Photo by C.J. Salgado

By C.J. Salgado

At Sunday’s much-anticipated opening of the  new CVS Pharmacy store inside the old Golden Gate Theater in East Los Angeles, all eyes were up. Sure, the floor space was filled with merchandise, but many roamed the aisles staring at the restored ceiling, trying to recall–for those old enough–their memories of the former theater’s heyday; or for those too young, it was simply imagining what it must have been like.

For me,  it was deja vu. Here, as a young child, I had raised my eyes decades ago at this very ceiling, my curiosity captured by its height, acoustics, and ornate features. Here, I watched kung-fu movies, set afire with excitement so much that I’d run home after the movies, jumping and whirling “nunchucks” made from the wooden sticks of elotes sold outside the theater, the song Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, blaring from my mouth.

Bumping into one of the displays as I walked thru an aisle looking up, I snapped back into reality. Around me were many customers. One gal, Elizabeth, told me of how she would “sneak” in to the building in her youth, during the decades that the site was vacant. She, too, couldn’t keep away on opening day, pleased to see it come back, if only “in another life” as a pharmacy store. One older gentleman, on the contrary, walked the aisles looking up, muttering, “They messed up the sound! This was meant to be a theater!”

In fact, there were many who opposed turning the former 1927 Spanish Churrigueresque-style landmark, which had sat vacant for many years at the corner of  Whittier and Atlantic boulevards, into a store, with some proposing more ambitious plans to revive the Golden Gate as a theater. but the drug store proposal prevailed as the most practical. Initial plans to convert the building into a retail pharmacy would have pretty much wiped out or obscured all of the original interior architectural details of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After preservationists got involved, the developer agreed to make more of the old theater visible as well as packing up and storing some of  its significant features–including a clam shell-shaped ticket booth and tiled fountains-that a future tenant may want to return to install.

Project architect Robert J. Chattel arrived at the former theater during the Sunday drug store opening to take photos. He explained that CVS agreed to deviate from its standard store design in some ways to preserve the feeling of the old theater. To protect the ceiling, thin, tubular lamps are suspended from the top of the shelves instead of the standard light fixtures that could have damaged the historic ceiling (two original chandeliers still need to be installed in the former auditorium). At the entrance, where CVS usually prefers an automatic, sliding glass door, the drug-store chain agreed to install a pair of glass doors that swing in and out as the old theater doors did, Chattel said. Also, a third-set of glass doors that don’t open were added to mimic the trio of doors that once greeted movie goers.  Trying to balance the need of a modern, chain drug store and preserving the historic features and ambiance of a 1920s movie house was a “challenge,” he said.

Okay, as I exited the store after making a purchase, I had to come to grips with the reality that the Golden Gate Theater was not a theater anymore. That could be a good thing. I mean, maybe with a 50-year lease on the building, CVS would bring some much-needed, long-term jobs to East L.A. And it could come in handy the next time I need to make a late night run for cold medicine. Surely, I could come up with many reasons why having a pharmacy store is better than having the eye-sore of a dilapidated, vacant building that had befallen the grand theater of my youth.

Still, I could only hope that some child visiting the new store would look up at the ceiling and wonder why it’s so different from other pharmacy stores. Maybe, just maybe, his mother or grandfather could jump at the chance to tell a story about this special place and perhaps direct the child to gaze towards the black and white pictures of the Golden Gate Theater that now hang near the ceiling by the check out stands.

I would say, “Mijo, the ceiling is so high and padre because it holds many precious memories of the past for some people in our community. They live up there and come down once in a while to remind us of those days when this place was something else, the Golden Gate Theater. People came together here then with friends and family. The building is something else now, you see, but the recuerdos remain.”


Related Link:

  • The Golden Gate Theater’s next life as a drug store. KPCC
  • A sign of charbroiled architecture recycled for new East L.A. store. The Eastsider

C.J. Salgado is an East Los Angeles resident

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