newbie alike:
Original Use: Strand Theater
Date Opened: November 6, 1925
This local theater of Ocean Beach catered to children and grownups alike: the children enjoyed serial matinees every Saturday, always trying to guess the next cliffhanger; grownups enjoyed Saturday nights with a new movie billed every week.
While the movies were different, everyone enjoyed ‘black and white’ sundaes (chocolate sauce on vanilla ice cream) for 10 cents at the Strand Sweet Shop next door, run by Alan Belmont and Clifford Harrison.
As the audience changed, so did the theater. The Strand counts among the first theaters in the country to feature The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday and Saturday night, and later evolved to show films such as Woodstock, Endless Summer, Gimme Shelter and Rust Never Sleeps.
The Strand officially closed in 1998.
(This plaque was sponsored by the OB Historical Society, the Mainstreet Association, and the OB Community Foundation.)
In Part 1 of this short series about OB’s once-coveted movie house, I covered the successful campaign in 1982 that stopped the Strand from becoming a porno theater, a Pussycat Theater. It certainly was a victory for the community and it halted any trend into OB by the then X-rated entertainment businesses that were being forced out of downtown San Diego.
It can be easily stated that in the era before the multiplexes, before VCR players, before DVDs, having a local movie house was really a big deal. Ocean Beach was very fortunate to have our own. La Jolla had its own theater, Coronado theirs, PB theirs, Kensington, a few other communities throughout San Diego were so blessed. In contrast, for years Point Loma didn’t have a theater outside of the two drive-ins that ringed the Peninsula, until the grandiose Loma opened in the late Fifties.
The Strand had opened in the mid-twenties showing talkies, with 700 seats (some say 600) and two aisles. It was originally one of the largest buildings on Newport.
Over the decades the Strand provided the village with one of its centers of culture – bringing the movies to OB. It later morphed, briefly, into being a center of the counter-culture in the mid-Seventies. And as we said in the earlier post:
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.”
Over time, it struggled and faltered as times and technology changed, it survived the campaign against the Pussycat. It closed, then re-opened, and then finally closed for the last time at the end of the Nineties.
As the plaque describes, the Strand provided OBceans and their families with cheap, fun-filled entertainment, with Saturday matinees, movies for kids, teenagers, adults.
As a teenager living in Point Loma, the Strand was golden. It provided an escape from overbearing middle-class parents, a place to meet your date, a rendezvous point for love. Parents would drop their teens off at the front, and the youngins would bounce in, grab their popcorn and disappear into the darkness and away from stunted lives.
Once inside, you felt at ease, at home. There never was a more down-to-earth movie theater than the Strand. Never pretentious, always friendly, homey … and warm during the summer – it didn’t have air conditioning as I recall. Of course, the seats were worn and some tattered, the floors were painted with the effects of gum, shoes, and the spilled sodas from fifty years. It always had a certain smell – partially – I’m sure – from decades of cigarette smoke (tobacco used to be allowed in theaters).
The small stores and ‘hole-in-the-walls’ attached to the Strand building have over the years also been treasures. There was the sweet shop. Back in the early Sixties, I recall a hamburger joint in one of them, that sold 5 burgers for a buck! Much later, the famed BBQ House moved in and acquired its own reputation that followed it as it crossed Newport to its current location.
By time the hippies “arrived” in OB, the Strand stood to gain even a greater reputation, as the community evolved into a “youth-ghetto” – as it was nearly the only cultural venue or revue for young people in town. There just were not that many places for people to go to at night in OB. (This was a time before youth-oriented bars, clubs, coffee-houses, and restaurants dominated the business district.) The Strand provided one of the few outlets for young people, and as the young people changed into young hippies, the Strand became their scene.
By the early 1970’s, it was not uncommon for marijuana to be openly smoked once the lights went out inside the Strand. Joints were passed from person to person down the rows. Strangers sitting next to you would take a hit, and then pass it to you, and you’d do the same, and pass it to the next person. It wasn’t like there was this huge party going on, people jumping in and out of seats, making a loud noise, no. It was as if it was as normal as having a soda. Often you’d hear bottles rolling down the sloped floor, having been kicked over. They’d roll until they hit the stage, setting off giggles.
