Architecture and Design, Voices

My L.A.: The Once and Future Golden Gate Theater

In another episode of this week’s Getty Voices, Our L.A., East L.A. native and documentarian Steve Saldivar reflects on a building that seemed to represent everything bleak about our city—but was anything but.

Its monstrous ugliness followed East Los Angeles like a storm cloud. At least, that’s what I thought growing up. There it sat, quietly looming, as we Garfield High students spilled onto Whittier Boulevard each afternoon after final bell. The dilapidated building was a daily reminder of the disrepair our community seemed to be sliding into.

My mom once told me in passing that the building had been a lively theater. It was hard to believe. I was 18 and preoccupied with being an angsty teenager. The Golden Gate Theater, hollow and in disrepair, embodied the reason I wanted to leave Los Angeles. I was tired of East L.A. and all its moles. Nothing that big is ever benign. I wanted out.

I was also wrong.

The Golden Gate Theater, built in 1927, had in fact played a huge role in forming community in East Los Angeles. Like many theaters during the ’20s and ’30s, it played silent films and filled the gaps with organ and orchestra music. By the ’60s, films shared the stage with live acts, rock concerts, and even amateur variety acts, according to the National Register of Historic Places. By the 1970s, many immigrants from Mexico called East L.A. home and the theater reflected the changes in demographic, showing films with Spanish subtitles. Later, it closed.

It opened to the public again just recently, in late 2012, in the form of a CVS Pharmacy. Its original architectural vision, capped by an entrance modeled on the portal of the University of Salamanca in Spain, has been modified by the mundane reality of automatic sliding glass doors. But while the building no longer serves its original purpose, it’s found a second act with residents.

The Golden Gate Theatre is East L.A.’s Polaris. To the south, a small shop where I spent my weekly allowance on baseball cards; to the east, the Regency Theatres where I saw my first movie, Backdraft, in 1991. To the north, the Starbucks I never tell anyone I go to. I’m never lost.

The Churrigueresque detailing at its top seems its as pristine today as back in 1927. Maybe one day it will show films again. For now, you can find toothpaste on Aisle 7.

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14 Comments

  1. Iris Guzman
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I remember seeing E.T. and Purple Rain in that theatre. I don’t remember when it closed down, but for the early part of my childhood it was a functioning movie theatre.

    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      That’s great Iris! I never saw any films there myself. I walked a few blocks down on Whittier and went to the Commerce theater. How would you compare The Golden Gate Theater to some of the more modern day ones of today?

  2. Rafael Juarez
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I remember going there with my parents when I a kid. After the earthquake they closed it down. Every time I see this building it brings back to good memories as a kid. I grew up a block away from The Golden Gate Theater.

    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      That’s great, Rafael. Even though it’s no longer in operation, I’m glad it’s still there so future generations will discover some of the gems in East L.A. Do you know of any others? I think the Whittler Boulevard arch is another great architectural treasure.

  3. Nicolas Rocha
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I remember seeing The Keep, The Thing and the one movie that is still one of my favorites of all time, Conan the Barbarian. The theatre was ominous. It was HUGE to a young lad of 5-6 years of age. But it was beautiful with its small stiff seats, sticky floors and dimly lit passageways. I remember the Golden Gate had a carved frame around the screen itself. It frightened me because I only ever noticed as soon as the movies were about to begin. I’m sure the staff there hated me for getting my straw off of my soda, grabbing extra napkins and making spitwads that I’d shoot at my brother and friends.
    I miss those times. It was always an event with us getting ready for the movies. We’d get all dressed up and walk down Atlantic to get to it and then back to our apartment by Belvedere Park. East LA became my home and that theatre was one of my preferred landmarks.

    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Those are the memories you never forget Nicholas! Thank you for sharing! I really think East LA needs a movie theater like this again. Maybe it’s not even about the films they show, but who you see them with that really matters. That carved frame sounds interesting. I wonder what happened to it?

  4. Alice Glover
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I was lucky to experience the Golden Gate as a teen in the 60′s. I’d always catch a weekend matinee and sometimes catch a live band performance. After the ‘show’ we’d go grab seomthing to eat before jumping on the “Kern” bus home; and as long as I was home before dark I was allowed to go each weekend. Now ask about the Battle of the Bands at ELAC or the dances at the Kennedy Hall or St. Alphonsus! I was one very lucky teen growing up in ELA! To this day I feel a tug of the heartstrings towards ELA when I think of my teens!

    • Posted May 17, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      What beautiful memories Alice! When I talk to people about The Golden Gate Theater, the conversation often grows into all the activities before and after the shows, and the celebrations around the immediate area. I can only imagine what it was like back in the 60s!

  5. Lawrence Durand
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    My found memories go back to the late 60′s when I saw my first movie, “Planet of the Apes.” I have been hooked on movies ever since my mom took me that day. Many in the neighborhood wished it was restored back to its original purpose, as other cities have done to their old gems.

    I friend and I snuck over the fence at night and went into the spooky old building about ten years ago to shoot footage of the old interior and architecture. It was a Scooby Doo mystery, even the old clam shell confectionary prop, and the old gutted out projectors were still there. I always wanted to see what was behind the curtains, and stage area since I was a kid… I got my wish!

  6. C.J. Salgado
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  7. j.l.g.
    Posted July 4, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    i saw back to the future part 1 there back in the 1980′s , it was a good fully functioning movie theater with good snacks :), sucks that the county has done nothing to preserve or encourage cultural development in east los angeles.

  8. Kev
    Posted June 11, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I have so many memories of seeing movies here as a kid. I can’t quite place when it closed, and when the only option for the area became Commerce, but it was certainly my first movie theater.

  9. Bob Loera
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I remember going to all four theatres on Whittier Blvd during the 60′s as a kid. I lived in Maravilla Projects at the time and money was tight. We’d go to the Boulevard when we had little money. Entrance fee was 35 cents. The Center theatre was 50 cents. The spanish speaking theatre that I can’t remember the name was an occasional stop with my mom. The gem of course was the Golden Gate which cost 75 cents to get in. The architecture was equal to none. I remember getting my popcorn from the shell concession stand and going up to the balcony to watch the movie and older kids make out. Those were the days of simple pleasures and family living in E.L.A.

    • Posted September 4, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Hi Bob! I had no idea there were four theatres on Whittier Blvd. What were the locations? While 75 cents must have been tough in those days; I would love to see those prices in movie theaters now! 30 dollars for a couple of movie tickets before I even ordered popcorn. I’m glad you have those memories in East Los.

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