Aging Gracefully

The Huntridge Theatre: Sixty years of ups, downs, premieres, stars, shows, lasting memories … and one cherished myth debunked

Michael Toole

You've got to hand it to the Huntridge: In a city that has reinvented and reshaped itself so many times, the fact that this cherished theater will celebrate its 60th birthday on October 10 is damned amazing.

Sure, it's had its ups and downs, and more than a few of us held our breath when rumors would circulate about it being bulldozed for a Downtown parking garage or another Rite Aid. For of those of you who don't see the significance of the Huntridge Theatre turning 60, drive around the city and see how little architectural history there is; and if you're still not impressed, then the bland, featureless strip malls, restaurant chains and gated communities that have sprouted in our city in the past 10 years are all yours.

Here, then, is a timeline history of a beloved local landmark:

April 13, 1944: Tom Oakie, general manager of the Huntridge Development Company, which is building homes for Las Vegas' growing wartime population (the Las Vegas Airfield, later to be renamed Nellis Air Force Base, was established just three years prior) presides over the groundbreaking ceremony at the corner of Maryland Parkway and Charleston Boulevard.

October 10, 1944: The Huntridge Theatre opens. It is designed by renowned architect S. Charles Lee in the then-popular "Streamline Modern" style. Most striking is the flute-like, 75-foot tall tower that proclaims "HUNTRIDGE" in sleek letters. Among the "mod cons" that are boasted about in its press release: seating for 950; first theater in the city to be completely air-conditioned; state-of-the-art projection equipment that is "manufactured to 100,000th of an inch of tolerance, eliminating eye strain!" A. J. Simmons, vice president of Commonwealth Las Vegas Theatre Corporation, is named general manager. The opening program will be Hi Neighbor! (1942), starring Jean Parker, a mildly popular B-movie starlet of the time. It is followed by the main feature, Hellzapoppin' (1941), a free-wheeling comedy starring the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Ticket prices are: 44 cents for adults; 30 cents for students and military personnel; and 14 cents for children under 12. The two prime shareholders in the investmentgroup that owns the Huntridge Theatre are the Hollywood stars' Loretta Young and Irene Dunne. The phone number for the theatre is simply listed as "86."

September 1, 1945: During the run of Secrets of the Wastelands, starring William Boyd, the projectionist stops the film so management can make the announcement that "the Japanese have officially surrendered and that war is over!" After a few minutes of rejoicing, the audience settles down and the film resumes. Records show that the signing of the treaty took place on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay on the Battleship Missouri at 9:05 a.m. (approximately 5:05 p.m. September 1 in Las Vegas).

December 1, 1945: In one of its first successful promotions, the Huntridge kicks off a week-long giveaway of "free nylon stockings" (nylons had been very scarce in the last few years, as the War Production Board commandeered all nylon fabric to supply defense needs, namely parachutes).

1951: Lloyd Katz, a film-buyer from San Francisco, will be the chief operator for the Nevada Theatre Corporation, which owns the leases to three popular cinema houses in the city (the Huntridge, Fremont and Palace Theatres). Admission is 65 cents. Katz will court controversy as being one of the first movie operators in the country to offer complete integration of minorities to sit anywhere as a patron, offering no segregation with the seats.

February 12, 1952: Jane Russell and Vincent Price are on hand to promote the world premiere of The Las Vegas Story, the first film shot entirely in Sin City. The film plays at the Fremont and Huntridge Theatres, with the stars making appearances at both houses.

November 11, 1954: Here comes the myth-debunking: According ot our research, Frank Sinatra did not sell tickets in the Huntridge box office to promote his film Suddenly. It appears that the well-known photo of him doing so was actually shot at the Fremont Theatre.

July 1955: The Huntridge changes its phone number to DU-2-8600. Around this time, phone numbers were often give two letters (an exchange name) to designate a geographical area representing its neighborhood, street or area landmark. In this case, the DU stands for Dudley, and frankly we here at the Weekly are stumped as to the historical significance of Dudley.

