Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA

Capacity 1300

Opened on August 14, 1936, the Del Mar Theatre has served the college town of Santa Cruz, California for almost 65 years.

On the bill was a Mickey Mouse cartoon called The Alpine Climber, a Paramount newsreel featuring Jesse Owens' triumph at the Berlin Olympics and the world premiere of the Warner Brothers' film China Clipper. (Friends of the Del Mar) Art Deco architecture. Back then the main theater seated 950 and the balcony 350.
The plaque on the building says:
"Booming theatre business in Santa Cruz led the Golden State Theatre chain to replace the 700-seat Unique with the 1,500-seat Del Mar in 1936. The movie palace was a flagship of the chain, with a stage and 25 piece orchestra pit for vaudeville acts and conventions. From his Del Mar Offices Barney Gurnette also managed the New Santa Cruz and Rio theatres. Live Del Mar shows continued into the 1970's with concerts by Lionel Hamption, Duke Ellington, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, and the Tubes.
What was this?

When a Chamber of Commerce bid failed to purchase the theatre, United Artists partitioned it into a four-plex in 1978.

1999 plans to convert it to shops and offices were stopped when a coalition was formed to save the theatre in 2001. The city redevelopment aAgecy purchased the theatre, installed an elevator, and made the facility thoroughly accessible for the disabled. Jesse Nickell of Barry Swenson Builder and George Ow Jr. renovated the structure and main auditorium, and the Nickelodeon's Jim Schwwenterley and Chuck Volwiler outfitted it for movies."
Painted over more than 50 years ago, the original mural on the mezzanine of the Del Mar Theatre has been uncovered, and the original stencil pattern and hand painted medallion have been documented.

