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Caliente Sign On California Theater May Disappear

Above: The Caliente advertisement on the side of the historic California Theater dates back to the 1960s. It may be painted over soon. Photo by: Pamela Schreckengost

Aired 12/13/11 on KPBS News.

A vintage ad for a Tijuana racetrack has occupied the side of the derelict California Theater in downtown San Diego since the 60s. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says it may disappear to make way for a beer advertisement.

The faded 40x80 foot yellow sign is on the western side of the California Theater. It reads "Caliente! in Old Mexico" and includes an image of a jockey racing his horse.

The sign is a reminder of the days when San Diegans and Hollywood celebrities would cross the border to the Aqua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, where drinking and gambling were legal during prohibition.

Last month, the city approved a proposal to paint over the sign with a beer advertisement.

Cathy Winterrowd is a senior planner in the city of San Diego's historic resources department. She reviews modifications to historic buildings to make sure they comply with standards for the treatment of historic properties.

Winterrowd and her staff approved the proposal to paint over the Caliente sign. She explained why in a written statement: "The existing Caliente sign has no association with the historic California Theater and does not itself have historical significance...I found that painting the new sign over the existing painted surface would not damage historic fabric or otherwise adversely impact the building and therefore was consistent with the regulations."

Bruce Coons disagrees. He’s the executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organization. "We believe that [the proposal] should have gone through the 45 year review, which anything that’s 45 years or older is reviewed to see if it’s historic. I think there’s a good case to be made that the sign itself is historic in its own right and important to the cultural history of San Diego."

Chula Vista-based company Valerio Resources Inc. drafted the proposal to advertise on the wall space currently occupied by the Caliente sign. Company president Edward Valerio says he's leasing the space from the current owners of the theater, Sloan Capital, LLC.

Valerio says he initially proposed a vinyl sign to drop over the side of the theater, leaving the Caliente sign intact, but the vinyl was considered a modification to the historic building and therefore failed to pass.

Valerio says negotiations are currently underway with Newcastle Brown Ale to advertise on the theater wall. He would not reveal how much he's charging for the ad space.

Sloan Capital is the latest in a string of private owners of the now derelict California Theater, which closed around 1990. The theater was built in 1927 and was San Diego's premiere movie palace in its heyday.

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Avatar for user 'eweems'

eweems | December 12, 2011 at 11:43 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Nooooo! This historical sign is a work of art. It would be a crime to let this be repainted. What is the "Historical" resources department thinking?

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Avatar for user 'gregoryagogo'

gregoryagogo | December 12, 2011 at 12:12 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago


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Avatar for user 'DanSoderberg'

DanSoderberg | December 12, 2011 at 1:38 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

This mural is an important part of San Diego's cultural heritage. I say"mural" because it no longer advertises anything. Caliente horse racing is long gone.
I've started a "Save the Caliente Mural" Facebook page. I urge everyone to log in and "like" it. Help us stop this distruction of history and a horrible new beer billboard!

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Avatar for user 'nicolelarson'

nicolelarson | December 12, 2011 at 4:25 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Just what we need -- another beer advertisement! This is an essential historic part of the building. I guess the historic resources board hears the clink of money -- and everything in the city subject to city review seems to be up for sale to the highest bidder lately, no questions asked. Disgusting!

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | December 12, 2011 at 4:43 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Just to clarify, the city will not make money off of selling the advertising space. The building is privately owned. The city is involved only at the stage of approving or disapproving changes to historic buildings.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 12, 2011 at 6:03 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Agree with the comments, this is a disgrace. I want the mural to stay. Ms. Carone, can you disclose who owns this building? If not mistaken, even private owners are subject to historical preservation ordinances, no?

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | December 12, 2011 at 6:15 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Yes, A company named Sloan Capital LLC owns the building. You are correct in that they have to comply with historical preservation ordinances - and in this case they have. The city (Historic Resources staff) has reviewed the proposal and has decided the sign itself is not historic and painting over it will not conflict with historic preservation standards for the building. Another point of clarification: Sloan Capital did not issue the proposal the city approved. A local small business (see article above) leased the wall space from Sloan and is selling it to companies who might want to advertise there (in this case Newcastle). It was the small business that followed the process of getting the city's approval.

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Avatar for user 'DanSoderberg'

DanSoderberg | December 12, 2011 at 8:07 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Angela, just because the City Staff says it is not historic doesn't mean squat. They don't decide if something is historic or not. That can only be done by the Historical Resources Board itself. THEY should be allowed to review this case. THEY are the ones who should make that determination. It's called proper review and public process. There is no excuse for the City Staff to circumvent that process and shut the public out of its right to weigh in on this issue. This is disgraceful.

And on the subject of the City Staff offering their evaluation on historic resources, their batting average is not so perfect. It's not all unheard of for the HRB itself to make findings contrary to City Staff.

City Staff is appointed by an anti historic preservation Mayor. This all starts from the top and trickles down.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | December 12, 2011 at 8:16 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Hi Dan- yes, I understand the process is one that takes certain (maybe most?) proposals to the Historic Resources Board. However, in reporting the facts of how this decision was made, the Historic Resources Board was not involved. The decision was made by the staff. Right or wrong, that's how it went down.

