Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

The Later Years of the Montrose Theater


Last week I wrote about the beginnings of our hometown favorite, the Montrose Theater, which was located right on Honolulu Avenue in the heart of Montrose. The 600-seat theater was built in 1924 as a cooperative venture by several Montrose businessmen to boost customers at their own stores. After several years of running the theater and their own businesses, they passed ownership to Bernard Meyers in 1931.

Bernard knew nothing about movie theaters but he and his wife Hattie did the best they could. In a 1987 interview, Hattie said: “My husband sold cars in Alexander, Minnesota where he came from and didn’t know anything about running a movie theater until he bought it. I used to make the posters and put them up in the theater and hang them up in Sunland and Tujunga and all around. I would sell the tickets and then take the tickets, and do all sorts of things to help out.”

Meyers ran a variety of promotions and giveaways, turkeys, dishes and other prizes. They tried to stay “family-friendly” and often screened upcoming features to local PTAs to gauge suitability. Fortunately for the Meyerses, Americans in the Great Depression were avid moviegoers as they sought escape from their woes. Even at the outrageous ticket price of 15 cents (5 cents for kids), the theater was always packed.

It was during these years a young law student named Sam Yorty was hired to run the projector. Hattie recalled: “We didn’t have stairs up there when young Sam worked here. He’d just take his stack of law books and climb up the ladder and study every minute he could.”

Sam Yorty became famous as LA’s mayor from 1961 to 1973. (He was nicknamed “Travelin’ Sam” because of his many overseas junkets.)

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
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In the 1940s the Meyerses sold the theater to James Edwards. He was accumulating theaters for the Edwards Cinema chain, which became the largest theater chain in California. At some point under the Edwards name the Montrose Theater was managed by Monte Friend, who also owned the Indian Springs swimming pool. He was very popular with the kids and old-timers tell us if a kid didn’t have enough money for a ticket, he would let them in anyway.

James Edwards also owned the Tujunga Theater. Tom Gilfoy in his book “Growing Up In Sunland” writes that Edwards sometimes only got one multi-reel print of a movie to share between the two theaters. The showing times were timed to allow a kid on a motorcycle to speed the reels back and forth between the theaters. Tom relates that one time the reels got mixed up and shown in the wrong order, but that no one in the audience seemed to notice.

With the baby boom, the theater became a slice of Americana with its kid-oriented Saturday matinees. A steady stream of cowboy flicks, interspersed with cartoons and serials like “Flash Gordon,” made some great memories for kids growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.

By the ’70s, the new multiplexes began to draw patrons away from older cramped theaters like the Montrose. The theater began to diversify in its fare. Besides showing feature movies they delved into hosting concerts and showing surf films. It was a rougher crowd and they took a toll on the old theater with cigarette burns and graffiti.

In 1979, Sally Feng leased the theater from Edwards and began a series of renovations, and the theater held on a few more years. But in March 1987, in the darkness of night, a mysterious fire burned the theater to the ground. The infamous John Orr, fire investigator for Glendale and part-time arsonist, led the investigation, which in turn led to rumors that he started the fire himself. But ancient electrical wiring was more likely the culprit.

Today, the empty lot where the theater sat serves as parking. Once a year (pre-COVID) the Montrose merchants put up an outdoor screen, set up folding chairs and show a movie on the site of the old theater, in essence building their own theater, just like they did way back in 1924.