At one point, a new owner took over the Strand. He was an ex-police officer but very friendly to OB longhairs, activists, and to the young in general. (No one seems able to remember his name, either “Gary” or “Mike.”) The new owner gave the staff of the then OB Rag – the paper version that lasted over 5 years back in the Seventies – the okay to move the paper’s office into the loft upstairs. In terms of offices for the alternative underground paper, this was the high level mark. The Rag was on Newport, in an upstairs really cool place! There was even a hand-made wood sign hung on the door, announcing to all: “OB Rag – office”. (We still have the sign and it’s attached to our current office door.)
One of the reasons the new owner agreed to do this was because of one of his janitors. We’ll call him “Bobby” – Bobby was a staff member of the Rag, and worked as a janitor at the Strand for about a year. Bobby got the owner-manager to allow the upstairs loft to be used for media work.
The OB Rag loft, above the box office, had windows looking out on Newport. It had a few desks, a couple couches, a huge light table made by Bruce G. for laying out each issue, and an IBM Selectric typewriter for “setting” the type that was then cut up and rubber cemented to the large sheets of paper we took to the printer to be made into printing plates.
Marathon meetings to discuss editorial content took place in the loft, fueled by beer, wine, and other consumables. We had a key to access the loft at any time and it was not uncommon for people to be working up there for 24 hour stretches. I remember working on the OB Rag all the way through the night, greeting the dawn, grabbing some coffee at the Townhouse restaurant, and then starting the janitor gig. Ah the energy of youth.
Another Rag staffer at the time, Dickie Magidoff, also has fond memories of those days. “A classy old theater” he muses, “with cheap seats.” Dickie’s memories, however, also include being hassled by cops while he sold Rags outside the theater. These hassles were in the form of field interrogations (FI’s) – San Diego cops then had authority to stop and question anyone for any reason and demand identification (this was later ruled unconstitutional). Dickie told me:
Memories of FIs outside the Strand while selling OB Rags . . . encounters outside the Strand with chauvinist types while selling the Rag with the report of the women’s counterattack on the date-raper . . . And of course the OB Rag being inside the Strand… must have happened at least 3 times around the Strand in, probably, 1973 . . . maybe 1974.
Austin, an OB Free School teacher from the Seventies remembers:
We took a bunch of free school students to see a Woody Allen triple header. The entire group stayed for all three films. I’m pretty sure the movies were Sleeper, Bananas, and everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask. The kids ranged from 6-10 years old.
Lots of ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW nights! … and of course the night a Hell’s Angel who was sitting behind me guzzling Red Wine puked all over me and my pal Lisette … I was wearing a brand new sweater … such things you never forget, (unfortunately).
Pat James of the James brothers was too young to see much of the Seventies, but he does remember cleaning up the next day outside his family business all the refuge from the late-night Rocky Horror Show crowd.
Bobby, the Rag-staffer/ Strand janitor shares more of his memories. Cleaning up afterward, he would find many interesting things:
Found lots of stuff after the shows, ie, joints, small bags of weed, lots of opened and partially consumed liquor bottles (which I discarded) and lots of unopened beers and the occasional pint of tequila/whiskey/etc. that hadn’t been opened which I brought home to share with folks in the Cape May Barracks. The best “party favors” were usually found after surf flicks and music-themed films, ie, Mick Jagger in “Performance”, “Gimme Shelter”, “The Harder They Come”, etc.
Some of the more popular films that we showed again and again (and especially at the Midnight Movies) were “Harold and Maude”, “Easy Rider”, “Five Summer Stories”, the Hendrix flicks “Rainbow Bridge” and “Jimi Live At Berkeley”, and “Monterey Pop”, and “The Exorcist”.
I would show up mid-morning and clean up the bathrooms and mop the small lobby before tackling the auditorium. Runners (knocked over sticky sodas that ran the length of the sloped floor) were the bane of my existence. I used to explore behind the screen and up in another loft that was back there where there were old signs, advertising materials, etc. Today you could probably could sell that stuff for big bucks on ebay.
