Historic Structures

Whittier Theatre, Whittier California

Date added: September 9, 2021 Categories: California Theater

The Whittier Theatre was not Whittier's first movie house, but it was its most prominent one. At least three other motion picture theaters preceded the Whittier Theatre: the Family Theatre (124 S. Greenleaf Avenue) and the Optic (111 S. Greenleaf Avenue) were both operated by the G.H. Keipp family sometime after 1900, probably in the 1910s [Whittier Daily News, n.d., c. 1910s] the Scenic Theatre was in business at 211 E. Philadelphia when the Whittier Theatre opened its doors in the summer of 1929. When the Whittier Theatre was being planned, the owners deliberately selected a site "on the outskirts of town to escaoe the Whittier blue laws that would have prohibited showing movies on Sunday" [Tribune/News December 13, 1987]. The Whittier Theatre was designed as a combination movie palace and stage theater, and it is noteworthy that the premiere gala included not only the screening of Monte Blue's From Headquarters but "three special vaudeville numbers."

The relative isolation of the theater from the main commercial district of uptown Whittier seems to have had an adverse effect on the complex's businesses for several years. Although the two principal adjacent businesses (the McNees Cafe and the Whittier Pharmacy) were stable, city directories indicate that, up until about 1936, other businesses came and went, and there were several vacancies. The heyday of the Whittier Theatre lasted from the late 1930s until the 1950s, when television began making inroads on movie-going. Excerpts from newspaper articles make it clear that the theater is fondly remembered by many of the area's residents as a popular social focal point and an important part of their younger years.

From about 1967, the entire theater complex seems to have begun a steady decline. City directories show that "discount" and "budget" shops had begun to locate in the complex itself and nearby along Whittier Boulevard. In 1969, one of the two commercial anchors of the building changed hands (the Betty Matthews Dress Shop, on site since 1939). The second anchor (the Whittier Drug Store) was swallowed up in the expansion of the budget shop.

In an attempt to garner more box-office business, the new owners, Pacific Theaters, tried several strategies, none of which proved successful. First-run movies were no longer being screened at the Whittier Theatre, and the new policy was to offer double bills at bargain rates. In the summer of 1986 the management switched to first-run Spanish-language films, hoping to attract an audience from the large local Hispanic population, but the experiment ended in failure. By November 1986 the theater had reverted to snowing three English-language movies for the cut-rate price of $1.00. In its latter years, the more mainstream shops such as dress shops and pharmacies and furniture stores were replaced by marginal businesses such as karate studios and a martial arts supply shop. The October 1, 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake severely damaged the theater and shops, and the City of Whittier issued a demolition permit, bringing the complex's long career to a close.