By Tom Marshall
Local residents may finally have the answer to the most frequently asked question the San Clemente Historical Society receives: What’s going to happen to the old theater on the north side of town?
After decades of uncertainty, we hopefully have an answer. A San Diego restaurateur who owns a pizza chain and the Windmill Food Court in Carlsbad has purchased the property for just shy of $8 million.
It may cost almost as much to bring it up to snuff. The site is approved by the city and the California Coastal Commission to be used only as an event center and food court.
For those relatively new to town, the theater’s road from movie palace to eyesore has been a long and troubled one. Opened on May 12, 1938, it was hailed as the most elaborate theater development in California’s entire south coast.
Originally called El Hidalgo Theater, the name was quickly changed to The San Clemente Theater. Only decades later did it receive the building’s current moniker, The Miramar. The bowling alley behind the theater wasn’t built until 1946 and closed in 1971.
The architect for the theater was famed theater visionary Clifford A. Balch. The builder was the locally prolific Strang Brothers. Air conditioning, 750 reclining seats, elegant chandeliers and a 44-foot tower over the entrance were notable luxuries that complemented a spectacular wood support structure for the roof.
“One is absolutely awe-stricken by the defining feature of a beautiful and magnificent exposed bowstring wood trussed ceiling—very 1940s,” gushed former Mayor Wayne Eggleston in the city’s official report on the building.
It was San Clemente’s first movie theater and, for decades, the only theater. In 1938, the original owners, Mike and Abe Gore, sold popcorn for a dime and charged kids 10 cents for a ticket—unless the movie was a blockbuster such as Gone With the Wind, which cost 25 cents.
In fact, all San Clemente fourth- through eighth-graders were taken to see that film as an assignment during school hours.
Longtime resident Ken Nielsen says when he was a kid, he got free passes to the theater by riding around town in a roving billboard truck promoting the current movies.
“On Friday nights, the theater was full, mostly kids,” Nielsen remembers. “They even had a police officer assigned there to control the crowds.”
But by 1960, admissions had fallen so low, the theater was closed. Ten years later, it reopened as The Miramar after an extensive refurbishing. The movies were no longer first-run Hollywood fare.
They catered mostly to the young crowd with movies about surfing and skiing, along with underground “Midnight Flicks” such as 1936’s anti-marijuana Reefer Madness. They also occasionally presented some live bands.
“By that time, the floors were sticky and things were getting a little shabby,” said Historical Society board member Carla Blanco.
The Miramar closed for good in 1992 and began its descent into decay. Developers wanted to tear it down, but the Historical Society and other local groups mounted a successful “Save the Miramar” campaign.
The building is structurally sound, but a 2005 fire and vandalism have taken a toll. Hopefully, the landmark palace is now on a course for a classic Hollywood happy ending.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.