A Page from History: Ocean Beach’s old Strand Theatre created many fond memories for longtime movie fan
The last motion picture projector from the old Strand Theatre in Ocean Beach sat abandoned and forlorn in the Wings Beachwear store for 20 years. Maybe 21. A store employee posted a few lines on Vintage San Diego early last year, mentioning the existence of the old projector and suggesting the store might be interested in its relocation.
Would the Ocean Beach Historical Society be interested in such a thing? We sure would!
The situation with the projector seemed to be in flux. We visited the store and it was there all right, and seemed to be in great condition, considering the circumstances. Did it look as if we could stoke it up and start screening “Pacific Vibrations” in the back yard? No. But as a very local semi-significant pop-cultural artifact, we dug it.
Then, one sunny Saturday morning last fall, a rather amusing and unlikely episode occurred in which we rolled the old projector out the back door, up the alley and through the streets of Ocean Beach to its new home. Rumors that video evidence exists of the projector being pushed across Newport Avenue at Cable Street are accurate.
I loved the Strand. It seems like I must have seen dozens of movies there, but I am finding it hard to name more than 20. In the early 1960s, I was able to attend a number of Saturday matinees with a group of kids from my block. I don’t recall any parental involvement in those adventures. How great was that? We did have a couple of older, maybe junior high kids — already veteran Strand patrons — to keep a loose eye on everybody.
These shows were swashbucklers, older Westerns — not all in black and white — some great science fiction and monster movies. I was fascinated by “Mysterious Island.”
They still ran 1930s movie serials at the Strand in OB in the 1960s, and they were fantastic. Zorro! “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars”! I certainly didn’t go every week, but it didn’t seem to matter. The serials were just as exciting, even if you didn’t know what was going on. And as a kid, you could get into the Strand for a quarter or — no kidding — six Coke bottle caps.
A significant event in my childhood transpired when a friend’s dad took a bunch of third-graders and the guy’s two older sisters for his birthday to the Strand to see “The Fly,” with Vincent Price. Oh man, I don’t remember having bad dreams myself, but one of those teenage girls sure did.
My most vivid memories from the Strand are of films I saw in junior high and high school, or shortly thereafter. “Free & Easy,” the early MacGillivray Freeman film, might have been the first surf film I ever saw. “Bullitt,” with Steve McQueen driving that Mustang like a maniac through the streets of San Francisco, was a big hit with junior high boys, as was “Cool Hand Luke.”
I saw “Woodstock” at the Strand, and “The Strawberry Statement.” Let us say that the soundtrack was the highlight of “The Strawberry Statement.”
I might have taken a date to “Little Big Man.” Can I prove it? No.
I will say that our consensus favorites were “Putney Swope,” “Brewster McCloud” and “Where’s Poppa?”
The Strand had a long, wonderful run as the theater in Ocean Beach. Almost three-quarters of the 20th century: 1925 to 1998. It was not the first movie house in Ocean Beach, though. That distinction belongs to the Ocean Theatre, which had presented Hollywood films to OB audiences in the early 1920s.
The Ocean Theatre was in the 5000 block of Newport Avenue on the south side of the street. Ray and Norma Ericsson reportedly did the best they could with the cramped confines of the Ocean Theatre, but with the opening of the Strand in a new, much larger building built to be a theater, the Ocean was shuttered.
The Strand was an Ericsson project. Originally it had been slated to open immediately across the street from the Ocean, and a year earlier.
The formal grand opening of the Strand on Nov. 6, 1925, “marked a great epochal event in the annals of Ocean Beach,” according to The Beach News. “The magnificent new temple of amusement” was “thronged to capacity with a brilliantly representative audience” and was “splendidly stamped with the seal of popular approval.”
The Beach News went on to say that the Ericssons had “long cherished the hope of providing the community with a playhouse containing the excellent attributes achieved through the dedication of their new Strand Theatre.” They had hit the ground running.
The Strand had a seating capacity of 700. The theater building originally had two apartments upstairs and two storefronts on either side of the small lobby. The apartments gradually gave way to a theater office and storage space. The first commercial tenants were the Strand Sweet Shoppe, a soda fountain started by a couple of Point Loma High School students, and the Strand Radio Co. Remember, it would be decades before most people would have a television.
Other Strand building tenants over the years have included a barbershop, a real estate office, BBQ House and Mel’s Root Beer.
Slightly more than a year after its grand opening, circumstances forced Ericsson to sell the Strand to F.J. Gruber, who would run the theater successfully for many years. The 4900 block of Newport Avenue grew up around the theater before and after World War II, and the Strand provided a solid 50 years of entertainment, showing popular films to the beach community.
The movie house was in a repertory cinema incarnation as the Strand Picture Palace in the late 1970s when it started showing “Midnight Movies” on weekends. These were usually concert flicks, and most famously, the long run of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“Rocky Horror” wasn’t simply popular in a conventional sense — it was a happening. Hundreds of dedicated decadents, wired for sound and costumed to the teeth, eagerly waited in line each weekend, impatient for the festivities to commence. Most, if not all, of the stories you’ve heard about those showings are true.
My little sister Sharon was one of the “Rocky Horror” faithful. I’ve been under the impression that she had seen it something like 87 times. “Oh no,” she told me recently, “86.”
Strange days found the Strand in the ‘80s. The theater was sold to Great Western Theaters, which then leased the building to the parent company of the Pussycat Theaters chain. Yes, the venerable Strand briefly became a porn house. That development did not go down well in Ocean Beach. Thanks to a strong reaction from the community and a series of citations for violating city zoning ordinances, the curtain was brought down on that debacle after a couple of months.
Another stint as a repertory cinema brought an end to the Strand’s days of screening motion pictures in 1998. Most single-screen standalone theaters faced a similar fate in those days.
The Strand property, encumbered by a tax lien and needing both earthquake retrofitting and asbestos abatement, proved to be a nut too huge for even the squirreliest of impresarios to manage. As a historic building, however, the Strand could not be torn down. Enter Wings, a retailer with the capital necessary to rehabilitate the shell and facade of the Strand, but not as a theater.
Hey, at least we got custody of the projector.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.