Movie Palaces

By Nicholas R. Cataldo

(Photographs provided by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

Do you remember the days when going out to see a movie was a big deal? Sure, the number of multi screen theaters spread throughout the Inland Empire today draw a lot of attention. But for many of us, going to a theater simply means buying popcorn and a soda, watching a two hour movie, and heading on to some other destination.

For those motion picture fans who aren't old enough to remember (and I can just barely), there was a time when walking inside a theater was like entering a palace. And one of the Mecca's for movie palaces in Southern California was San Bernardino. As motion pictures were coming into vogue during the 1920's, San Bernardino was keeping up with the times. The decade started out with the Old Opera House showing occasional silent movies.

Opera House, built in 1882
Opera House, built in 1882, was located at Court and D Streets

Also featured in town were small movie houses "like the Temple on 3rd and F", the Isis between D and E on Third, and the Broadway -- on Third between Arrowhead and D. The newest was the Strand (later renamed the Ritz and the Pussy Cat) on E Street.

Then came the creative genius of William Fox, the guru of the lavish Fox West Coast Theaters. Within a few years, San Bernardino had three of them.

The West Coast Theater

On May 20, 1924, famed stars of the theatrical world attended the grand opening of the two story "luxuriously furnished" West Coast Theater, which was housed inside the brand new Frank C. Platt Building near the corner of E and 5th Streets. The first all - talking motion picture, "Lights of New York" played there for five days in 1928. A year later, the San Bernardino Daily Sun reported that audiences in the Fox West Coast Theater "howled in sheer agony of enjoyment" at "The Cocoanuts" a musical comedy starring the Marx Brothers.

The California Theater

On August 15, 1928, the beautiful 2,100 seats California Theater opened to a sold out crowd the movie "Street Angel". This flick was a sequel to the classic "Seventh Heaven", which made box office stars of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Both attended the grand opening.

The California Theater
The California Theater, 562 West 4th Street

The West Coast and the California Theaters featured ornate facades, beautiful furnishings and floor coverings, and a spacious balcony. But for many of today's theatergoers who can still remember, the best was yet to come.

The Fox Theater

On September 20, 1929, the "Fox Theater" opened on the north side of Court Street, between 'D' Street and Arrowhead Avenue. Opening night films were: "Big Time"--an all talking, singing, dancing comedy-drama, a new Laurel and Hardy offering called "Men o' War", and the Walt Disney cartoon "Skeleton Dance," described as "a silly symphony in sound."

The somewhat flowery souvenir program for the Fox Theater had this to say:

"Into the life of San Bernardino and the Orange Empire comes the Fox Theater, art institute of amusement, as an addition to the artistic pleasure-loving life of this great Empire. You enter the wide doors of this great Castle of Splendor, and behold: The silent magic of life's mirror, the screen, in creations of its finest magicians...a myriad of multicolored lights...architectural beauties...velvety wonder carpet in foyer and lounge, orchestra, loge, and balcony ... the vast magnificence of the palace of a King. Not King, nor Emperor, nor Croesus could command more!"

The Fox Theater
The Fox Theater
(Was located on Court Street - between D Street and Arrowhead Avenue)

For many old-timers who attended the three "palaces" in years past, the Fox stood out as the most brilliant. It was the largest, had the best "sound", and was prettier inside than the others.

The two huge lounges and foyer were covered with thick- rich colored rugs, restrooms that were as large as small houses, and everywhere was the appearance of great wealth.

The Preview Capital of the World

Beginning in the late 1920's and continuing right up to the beginning of World War II, San Bernardino was renowned as the motion picture preview capital of the world. Every major film studio gave unannounced showings of their new productions in town.

Most of the showings were in rough form. The film was shown before cuts were made and sometimes two endings were provided so that studio heads could see which one the preview audience liked the most. The most popular version was then used in the final, edited film.

Hollywood Stars

Along with the previews came all of the legendary stars of Hollywood to view their latest gems.

On November 29, 1934, the Sun mentioned about the unexpected "sneak preview" at the Fox, featuring Ann Harding and Robert Montgomery in "Biography".

But this wasn't anything new. Big name celebrities like Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Wallace Beery, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford all came to San Bernardino. And so did child stars like Jackie Cooper and Shirley Temple.

Times Change

Alas, the times have changed. With the invasion of television, the huge movie theaters were losing business and eventually gave out to more efficient, multi screen complexes.

The California Theater showed its last films, "What Happened to Aunt Alice?" and "How to Commit Marriage" to a small crowd in 1969. Fortunately, it soon revived as a popular cultural Mecca with musical productions, symphony productions, and other live performances.

The West Coast Theater became known as the Crest Theater during the 1960's. It hung around for a while before shutting its doors for the last time in 1990.

The Crest Theater
The Crest Theater, was located near the corner of 5th and E Streets

The most lavish palace of them all--the Fox--actually was the first to close down. The theater's demise came during the late 1950's. After the Sun Company purchased the Fox Theater, it used part of the edifice for its storage warehouse for nearly 50 years. In February 2004, Dr. Harry Hwang purchased the downtown Sun Company buildings and as part of the new American Sports University began a complete renovation the old majestic Fox Theater.

What's left of the Fox Theater
What's left of the Fox Theater as it looked when owned by the Sun Company