Gala Hollywood Premier of the Clairemont Theatre

1965 Gala Hollywood Premier advertisement for the Clairemont Theatre (The Clairemont Sentinel)

It took a very long time for “moving picture shows” to find a niche in the Clairemont cultural scene. The community was “thrilled in anticipation of the grand opening of the Clairemont Theatre” scheduled for June 29, 1965. The expensive projection system and special screen could handle 70 mm high-resolution films.

The design of the building was mid-century modern to reflect and compliment the architecture of the other businesses at the Clairemont Square… which meant that it was another square box.

The Clairemont Sentinel reported, “A new era for Clairemont’s image, within and without the community, takes place as merchants welcome the opening of the new, luxurious, air-conditioned Stanley Warner Clairemont Theatre. Fashions, eating habits and shopping trends will be affected by this new image. Clairemont is a full-fledged community with homes, schools, churches, shopping centers and, of course, its own luxurious theater.”

Simon Fabian, president of Stanley Warner, effused, “This is the best located and most comfortable house ever built by Stanley Warner in the 38 years of the company’s history. It’s a splendid theater and one I know every resident of San Diego will be proud of.”

Stanley Warner arranged a “gala Hollywood premier” for “Lord Jim,” starring Peter O’Toole in the title role. The handsome O’Toole was thought to be box office gold after having won the 1962 Oscar for Best Actor in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Playwright Noel Coward playfully jibed, “If you had been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.”

The Sentinel described “Lord Jim” as “a highly dramatic and tensely exciting film.” Unfortunately, when the film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic opened four months earlier in New York, the reviews were bad and it became a “box office bomb.”

Clairemont got a turkey.

San Diego news outlets loved it when celebrities visited town in the 1960s. They treated regurgitated studio generated publicity as “real news.”

The following “stars” were expected to attend the grand opening: Madlyn (Madeleine) Rhue and husband Tony Young (co-stars of “He Rides Tall”), John Smith (“Laramie”), John Anderson (character actor), Bill Frawley (Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy”), Jesse White (remembered for his portrayal of the Maytag repairman), Eartha Kitt (sultry cabaret singer), Chill Wills (perpetual cowboy sidekick), Barbara Luna (appeared in numerous TV series), Bill Wellman (son of legendary director “Wild Bill” Wellman), Tony Dow (Wally on “Leave it to Beaver’), Clint Walker (“Cheyenne”), Robert Q. Lewis (TV games show participant) and Duane Hickman (Dobie Gillis). The emcee was local TV celebrity Regis Philbin.

Ticket prices were $5.00 and $10.00. The gala sold out and $4,500 was raised for The Boys Club pool. The Sentinel wrote, “Many well-known [unnamed] movie and television personalities were on stage, as well as, Miss Clairemont, Judy Smith.” Apparently not all of the Hollywood stars were able to attend. (Some of the stars probably didn’t even know about the premier.)

Dolores Juditz was a member of the Clairemont Junior Women’s Club that hosted the opening reception. “I had a lovely night pouring champagne for the various celebrities,” she recalled. Dolores best remembers Lori Martin, the Elizabeth Taylor look-alike who starred in the popular TV series, “National Velvet” and Tony Dow, the likable older brother in “Leave it to Beaver.”

The next feature at the Clairemont Theatre was promoted as the world premier of “Around the World in a Daze” starring The Three Stooges. Because the film had been released two years earlier, the “world premier” designation showed Stanley Warner’s cavalier lack of respect for the sophistication of Clairemont movie buffs.

On March 3, 1966, a confusing front page Sentinel article was headlined, “Everything is Normal Again in Clairemont.” It was a tribute to the power of the press, because a single news article turned juvenile delinquents into choir boys.

This is the back story. Theater manager Rudolph Kuehn (rumored to have been a humorless man) complained to a reporter that vandalism and rowdy teenaged behavior was chasing his customers away. Wild, uncontrollable kids were yelling and screaming. Water balloons would hit unsuspecting theater-goers. A girl danced on a table in the restroom and “broke all four legs off the table.” Friday nights were the most unsettling.

In the article, Mr. Kuehn thanked the newspaper for making parents aware of their children’s misbehavior in his theater. The message worked, because parents instructed their children to be good… and now they were. “Everything was normal again,” so the manager was pleased his “adult, respectable customers would return.”

On July 21, 1966, The Sentinel reported that a 19-year-old college student, William Rubin, tragically fell 34 feet to his death while changing light bulbs at the Clairemont Theatre. He stumbled off a catwalk and dropped though a false ceiling. Young Rubin had only worked at the theater for five weeks after his graduation from Mesa College. He had been a tennis star at Point Loma High School and would be attending the University of Arizona in the fall semester.

The former Clairemont Theatre is now a 99¢ Only Store at the Square (photo by Bill Swank)

After a grand opening in 1965, the Clairemont Theatre would experience a star crossed run. Kids have happy memories of popcorn and favorite movies. In the late 1970s, as a harbinger of multiplex theaters to come, it was converted to two theaters. When the theater finally closed in the 1990s, it was worn out and irrelevant.

The lines at Blockbuster for movie videos and DVDs rentals were longer than those at the Clairemont Twin box office. The building remained unoccupied until it was converted into a 99¢ Only Store for the new millennium.

Major renovation at the Square began in 1996. Pacific Cinemas, later renamed Reading Cinemas, opened in 1997 and became the focal center that Stanley Warner hoped to achieve in 1965.

The loss of the Clairemont Theatre can be paraphrased by Charles Marlowe’s epitaph to Lord Jim: “And that’s the end. It passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic.”

In case you missed it, “The Three Stooges: The Movie” played at Reading Cinemas Town Square in 2012. The inscrutable “Lord Jim” never returned to Clairemont.

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