In Memory of the Park Theater by Garrett Rowlan

Whether or not I qualify as a card-carrying cinephile, I have seen many movies in my sixty-six years. If the actual number were to be totaled, I would probably be astonished, maybe impressed, and maybe a little ashamed of so many hours in the dark. It began in my hometown, and present residence, in Highland Park, a suburb in Los Angeles. When I grew up, there were two theaters in Highland Park. One of them is long gone, and one is still there. I remember them both from the 1950’s. Looking back, they seemed to represent two threads of my film-going experience.

One is the mainstream experience. To me, that means The Highland Theater. It is still there, but the shows aren’t free, the way they were on selected Saturday afternoons in the 1950’s, shows we could attend by picking up vouchers from our local merchants. I remember seeing Invaders from Mars—the original, not the 1986 remake with Louise Fletcher. Later, as a paying adolescent, I saw Doctor No, The Haunting on the night I graduated from junior high school, and many others in the early sixties. The last time, for a long time, I was in the Highland was in late ’68 or some time in 1969. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, well after its release, for probably the third time. (And many more viewings since.) By that time, I had a driver’s license and could motor to other movie theaters, mostly in the areas of Glendale and Pasadena.

The other theater was the Park. It was located a few blocks north of the Highland. I remember the Park, first, in association with monster movies, those I saw in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a list that included but was hardly limited to movies like Gorgo, Rodan, Blood of Dracula, House on Haunted Hill, and Frankenstein 1970. The Park went out of business in the early 1960’s, but lately I have seen how its influenced lives.

The Highland remained. It remained after I graduated from college and moved away and when I returned to southern California and lived in Pasadena. By the mid-eighties, however, I was back home. I was in my mid-thirties, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was over-educated (Master’s Degree) and unemployed. I drew unemployment and did odd jobs and spent some afternoons in the Highland, which had been converted from one screen to three. I saw, among others, Fear City (I still remember Dawn Rae Chong’s striptease), Manhunter, and The Three Amigos, all movies of the mid-eighties, a sort of lost decade for me, though by the time I saw Cop with James Wood, it was 1988, and I had already begun to work as a sub teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and soon enough I was all in, working five days a week and summers until my retirement at the end of 2012.

One definition of a cinephile, if I may use that term, is the ability or willingness to see all sorts of films, and for a time in the late eighties and early nineties I was a frequent attendee at Film Forum in Los Angeles, where I saw many experimental films. However, the object of my cinematic curiosity was mainly foreign films, and in looking back—an occupation hazard of the retiree—I think much of my interest in foreign films comes from the Park Theater. As I said, I remember the Park, first, in association with monster movies, though I remembered when the Park showed foreign films before its demise.

To verify my memories, I read old microfilm copies of the Los Angeles Times using a ViewScan2 reader in the basement of the Pasadena Public Library. I loaded and scanned the Times in the early 1960’s. As I did, I saw how the Park went from a traditional movie venue to showing movies in limited re-release, no doubt because of the cheaper rental fee. For example, Son of Ali Baby, 1952, starring Tony Curtis, showed on December 9, 1962; and on June 10, 1962, the Parks’ double feature showed Battle Cry and Mister Roberts (both of them originally released in 1955). Looking back, this appears to be some kind of desperate counter-programming to the more quality fare of the Highland, which on the same dates played, respectively, The Manchurian Candidate and The King and I.

As 1963 rolled around, the Parks’ situation must have seemed increasingly desperate, and the owners no doubt tried to upscale the theater. On February fifth, 1963, they showed Period of Adjustment, a 1962 adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, and the next day in the paper it was no longer the Park but the Park-Art, with the words Starts Friday: Red Shoes, Lavender Hill Mob.

This is where I came into the picture. Walking to school on Figueroa, I would see that marquee everyday. The monster and actions movies of my childhood were replaced by titles that must have seemed strange and intriguing to me. On March One, 1963, they showed Last Year at Marienbad; on March 16, Shoot the Piano Player; on April One, Quiet Flows the Don and Antonioni’s La Notte; on April ninth, Hiroshima Mon Amour. These are movies that, twenty and thirty years later, I would charge across town to see in some battered revival house, and as such I believe that my viewing of these titles and posters represented a kind of implanting, an interest that would find its fulfillment years later. And yet these movies, while unseen at the time, also represented a kind of continuum with the monster movies I saw years early, that is, my youthful interest in the forbidden, the bizarre, and the exotic would transfer, eventually, to the seeing of foreign films.

The changing of the name and the fare did not pay off for the Park. On May First, 1963, while the Highland showed Disney’s The Miracle of the White Stallions, the Park’s ad in the paper said, ominously, Call Theater for Program. And on Thursday, May 16, while the Highland showed West Side Story, no listing for the Park appeared. It was gone.

We can never tell what kind of influences can manifest. In researching this article I was impressed by the advertisements for “offbeat” films that appeared in the Times, small insert ads for British and foreign films playing in theaters on the West side of Los Angeles. (Perhaps this was the Parks’ failed strategy, to lure the adventuresome residents of Pasadena, Glendale, and the San Gabriel Valley to a closer venue.) I read of vanished theaters whose names must have given me a sensation of intrigue, as they strike a nostalgic note now: the Lido, Vagabond, Fine Arts, Carthay Circle, Encore, Cinema, and Vogue, all gone.

As for the Highland, it persisted, in the same way I did, I suppose. Incredibly, I lasted twenty-six years as a sub teacher. Now retired, I dropped into the restored Highland theater last month to see Horrible Bosses Two, the first time I had been to the Highland in over twenty-five years. The seats were comfortable and the projection was bright. I had a good time, I may go back, and, as one character says in the Wild Bunch, a line which in a way summons up my current Multiplex-dependent, film-going experience, “It ain’t what it used to be, but it’ll do.”

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Garrett Rowlan is a retired sub teacher from Los Angeles. He has published about 60 or so essays and short stories, with stories at Sand Hill Review and 300 Days of Sun still pending publication. HIs website, garrettrowlan.com, has collected links to many of his on-line publications