December 1, 1956: Katz tries to expand his Huntridge audience by showing And God Created Women, with Brigitte Bardot. It is screened only in the late evening and for adults "18 and over."

February 1-2, 1957: In response to a growing teenage audience, Katz slates his first "Rock 'n' Roll-athon" program for the Huntridge. He books the doo-wop group The Treniers (now appearing at the Royal Nevada Hotel), and will screen the Alan Reed musical Don't Knock the Rock afterward. Tickets will be just 90 cents for all patrons.

December 1957: Katz removes two rows of seats to accommodate the widescreen showing of Around the World in 80 Days. Producer Mike Todd, a good friend of Katz, will stop by to lend his support.

November 1958: Katz will be warmly regarded for his 25-cent admission for children during the Saturday morning Kiddie Matinee. It will feature mostly old Disney movies, Roy Rogers westerns and lots of Looney Tunes animated shorts.

November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is shot while in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Patrons at the Huntridge are waiting in line to see an afternoon matinee of Take Her, She's Mine!, a family comedy starring James Stewart and Sandra Dee when word spreads. All showings for the day are canceled.

December 6, 1966: Jiri Trnka, a Czech animator whose films, such as The Hand, had been critical of his country's communist administration, has one of his films, based on Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperors Nightingale," screened for a limited showing. The film will highlight Trnka's brilliant use of puppets and miniature set pieces and will be one of the few showings of his work on the West Coast.

December 10, 1967: The Huntridge begins "Operation Soapbar." In its most high-profile social benefit to date, management will ask patrons to donate soap that will be sent to Vietnam. According to the press release, "People are dying daily from infections from even a tiny scratch; the soap will make them healthier and allow them to have pride in themselves."

July 22, 1968: General manager Harry Zumar opens his mind to local artists when he lets the theater sponsor an art contest, with the winners not only nabbing cash prizes, but will have their art (mostly psychedelic), displayed in the lobby.

April 24, 1977: The last film to screen at the Huntridge before it closes, halting an amazing 32 1/2-year continuous run, is the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure. Katz states that the current owner of the property, the Hollywood legend Irene Dunne, will not renew the lease and will not sell her ownership.

1979: Dunne changes her mind and decides to sell the property for a cool half-million dollars to Southern Californian businessman, Frank Silvaggio.

January 9, 1981: The theater reopens as the The Huntridge Twin Cinemas, with special screenings of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, and King Kong (1933) with Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray. Donald Lesh, a Portland businessman, has now taken over the lease and will charge just $2 before 5 p.m. on the weekdays, $4.50 at other times.

January 16, 1981: Just a week after it opens, the Huntridge Twins begin a run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Many of the city's current 40-somethings who grew up here, the Rocky Horror experience will be the first true, successful youth culture gathering that wasn't sponsored by the state, city or county (i.e. agents of social control). The Rocky Horror experience will run for a few more months before theater manager Lesh finds it no longer financially sound.

July 15, 1982: Lesh files for bankruptcy and once again the future of the Huntridge is in doubt.

November 9, 1983: The Huntridge reopens and will be operated by Robert Garganese Jr., who also runs the Mountain View Theater Complex on 3400 South Jones. He plans to reopen it as a discount movie house.

August 1989: Garganses' management of the Huntridge hits a wall, and he closes the theater down.

February 7, 1991: The city considers purchasing the Huntridge from Silvaggio if agrees to foot the bill for an asbestos study.

January 1992: Friends of the Huntridge, led by Richard Lenz, is now in charge of the theater after the city negotiates a price of $1.1 million from Silvaggio. A downpament is made with a $300,000 grant from the state's Cultural Affairs Commission and $150,000 from the city's redevelopment fund. The city's contribution will also require that any subsequent buyer must maintain the theater as a performing arts venue for at least 20 years at time of purchase.

March 1992: Lenz hits upon the idea to follow the lead of other cities that have turned old cinema houses into rock venues.