I think your other comment about whether the sign is a mural or an advertisement is an interesting one. When does an image painted on a wall for advertising purposes become a mural? Just because the advertising purpose no longer exists, it automatically becomes a mural? It leads to the question, when does something become art? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thanks for commenting.

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Avatar for user 'eweems'

eweems | December 12, 2011 at 8:53 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Thank you Angela Carone for bringing our attention to this travesty. The Historic Resources Board is a joke in it's current incarnation. How are members of the board chosen? I'd like to get on that board.

And yes, this is now a historic "mural" not an advertisement.

I am looking forward to your follow-up on this Angela!

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Avatar for user 'DanSoderberg'

DanSoderberg | December 12, 2011 at 9:39 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

You are right. That is how it went down. The public's right to weigh in on this issue was circumvented. The HRB with its depth of expertise and professional credentials was cut out of the loop. Not good.

The best discussion of the significance of signage that lives beyond it original purpose comes from the Keeper of the National Register through the Secretary of the interior. It is Preservation Brief #25. Something City Staff seems to have forgotten about.

It states clearly in the Preservation Brief historic signs sometimes become landmarks in themselves, almost without regard for the building to which they are attached, or the property on which they stand! Not according to City Staff!

Historic signs give continuity to public spaces, becoming part of the community memory. Furthermore, in an age of uniform franchise signs and generic signs, historic signs often attract by their individuality: by a clever detail, a daring use of color and motion and other references.

They give concrete details about daily life of a former era, and allow the past to speak to the present in ways that buildings by themselves do not.

I call it a mural because of the sign's use of clever detail, use of color--and sense of motion with the horse seemingly charging towards us. This sign, and yes I call a mural, is a work of art in heart and minds of a community that associates it with a time and place in San Diego history that is long gone.

It is a rare glimpse at San Diego's mid century urban landscape when giant billboards--particularly those made by Caliente, were once a very common sight. Where else in San Diego is there an intact mid century billboard?

The billboard represents Caliente's once very prominent role in San Diego's economic engine. It was owned by one of San Diego's most dynamic individuals, John Alessio. "Mr. A." It was through his innovation that the Fabulous 5-10 became popular. The American Horse Racing Establishment disapproved of it because they considered it a "gimmick bet." But Alessio's vision ended up becoming mainstream, as the 5-10 eventually became the wildly popular and accepted "Pick Six." What other aspect of San Diego's built environment offers that teaching opportunity? Folks, that billboard represents where that all began, and it teaches it better than a forgotten document or photo lost on a dusty bookshelf.

It also speaks to a time when San Diego and Tijuana were real partners, both economically and culturally. The tourists that Caliente brought to San Diego.
How both cultures seemed more in tune and concert with each other than today with the giant concrete and steel fences,
and drug wars making the two cities seem very far apart.

Painting over this sign will truly be a heartbreaking desecration of history. And the loss of something very cool to look at as well. A mural, if you will.

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Avatar for user 'fungshe'

fungshe | December 12, 2011 at 9:42 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Thank you for bringing attention to this important issue Ms Carone. For those interested in learning about historic signage and the guidelines that help teach how to protect them here is a link
SOHO uses the National Park Services Preservation briefs to guide us on all sorts of issues too bad the city HRB staff does not.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | December 13, 2011 at 10:20 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

The City is correct in saying that the ugly yellow eyesore is NOT historic and should be removed immediately.

It is an advertisement because the Caliente Racetrack still exists. In fact, it hosts cruel greyhound racing now.

The quicker it is removed, the better for San Diego! Good call City staff!

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 13, 2011 at 10:34 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Ms. Carone, thanks not only for the informative article but also for clarifying things and interacting with your readers - - you have clearly done your homework, well done. Good journalists are hard to come by in San Diego (case in point the embarrassingly inept San Diego Union Tribune). It's refreshing to see your dedication to getting the facts correct.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 13, 2011 at 10:49 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

California Defender, thanks for bringing a new area of concern into discussion. I am against cruel greyhound racing or animal cruelty of any sort, but I don't think this mural really attracts many people (if any at all) to this racecourse, nor does it condone what is currently happening there. The mural is historic, and getting rid of it would have no impact on the business of this racecourse. Also, I don't think city officials sited animal cruelty as a reason for their decision, I might have given them more credit if that was the case.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | December 13, 2011 at 11:43 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

@Dan: Thanks for such a thorough response. I was trying to figure out what the 5-10 was on the sign. I found this blog post helpful:

@Peking_Duck_SD: Thanks for your comments.

@CaliforniaDefender: I was hoping to hear from folks who don't like the sign and why. Thanks for speaking up. In addition to the animal cruelty issue, it's just not aesthetically pleasing to you?

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | December 13, 2011 at 11:50 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

I also like this little tidbit of how the 5-10 wager bled into everyday conversation:

Even in “non racing circles” the 5-10 meant good luck or well being. For example, should someone’s daughter marry a man who was well off, the girl’s parents might say, “She got the 5-10 with this one.”

