La Paloma Must be Spanish for “Laid Back”

The La Paloma Theater in Encinitas

Yesterday afternoon I went to a movie at La Paloma, a historic theater on the main street of Encinitas that opened in 1928. It was my first visit there. I arrived more than ten minutes before the scheduled 4:30 start time to find half a dozen other people waiting in the foyer. I had assumed that a 4:30 start time meant that the movie would start at 4:30. Not so much. A sign on the ticket booth window read, “Back at 4:30.” A baffled woman muttered what we were all thinking: “If the show starts at 4:30 but he’s not going to start selling tickets until 4:30 . . . ” Inside the lobby was a balding man in shorts puttering around, preparing things for the show. Clearly, he was the only employee on duty.

At 4:30, he sauntered out to the foyer and announced that tickets would be sold inside the lobby, admonishing us to stand single file when some people strayed. In response to questions from perplexed moviegoers, he explained that after selling the tickets, he would sell concessions and then go to the projection room to start the movie. When I asked him when the movie would actually start, he said it would begin ten to fifteen minutes after the previews started. Apparently, in a sleepy little beach town like this, the 4:30 movie starts no earlier than 5:00. Good to know!

The interior of the La Paloma Theater

As soon as the last popcorn tub was sold, the previews started. Or so I thought. Actually, the movie itself started. This did not surprise me, considering that a woman waiting in the foyer with us had said that two nights earlier, people showed up for a movie listed on the marquee to find that some other movie was playing that night only.

The other moviegoers I sat next to were all amused by the laid-back attitude of the balding man in shorts. One woman said she wasn’t surprised, given that when she came to La Paloma for the first time to see Reefer Madness back in the seventies, there were no seats, only pews in the middle and mattresses (!) on the sides.

I actually found the whole experience to be endearing and even a bit refreshing. I like the slower pace and relaxed atmosphere of small towns and La Paloma offered that and then some. In fact, I find those same qualities quite appealing about Encinitas itself, what with its surfer-dude ambience and lazy-summer-day vibe all year round.

Yes, Encinitas is home. It’s where I belong. Oh, and if I’m ever late getting back to you, it’s probably because I’m at the movies a bit longer than I expected.

Click here to read about my second visit to the La Paloma, which was just as memorable as the first. (Hint: I should have brought a Frisbee.)

The La Paloma Theater in the good old days

Here is an article on the La Paloma Theater from Encinitas Magazine by Robyn Lass.

The dove still flying high in Encinitas

Every downtown has a heart that beats the lifeblood of the area, keeping it alive and vibrant. A meeting place, a central location, somewhere memories can be made. In Encinitas, that pulse is set by the La Paloma Theater.

On a nightly basis, Pacific Coast Highway is buzzing with locals and tourists walking the streets, enjoying all this beachside community has to offer. And in the middle of it, with its marquee lit up and ticket booth open, La Paloma proudly welcomes patrons to step out of the hustle and bustle and slip back into an era when movies were king.

Yes the theater has a legacy for offering entertainment, but through the years it has brought so much more to this region. Besides being one of the original theaters to offer “talkie” pictures and introducing that big city element to a tiny beach community back in the ’20s, over its 79-year history the La Paloma Theater has offered music, culture and an escape. Local resident Jane Schmauss remembers the foreign films as something special the theater gave her. “We weren’t hooked to Internet. We didn’t have the global outlook that we have today easily attainable in the ’70s and ’80s,” she said. “So going to foreign films showed you what other cultures were like. A window to the world sort of thing. So it was very common for young, bright people of the generation to go to movies.” Schmauss has been an Encinitas resident since 1970 and cherishes her memories from the theater.

Bringing people together for one common interest is the magic of a movie theater. And before multi screen megaplexes, single screen theaters like the La Paloma were “the place” to go. At times the Encinitas theater was one of the only businesses open at night in downtown, making it literally the only place for people to go.

“La Paloma was the place to meet friends and see movies on a big screen when you were little,” said Tom Cozens, another Encinitas native. Cozens grew up near Stone Steps Beach and is a San Dieguito High School grad. He remembers La Paloma fondly as a major part of his youth. “It was safe and felt like home. Places like the La Paloma are physical reminders of our heritage and of the value of community.” Cozens’ first experience at La Paloma has stayed with him over the years, not for the show he saw but rather the impression the theater made. “I do remember the smell of popcorn and sitting in the balcony. The balcony was great because you could drop popcorn on the people below,” he joked. “I’m sure a Coke or two took the big fall as well.”

The theater still stands at its original location, 471 South Coast Highway 101, and the classic Spanish-mission design has withstood the test of time. Credited as one of the most beautiful buildings in Encinitas at the time it was built, even today it’s a sight to behold. Though much has changed, like the closing of the balcony and other modern amenities, much about the theater has stayed the same.

The grand opening of La Paloma, Spanish for “The Dove” was legendary. On February 11, 1928 Encinitas carved a little place in cinema history by debuting one of just a handful of “talkie” theaters during that era. Though it was equipped for sound, the theater included a full orchestra pit as well as an organ. From live acts to silent films, La Paloma was ready for anything.

Opening night, the house was packed. Celebrities had been invited, and while many had taken the dusty Coast Highway all the way down from Hollywood, local names such as actress Mary Pickford were in the house. According to legend, Pickford rode her bicycle to the premiere from the home she and Douglas Fairbanks shared, today known as Fairbanks Ranch. Pickford also won an Academy Award the following year.