More than being a janitor, Bobby would also be on hand for film deliveries and free afternoon showings by the projectionist – who had his own style:
Every Wednesday I would accept delivery of the large cans of film for the new movies that would open that evening. Nowadays movies switch on Fridays, but back then the new ones started on Wednesday. On the day the film cans arrived, I would often hang out and watch as the projectionist would show the films in the afternoon to an empty auditorium to make sure no reels were missing and to mark the ends of the reels so he would know when to flip the switch that would turn off one projector and start the other projector with the next reel.
He would also make sure there were no breaks in the film. The projectors used an electric arc to create the super bright light needed to project the film. There was a bucket of sand up there to throw on the projector if the film caught fire.
When the projectionist wound the film on the reel to prep it for the performance, he would wind up about twenty feet of film and then put a coin on the film and wind the rest of it up. Then, as the reel ran out, the coin would drop on to a metal pan under the projector with a big “clink” and awaken the projectionist if he had happened to nod off and alert him to make the reel change.
It wasn’t all pleasantries and mops for Bobby, however. There was the ugly side:
I remember that the most appalling thing was the 25 gallon drum of “butter” which was put on the popcorn. It was a thick, bright orange, lardy concoction with crystals of God knows what floating in it. They scooped that shit out and melted it to drip on the freshly popped popcorn which was prepared for each performance. There was really no vermin or cockroach problem there during my employment because of the liberal use of Raid and rat poison that management provided.
The End of an Era
When the Strand did finally close its doors for good in the late Nineties, many saw it as an end of an era, an era of neighborhood, classy theaters.
Its doors closed, the great hall of a building laid fallow for half a decade. Homeless camped inside, as its emptiness was a symbol of the times.
Late in its existence, the theater was finally designated a historic building by the San Diego Historical Resources Board in December of 2002. The Strand received the designation partly because it was one of the first commercial buildings constructed on Newport Avenue, the business district, and by drawing patrons to Newport, it helped build the commercial district.
There was one last flurry of community excitement. It came when the Strand was sold to new owners in about 2002. Los Angeles-based SDH Properties Inc. had acquired it. They were approached by Shaul & Meir Levy Partnership, a real estate developer and operator of Wings – a spread of some thirty tourist stores mainly on the East Coast – with one store in Mission Beach. The Partnership purchased the building for $525,000, records showed.
The new owner announced that they are in real estate to make a profit and were going to renovate the building, restore the original facade of the theater. In March of 2003, the owner said renovations would cost $300,000, and would begin that Spring. The ceiling would be removed to expose the original wooden trusses, and the glass panes of the front windows divided by bars as shown in historic photographs.
When locals heard the new owner was going to replace the theater with a souvenir retail outlet, they were outraged, and there was a flurry of activity to try to change directions. Residents insisted on keeping the theater as an entertainment venue. Gerrie Trussell, then executive director of the OBMA told the Union-Tribune:
“The only thing the community will support is entertainment. We don’t need another Anywhere U.S.A. store.”
Trussell said the merchants association understands the 7,000-square-foot structure cannot compete with multiplexes, but the owner can add a twist to conventional film showing and come up with a profitable idea. Trussell added:
“I believe in protecting property rights. What I am saying is: Think out of the box. See if you can make it a venue for dinner theater, live music, plays, recitals, weddings and community theater.”
Trussell also expressed frustration and said the new owner hasn’t talked to the community or the association. The then head of the OB Town Council, Jere Batten, said the community wants the theater to retain its original function. She said:
“We don’t want to see part of Ocean Beach’s history removed.”
Here is the link to this last stand at the Union-Tribune article from March 2003: Last stand at the Strand
When Wings did open in July of 2003, there was a last-minute attempt at mounting a consumer boycott of the corporate store. See this: Strand Theatre is stage for controversy again
It was all for naught. Wings opened … and it still stands there today, fueled by the green cash of tourists and other visitors, although I still have not found a local that shops there.
The grand dame of OB is gone, but it’s not forgotten – at least not by us “old-timers”.
I close this with the last stanza of a poem about the end of the Strand by Rio:
Movies played and children came
and went, the movie broke
sometimes, the best five
bucks I ever spent! For Daniel! For
Daniel! for brother Daniel! Lest
we never forget the true OBecian
spirit! They can run us out and tear
down the buildings but the spirit
will stay. Forever in you forever in
me! Scream loud brothers and
sisters! Save OB!