A Look Back at Laguna South Coast Cinemas

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On Aug. 30, 2015, Laguna Beach residents said goodbye to a piece of history when the city’s only movie theater, Laguna South Coast Cinemas, was forced to close its doors. At its location on South Coast Highway for more than 90 years, the oceanfront landmark existed not only as a historical site but anchored the heart of the community. With the help of local historian Jane Janz, we take a look back at the rich legacy of this iconic downtown spot.


1922: The Opening

Fred Aufdenkamp and his family launched the film industry in Laguna when they started showing silent movies on Forest Avenue in 1915, and opened the theater seven years later. Named the Lynn Theater after Fred’s son, Lynn (who later became involved in the business), the building was erected four years before Coast Highway was built.


1935: The Theater We Know

Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Historical Society
Photo courtesy of Laguna Beach Historical Society

To keep up with the times, the theater was forced to close and rebuild in 1933. The entire original building was lifted up and moved to Ocean Avenue (it remained the town’s second movie house until 1959), and a new building was erected at the South Coast Highway location. It opened June 26, 1935, as the New Lynn Theater looking like the structure we’re familiar with today: Its tower, small tiled courtyard and large pictorial murals by artist Edgar Payne all came from this construction.


1936: New Ownership

In May 1936, the theater changed hands for the first time when Roy Vincent, president of South Coast Theaters Inc., purchased the business and theater equipment from the Aufdenkamp family, who retained ownership of the building. After changing the name of the building to South Coast Theater, Roy died and his family sold the lease in 1944. A few more changes in ownership occurred before the lease was purchased by Lester Blumberg; the building is still owned by a member of the Blumberg family today.


1954: CinemaScope

The installation of a  CinemaScope screen was an important renovation for the theater, offering enhanced viewing quality for patrons. The new screen—the most modern available at the time—involved a total of 11 technical experts and cost $15,000, boasting a larger size, curved shape, anamorphic lens and new stereophonic system.


1973: Rock ’n’ Roll

The theater in 1974 | Photo by Douglas Miller
The theater in 1974 | Photo by Douglas Miller

In the early 1970s, all-night youth rock concerts took place at the theater. Such festivities were relished by many in the community but protested by others who saw them as a disturbance to the peace. In February 1973, nine people were arrested by Laguna Beach plainclothes detectives who found drinking, drugs and various other health and safety code violations at one such concert.


1976: Dividing Wall

In an attempt to accommodate more viewers, the theater was divided in half to install a second screen, causing much controversy. Many believed it took away from the grandeur of the theater: They complained that the new, smaller rooms felt cramped, that they could hear the sound from the other auditorium and that the architectural integrity of the building had been compromised. Conversely, those in favor of the wall felt that the theater benefited from the modern upgrade.


2007: Hospitality Night

Beginning in 2007, the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce began screening the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the theater as a part of its annual Hospitality Night, a staple of Laguna Beach holiday celebrations. Despite the theater’s recent closure, Executive Director Laura Henkels said the Chamber hoped to find a way to screen the film this past December, though it was unsuccessful. “People love it,” she says.


2013: Laguna Beach Film Society

The theater also served as a location for the Laguna Beach Film Society to screen documentaries, classical and independent films, and lesser-known projects that celebrated film as an art form or had local significance. “The cinema offered not only the opportunity to see films that might not make it to the area cineplexes, but also the chance to meet and chat with those involved with the creation of the films,” says former member Dale Schierholt.


2015: The Final Goodbye

Photo by Andrea Adelson
Photo by Andrea Adelson

On Aug. 30, 2015, theater manager Bob Lively—who ran the theater for more than 10 years—said his goodbyes to loyal patrons in the community. The theater screened “The Gift” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” on its final night after its operator, Regency Theatres, could not secure a long-term lease needed to make renovations, including updating the theater’s 35 mm film to digital projection and installing new seating.


2016: Up Next

Owner Leslie Blumberg has yet to reveal plans for the building. No matter how it is occupied, many in Laguna hope that it will retain its cultural and architectural significance, a sentiment echoed by Laguna Beach Community Development Director Greg Pfost. “The building is historic, so it would be important to retain its existing historic attributes,” he says. 

—Written by Caroline Ruhland

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