The Montrose Theater – Then and Now
The story of Montrose is a tale of rebirth and success – fond memories of a small-town Midwest-styled “Main Street,” a successful rebirth as a lushly landscaped shopping park in the late ’60s, and its renaissance today as a family-friendly mecca for restaurants and unique mom-and-pop stores. But one sad tale, one regret, stands out: There is no Montrose Theater.
The Montrose Theater was born in 1924 amid a building boom in the valley. After a slow start, the business district that had been planned for Montrose Avenue blossomed instead along Honolulu Avenue. Developer Stephen Meyer owned several of the Honolulu lots, and built both the two-story Montrose Hotel (where Andersen’s Pets is today) and the Montrose Theater next door. He employed the Midwest-based Boller Brothers to design and build the “fire-proof” brick theater.
The Montrose Theater sat at 2226 Honolulu Ave., what is today the parking lot for Anderson’s Pets. Looking at that parking lot now, it’s hard to believe that the little theater held nearly 600 seats. The front was Spanish colonial in styling, with a faux-Mission façade and a small row of Spanish roof tiles. A wide entryway in the middle was flanked on each side by two tiny retail stores, each with a tall arched door and window. A small overhang above the entryway provided marquee space for the current movie and, above that, a huge vertical blade sign towered above the theater. Silent movie/vaudeville act combos were popular then, so beside the organ near the screen for live accompaniment of the movies, there was a small stage for the traveling acts that accompanied the shows.
Around 1930, sound movies took over. The organ was removed and the stage abandoned. The blade sign was replaced with a large backlit marquee, adorned with lines of neon, and a big “Montrose” in flowing script neon lettering. From this period through the ’60s it was a favored hangout for the youth of the valley. Kids spent their afternoons thrilling to cowboy movies, popcorn and candy, while their older brothers and sisters spent their evenings thrilling to awkward hand-holding and perhaps a first kiss. The Montrose Theater and the youthful times spent there are today a central memory to anyone who grew up in the valley in those years. In the ’70s and ’80s a few art films and surfing movies were shown to supplement the standard double features. Even a few local rock bands revived the old vaudeville stage for small concerts, inspired by the counter-culture influence of the “Here, There and After” record store (and head shop!) directly across the street.
But in the early morning of March 23, 1987, the marquee displaying “Crocodile Dundee” was backlit by flames, which quickly destroyed the theater. Glendale Fire Dept. Inspector John Orr was one of the first on the scene, and declared that an electrical fire had started at 4:22 a.m. near the stage. (In 1992 Orr was convicted of multiple counts of arson. One detective estimated that he was responsible for approximately 2,000 fires, leading many to speculate about the theater fire.) The brick remains were demolished and now only the outline of the theater is visible in the Andersen’s Pets parking lot.
Today’s community leaders deeply regret the absence of the small theater, which could have been a huge draw in the Montrose Shopping Park of 2015. Old movie houses like the Alex in Glendale have proven to be immensely popular for live theater and nostalgic showings of old movies. In recent years the Montrose Shopping Park Association has responded by creating an “outdoor” Montrose Theater on the site of the old theater, complete with a portable screen and a temporary façade. This year’s Montrose Film Festival will be held on Aug. 21 and Aug. 22. This Saturday night, the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley brings to life an even older version of the Montrose Theater at Two Strike Park with a showing of hand-cranked silent movies with live accompaniment. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. Both these revivals of the theater are free, and won’t cost you 15 cents admission like the old Montrose Theater did.