One of LA’s best moviegoing secrets is a hidden treasure in a well-kept but unassuming building. Sitting on the former site of the huge Babylon set from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic INTOLERANCE, the Vista Theatre is a rare artefact of classic Hollywood: a thriving, single-screen neighborhood theatre, run with exceptional care, and held in exceptionally high regard by savvy and discerning patrons. It is known to be the longest-running freestanding theatre in Southern California.
The Vista Theater is one of the remaining historic structures from the 1920s, when Hollywood was first built up and began attracting residents to its new suburban homes from areas near downtown Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, at the time middle and wealthy class sections of Los Angeles. The theater is a local landmark. It has been renovated to play new release movies, and retains its historic architecture.
In a manner reminiscent of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the theater’s forecourt features cement handprints and footprints of notable film figures. However, the handprints and footprints at the Vista Theatre tend to include more icons of independent and cult films such as Spike Jonze, John C. Reilly and Martin Landau, among many others.
This theater may look familiar to you because of the theater’s proximity to Hollywood (It’s right next door). It has been used for years as a location in movies, TV, music videos and photo shoots. For example, it is used in the 3am portion of Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy” as part of the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, and also appears on the album cover of 1990’s “Lights…Camera…Revolution!” by Suicidal Tendencies. The list goes on…
One contradiction here is the Spanish revival style exterior, contrasting the Egyptian theme within. The Vista’s somewhat incongruous architecture is said to have been inspired by the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Both events took place in 1922 to 1923, while the Vista was being built. It’s been said that the decision to go Egyptian was made after the theatre’s exterior was already finished. There was a definite trend of Egyptian inspired theatres during that era. Several were built around Los Angeles, but few survive today. Ironically, Grauman’s Egyptian now totally pales in comparison to the Vista. In fact, this theatre has attributes not found in most other movie venues today.
Vista Theatre opened on October 16, 1923 to a packed house, as a single-screen theater. In addition to screening films, the theater also showed vaudeville acts on stage. Originally known as Lou Bard Playhouse on opening day in 1923, the cinema played the film Tips with Baby Peggy. The original seating capacity in the auditorium held space for 838 seats. In 1927, new owners dubbed it the Vista.
Low-budget sexploitation movies were the sort of thing the Vista was running regularly by the early 1970’s. The theater went to gay porn for a while later in the ‘70s. In 1980 it was acquired by Thomas Theatres out of San Francisco and underwent a refurbishment, becoming a revival house, Ownership then transferred to Landmark in 1982, which operated it more as a revival/art house combination. Landmark abandoned the revival format at the Vista in 1985, and the theater was sold to Vintage Cinemas and renamed The New Vista. They were back to first run films.
By the time Five Star acquired the property in 1993, The Vista was a dilapidated dive with a checkered past. Five Star was approached by designer Ronald Wright, who proposed a complete and very thorough renovation/restoration. The process started in 1997 and was completed in 2000, costing nearly a million dollars, Restoring the Vista was accomplished out of an enormous team effort, An entire floor-to-ceiling cosmetic renovation was done on the interior and exterior. The theatre’s seating capacity was reduced from 800 to 392. The largest expense was earthquake retrofitting, which affected the look of the interior. Huge metal braces have been cloaked and are now a part of the decor. The Egyptian heads inside were meticulously restored, one color at a time, and took almost a year to finish. Had Five Star not acquired the Vista, this Hollywood landmark would probably not be standing today.
Vintage photos of the Vista reveal not a hint of Egyptian decor outside, and there was no real boxoffice when Five Star took over, so designer Ronald Wright designed a striking new one, based on the themed elements inside. The new boxoffice, along with some other enhancements, now introduces the Egyptian theme right out front. The etched glass in the theatre’s entrance doors is just another example of money spent for quality. The Vista building includes upstairs office space (once used by famous B-movie schlockmeister Ed Wood) and two storefronts.
In 2010, Five Star changed their name to Vintage Cinemas, inc, perhaps in homage to the original. The projector was converted to digital in 2012, keeping the 35mm projector for special events and screenings.
The Vista Theater
809 State Street Erie, PA 16501
1916 Intolerance set
Opening night at the Lou Bard Playhouse, 1923