Built by the Pacific States Amusements and Realty Corporation, the Del Mar was built as a shining example of the theater itself being part of the show. Outside, a wild convergence of decorative styles -- typical of Art Deco -- partied on the face of the building. Vertical cement ribbing soared heavenward toward the water motif moldings (a theme echoed throughout the building) lacing the top of the facade. The suspended canopy marquee dripped with colorful neon animation. Underneath, golden stars and white lights welcomed the public, while the blinking vertical blade above spelled out D-E-L-M-A-R in three colors of neon. The Del Mar marquee became such a part of downtown architecture that in the late 1960's it was declared exempt from the street's sign abatement ordinance.
Inside the lobby, interior designer William Chevalis, who had designed a number of California theatres, dazzled theatregoers right as they entered. The majestic cathedral ceiling, two stories high and embellished with real gold leaf, informed the ticketholder they had left the cares of the everyday world behind.
The water theme could be found everywhere: in the seashell pattern of the carpet, with the nude figures in bas relief bearing urns, and through wave-like patterns in the tiling. Sheaves of wheat and five-pointed stars were other motifs to be found throughout, particularly in the lighting fixtures and decor of the main auditorium.
Hailed as one of the best-equipped theatres in the state, the Del Mar featured state-of-the-art projection and sound systems. The main theater held 950 seats, with additional seating of 350 in the balcony. General admission cost 25 cents; loge seats in the balcony 30 cents. The phone number: 80.
Well into the World War 2 era, the Del Mar was open daily from 2 to 11 pm. Patrons simply showed up at their convenience, and they would be ushered to their seats in the middle of the feature if they so desired. Or they could wait in the nicely-appointed mezzanine lounging area, smoke, and listen for the announcement that the film was about to start.
The ushers and usherettes wore rust-colored uniforms. The ushers wore white gloves and developed a series of hand signals to communicate with the usherettes who would escort people to their seats. At one time there was a blondes-only policy for the usherette position. At least one former usherette recalls pouring peroxide on her hair for the job, much to the dismay of her mother.
Operated by the Golden State Theatres chain, whose management properties also included The Santa Cruz Theatre at the corner of Walnut and The Rio on Soquel at Seabright, the Del Mar was such an attractive theater that a near-identical twin was built in Redding. The Cascade, like the Del Mar, is currently being restored by a non-profit community group.
In the 1940's, admission prices soared to a whopping 35 cents general admission; 40 cents for loges. Children could get in for 10 cents. The DelMarette soda fountain opened next door and stayed open to midnight. The Sentinel reported soldiers dancing on the countertops to the sounds of the diner's jukebox until closing time.
With the 1950's came several disasters that affected the movies in general and the Del Mar in particular. First came television. The novelty of this newfangled stay-at-home entertainment severely affected box office numbers nationwide.
In 1955, Santa Cruz suffered from a terrible flood. Water from the San Lorenzo rose to the tops of parking meters along Pacific Ave. The damage to the Santa Cruz Theatre was so severe the theatre closed for good. It is now memorialized by a historic plaque on the Walnut Avenue wall of the East-West shop. The downstairs auditorium and lobby of the Del Mar were flooded. The theatre was closed for several weeks for clean-up and carpet replacement.
In spite of the challenges, The Del Mar rallied and survived. A concessions stand was added to generate additional income. In the late 1960s, the bucolic Pacific Garden Mall was constructed along Pacific Avenue. With wide, park-like sidewalks, the main street of downtown became more friendly to foot traffic than to cars. The Del Mar demolished its original free-standing box office; surrounded by so much sidewalk, the ticketsellers seemed adrift in a sea of concrete.
In the 1970s, the Del Mar was purchased by United Artists. The original redwood doors were replaced by modern glass and chrome. Thin, bile-green veneer tile was applied to the exterior of the building, replacing the original ceramic tiles. Inside, the building was left to deteriorate. No upgrades were made to the theater's heating or plumbing. Tears in the seats and carpets were band-aided with utility tape. The Del Mar became a second-run house specializing in minor movies, slasher films and horror flicks. The once-elegant mezzanine was closed off to public and used as office space, the balconies closed for insurance purposes.
Live concerts helped keep the theater alive in the 1970's. Duke Ellington played there in 1972, The Tubes annually.
In 1978, the Del Mar was chopped into a fourplex. Matilda the story of a boxing kangaroo, was the last film to play at the still-intact Del Mar. Fewer than 10 tickets had been sold the entire week. Walls went up at the site of the old balcony railings. The grand chandelier was removed then it disappeared, rumored to reappear in the home of some UA executive.
The Del Mar was spared major damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, though the theater did shut down for a year for remodeling and clean-up work. Unfortunately, much of downtown Santa Cruz suffered. So many old structures were destroyed that Pacific Avenue lost its status as a National Historic Downtown. Thus, the Del Mar lost its protection under the National Trust. The Del Mar's future looked bleak when the operators, Star Cinema of Pasadena, suddenly closed the theatre without warning on November 4, 1999.
For a time, the future of historic theatre was in doubt. Rumors abounded that it would be turned into shops or offices.
In 2000, efforts to save and restore the Del Mar Theatre began to succeed. The City of Santa Cruz Re-Development Agency purchased the building and leased it to a joint-venture between developer George Ow and Barry Swenson Builders. A local, independent movie theatre company, the Nickelodeon, sub-leased the Del Mar. All these parties contributed to the renovation and upgrades needed in order to run the Del Mar again as a movie theatre.
In March 2001, the Del Mar opened again to movie-goers, exhibiting independent movies. (1)

After years of struggling through dollar nights and intermittent attendance, the Del Mar was sold in 1999 and closed.

After an extensive renovation and restoration, the Del Mar reopened in February of 2002.

Jerry performed here on
10/8/75 early and late shows Jerry Garcia Band
2/26/76 early and late shows Jerry Garcia band
8/19/76 Jerry Garcia Band
"...the opening act was booed so bad, the girl had a nervous break down right on stage- they had to carry her off the stage."(2)

2.)^Dougie, It's Only Rock n' Roll 2002, IORR.org


  1. The correct spelling is Theatre, not Theater. It's visible on the poster for JGB 8/19/76 and there's other evidence for it.

  2. The old Santa Cruz, California downtown died on October 17, 1989 when the Loma Prieta monster quake reduced many of the historic old buildings to rubble. What replaced them was mostly soulless and sterile as the town filled up with plastic yuppies from Silicon Valley. I would love to see either the old building styles or ultra-modern space age architecture in downtown Santa Cruz!

  3. In response to your question about the tank, my initial thought was that it was a still from Spielberg's "1941" movie. I remember there being a tank in front of a movie theatre marquee, with Dan Aykroyd and John Candy driving. However, the movies listed in the photos marquee are from 1955. Could be a movie gaffe.

  4. For tank...see this