April 10, 1992: Although no longer in their heyday, Quiet Riot becomes one of the first rock acts to play the Huntridge.

November 21, 1992: The intimacy of clubs and small theaters appeals to indie bands, and the Huntridge start moving in that direction when it books Porno For Pyros as one of the first underground bands to play at the venue.

January 16, 1993: Ice-T, whose single "Cop Killer" has caused a stir among conservative groups and law-enforcement officials. Metro threatens not to send any officers over, but Ice performs at the theater anyway, becoming one of the first hip hop artists to play there.

July 22, 1993: The Huntridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

March 14, 1994: Nine Inch Nails performs, but Trent Reznor is reportedly unhappy with the sound system and lack of enthusiastic response from the crowd.

July 28, 1995: Just hours before the Circle Jerks are to play, the roof of the building collapses. Although a few employees were inside, there were no serious injuries. Despite this, the Circle Jerks contributed one of the most cherished memories to the Huntridge folklore when they play to a group of onlookers still hanging around. As lead singer Keith Morris would relate years later: "As soon as we got there, we were told that the roof had collapsed and the show was canceled. We didn't have anywhere else to go, so we just set up our equipment in the parking lot and played for the 30 or 40 people who were still there." The result was an impromptu mosh pit that showed endlessly gyrating kids thrashing frantically on the outdoor pavement. Fortunately for us, the moment was captured live on MTV.

October 31, 1996: The Huntridge reopens: new seats, remodeled bathrooms, a dance floor, a recording studio and the place is repainted teal and orange. Repair costs total about $525,000. The opening act will be the ska band the Toasters.

February 21, 1997: Just months after Spin magazine names him Artist of the Year of 1996, Beck performs before a packed house.

June 27, 1998: The first annual CineVegas film festival arrives, and the Huntridge will show a series of experimental and student films for the event.

January 15, 1999: The Nevada Board of Museums and History registers the Huntridge in the State Register of Historic Places.

January 2000: The theater receives a grant of $55,990 from the state's Cultural Affairs Commission, but rumors spread that it may not be enough to keep up the operations.

February 3, 2000: The article "Bringing Down the House" by Rob Bhatt in the Weekly becomes one of the first stories to offer an in-depth look at the Huntridge's inconsistent fortunes. Bhatt reports that the decline of Huntridge's box-office receipts has deteriorated so badly—due to the recent competition by The Joint in the Hard Rock and Mandalay Bay's House of Blues—that property director Richard Lenz must "keep the property solvent by renting it out to a variety of community groups. The Metropolitan Community Church hosts services at the facility on Sunday mornings. Area schools regularly hold plays at the theater. And the old theater, where Disney films were once the staple for the all-American Saturday matinees, has even become a haven for East Indian film screenings."

February 8, 2000: The Smashing Pumpkins, soon to disband, include the Huntridge on their final tour.

June 2000: Once again, the city saves the Huntridge with a last-minute grant of $100,000 that will keep it afloat a little longer.

January 1, 2002: Longtime next-door neighbors Cima's Furniture, owned by the Mizrachi family, purchase the property for $925,000. Eli Mizrachi, just 29 years old, will take over operations and hints that he plans to keep up the theater as a venue for "up-and-coming" bands.

November 2, 2002: True to Mizrachi's word, the Huntridge reopens. He has installed a new sound system and books the venerable punk band The Damned for a Saturday night show. Tickets are still reasonably priced—just $13 for advanced; and $15 at the door.

October 31, 2003: As a tribute to things past, The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays to an audience of eager fans, Halloween patrons and those who want to celebrate Nevada Day in its proper context.

June 10, 2004: The Beastie Boys perform as part of MTV2's $2Bill concert series. The Beasties had requested the Huntridge as a host site. The show is televised live, and maintains the interest of the Huntridge as a great alternative site.

July 30, 2004: Metal acts Dimmu Borgir, Bleeding Through and God Forbid are last bands to play at the Huntridge temporarily closes for renovations. Mizrachi projects completion around the spring of 2005.

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