Highland Theatre celebrates 90 years of movie-going in Highland Park

The Highland Theatre, circa 1961. | Courtesy HPI Film Festival


HIGHLAND PARK — The Highland Theatre turns 90 years old this month. To put that into context, Calvin Coolidge was in the Oval Office at the time, and The New Yorker was just starting out on the East Coast. How many movie screenings that equals is anyone’s guess.

To mark the occasion the Highland Park Independent Film Festival will host a roaring ‘20s event and a screening of the 1925 film “Lady of the Night” on March 5.  Premiering at the birthday event will be a documentary exploring the movie theatre’s history – from its brief closure in the 1970s, to its revival and a short stint as an adult film house. In time it added two more screens.

Festival co-founder Mark Reitman has been researching the theatre’s past, while also braving cordoned off sections of the old building.

“You see these old remnants, like the old dressing rooms that were used when the theatre housed vaudeville performers,” says Reitman. “None of the old theatre has been destroyed, just forgotten.”

The Moorish-style building  at the corner of Figueroa Street and Avenue 56 is a byproduct of a different era when a row of movie houses attracted film fans to Figueroa. But now  the Highland Theatre, which is a city historic landmark, is the last remaining movie house on the street.

The second story balcony now houses an air conditioner unit, and behind a few ceiling panels are the original ornamental moldings. Architect Lewis A. Smith designed a number of theatres in the area, including the Rialto in South Pasadena.

Highland Theatre is managed by Starlight Cinemas, who shook up management at the theatre a few years ago. Some would say the theatre had a rowdy reputation before the shakeup. “We had a lot of angry people yelling at us, because they couldn’t bring in their bottle of Jack,” said General Manager Greg Rios.

Other rules were implemented for the sake of creating a family-friendly theatre.

“You’d be surprised by the people who found it odd that we were smiling, saying hello to them,” Rios said. “We want people to feel safe.”

When word got out that a documentary was being put together,  a previous manager who worked at the Highland in the 1950s, sent over an email with images of the lobby and the auditorium. Reitman was hesitant to believe it was the same building in the old pictures.

“We knew that the theatre had changed, but it didn’t look anything like it does today,” Reitman said. “Then we saw a picture of the balcony and it was crazy to match up the room with all these clues. It was a mystery and it was also another part of the story.”

Early iterations of the indie film festival had plenty of choices when it came to venues in the neighborhood to screen movies, but the organizers saw fit to feature the Highland.

“We knew that in order to make a film festival like this work in the community we had to include the theatre house,” said Alessandro Gentile, co-founder of the HPI Film Festival.

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.

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