The evening’s festivities were hosted by Oscar K. Kanter of the Paramount Film Company of New York. The audience also included William Beaudine, director of the night’s feature presentation, “The Cohen’s and the Kelley’s in Paris.” George Sydney, star of the film, was also there.

Local child actress Lola Larson was invited that night and though she was only four years old at the time, she remembers the event vividly. “I remember the searchlights,” Larson said. “I wish they still did that. When grocery stores and theaters opened they had searchlights searching the sky so you’d know where it was and it attracted everybody to go there. The reason I went, I lived here in Encinitas with my grandparents, but I was a ‘Little Rascal.’ I went up to Culver City to be in the movies. They had invited celebrities and there was a social editor with our weekly newspaper here that used to write about me going up there and being a ‘Little Rascal’ in glowing terms so everybody knew me, and I guess that’s why they invited me.”

La Paloma was and still is a big part of Larson’s life. “There wasn’t a closer theater for miles around,” she said. “My grandfather wasn’t a big movie buff, he preferred to stay home and listen to the radio. But if it was dish night or cash night he would drive us. But it if wasn’t one of those and my grandmother and I wanted to see the picture, we had to walk.” Special events like those helped fill the seats. After all, getting people to spend $0.25 on a ticket ($0.10 for children) was a lot to ask. “On dish night they handed out dishes when you came in and if you went enough you could accumulate a whole set,” Larson said. “The problem was, I realize now, that they should have handed them to you as you left, because through the movie you’d hear crash, bang, people dropping the dishes and breaking them.”

The other big night was cash night, when the theater numbered the seats and drew the numbers from a hat. Winners could win up to $20! “My grandfather thought we had better odds by sitting in the same seats every time,” Larson laughs. “So we would have to get there real early and sit in the same seats, 54, 55, and 56.”

For years, the La Paloma was the only theater serving the San Dieguito area, which includes Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, Olivehain, and Rancho Santa Fe. Advertisements for the theater claimed: “Our screen sings and talks.” Having a movie theater of this caliber brought some big city glitz to the then small beach community. But of course time has a way of moving on and any business faces challenges. As the movie industry grew away from the single screen, La Paloma had to get creative. Unique cinematic experiences like surf movies started showing in the theater as early as the ’60s. But that wasn’t enough, so in 1962 the theater closed its doors. For just over a decade the house lights remained dark.

In 1973, the theater was given another chance by three men, Dick Peacock, a film and media instructor at Palomar College, Mark Dean and Jack Barnard. With this revival the theater was given a new look, including bench style seating that many have described as “the couches era” or “ the beds.” Patrons would bring pillows or sleeping bags and get comfy for the show. They opened with Jimi Hendrix’s last movie titled “Rainbow Bridge.” A classic film to kick off “the couch era” in La Paloma history. Jane Schmauss remembers the unusual décor of that era. “We’d bring our kids’ sleeping bags if it was a family appropriate film,” she said. “They showed old classics and intermingled family movies with the old movies and the foreign stuff.”

Eventually the décor of that period was replaced with the traditional theater style seating that reflected the look and feel of the original La Paloma ambiance. But one tradition that was started at that time was bringing in live music acts, something that continues today. As a small theater (only 400 seats) there are limitations, and current business owner Allen Largent says he’s learned through experience over the years what types of acts are appropriate for this kind of venue. “We did a sold out concert with George Winston in January. We did a sold out concert with local artist Tim Flannery in February. We continue to do three to four national acts a year and would like to grow that part of our business,” Largent said. “In addition, we have done national acts Ralph Stanley, Rhonda Vincent and local acts that have gone on to national stardom: Nickel Creek and Switchfoot, over the past few years.” Though he’s owned the business since 1992, Largent has spent much of his life at La Paloma as well, beginning in 1980 when he swept the floor. He worked his way up to manager, purchased the business in 1992 and incorporated it in 1999.

Though it is a mix use venue, Largent reminds that La Paloma was built as a cinema, and showing films is top priority. As for the types of films that are shown here Largent says there’s a formula to picking just the right movie. “With a single screen it definitely is a challenge,” Largent said. He and his booker track box office grosses to see what does well and what might remain popular over the long haul. “In addition to that, we try to pursue stuff that’s not so mainstream commercial product,” Largent added. Independent and foreign films usually in limited release are among the mix, as well as action sports premieres, corporate stuff and some mainstream product that’s proven itself in the box office with strong grosses. This gives La Paloma an edge, offering films that can’t be found anywhere else at the time.

The theater has also carved out a niche in the action sports world. What started in the ’60s with the 16mm surf films has now grown into a key part of the La Paloma legacy. Now surf, skate and snow companies and filmmakers will hire out the venue to premiere their films making the night a unique event.

La Paloma has a show every single night of the week. And as a nearly 80-year-old-building there are always repairs and maintenance that Largent says he’s working on daily. Restoring the classic look has not been lost on the patrons though. Larson appreciates the efforts to keep it traditional. “What I think is so wonderful about it now is they haven’t changed the décor,” she said. “So when I go there it’s like I’m back in my youth again.”

The legacy of “The Dove” has touched local residents as well as Encinitas visitors over its long life. The heart of downtown continues to beat strong. Anyone who grew up in this town has spent time in its seats, and anyone who wants to get to know Encinitas should buy a ticket.

Now that I know the history of the La Paloma Theater, I realize it was the perfect venue for a 1975 Grateful Dead concert

Click here to view all my posts about Encinitas.


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