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | December 13, 2011 at 12:43 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago


While I appreciate and enjoy historic advertising, especially art deco, the Caliente ad is cheap and unimaginative. It reminds me more of the days when downtown was a seedy, crime ridden area. Not a pleasant reminder of San Diego's past.

Also, I'd like to echo what Peking Duck said. Angela, your insightful commentary and interaction with readers is rare and much appreciated. Especially in light of the stifling anti-commentary policies at the SD Union Tribune's website (Sign on San Diego).

This is certainly a breath of fresh air...thank you!

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Avatar for user 'crybabysoda'

crybabysoda | December 13, 2011 at 3:44 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Conflicted on this one. Personally, I like the sign - the same way I like faded, forgotten and less pristine murals dying slow deaths around TJ. But this mural seems more a matter of taste than it does "importance." A 1960s mural invoking the "old Mexico" of the 1930s Prohibition era is not of that era. I could imagine some grad departments unpacking the language/look/cultural signposts of the sign and finding it offensive; just as some people seem to be fond of it. Again it's a matter of taste, It's okay to judge somebody else's property in good or bad taste, but another thing to dictate your taste over their property.

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Avatar for user 'DanSoderberg'

DanSoderberg | December 13, 2011 at 6:05 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Thank you Angela for giving the opportunity for me to "let loose" on this issue.

In regards to the comment above, "taste" has nothing to do with whether something is historical or not. The City, State, and Federal level have specific criterion and rules to determine historic value. The Caliente mural qualifies for at least one of many criterion at all three levels.

A stark concrete box which nobody has taste for could be designated historic if it meets the criteria and backed by research.

To suggest this is a property rights issue is a red herring. We all have to abide by the codes and laws pertaining to private property, which is why we don't have rendering plants in neighborhoods, liquor stores next to school yards, or having someone build a ten story add on to the house next to you.

In the case of the Caliente Mural, the City has not followed its own prescribed process and due diligence for vetting historicity.

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Avatar for user 'crybabysoda'

crybabysoda | December 13, 2011 at 8:34 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

@Dan -

Your concrete box example falls flat. Designating a commercial mural as historic most certainly involves a level of aesthetic judgement. The Chicano Park murals have a definite cultural /historical importance - whether you like the way they look or not, their importance is not a matter of taste (they are awesome). Should every 50 year old Craftsman(ish) home in South Park be preserved? Please enlighten as to the way in which you find this particular 1960s mural "historic" - keep in mind nostalgia is not history.

Will you fight to preserve vintage Coca-Cola or 7up ads from the 60s? I like the Caliente mural - I just wonder how much "history" would be lost if somebody simply recreated this mural on one of your concrete box's around town.

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Avatar for user 'DanSoderberg'

DanSoderberg | December 13, 2011 at 10:38 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

@ Crybaby. Falls flat? Let me explain it again. Personal taste or yours or anyone's personal standard for "awesome" does not figure into any criterion for historic designation. To see what those standards are simply go to the City's Website under historic resources, it will explain the standards in great detail the. Please study the City's register of historic sites. Historic landmarks can be as opulent as the Balboa Theatre or as utilitarian as a basic warehouse building near Petco Park, or as simple the Windansea surfer hut. Signs are on the register too. Frank the Trainman on Park Boulevard. Jimmy Wong's Golden Dragon on Universtity Avenue.

You can read Preservation Brief #25 issue by the Keeper of the National Register issued through the Secretary of the Interior to educate yourself on how a sign such as the Caliente Mural would have historic significance.

From there inform yourself about the history surrounding the sign, why and how it represents the cultural and economic development in San Diego's History. "The Agua Caliente Story" by David J. Beltran is a good place to start. The California Room of the San Diego Public Library has excellent resources about the mid century period of San Diego history, which the sign represents. I have already provided a small selection of historic points in my earlier comments.

But that aside, you miss one very crucial point. Not everyone has the time or energy to carefully study these issues and do research as a lot of us do. That's just one reason why we have a Historic Resources Board at city level and The State Historical Resources Commission in Sacramento. These positions are filled by individuals with advance degrees or professional experience in a wide variety of disciplines. Architecture, design, history, archeology, education, etc... who are trained to analyze history.

Let the process work the way it is supposed to. Let them weigh in to separate fact from fiction. To look beyond popular taste or narrow understanding. The circumventing of process, as is the case with the Caliente Mural, can not be justified whether you personally see the merits of the discussion or not. And if you truly feel strongly about arguing against the designation, use your right to comment for the Public Record at City Hall when HRB meets. But let the process work as it is mandated to do!

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Avatar for user 'DonWood'

DonWood | December 14, 2011 at 2:37 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

It's Ironic that the mayor gives the state of the city speech every year in a beautifully restored old downtown theater, while the city allows another great old downtown theater rot away within view of city hall. If a beer company wants good PR, they should agree to help restore the California Theater. They can have ads in the restored building and sell beer to the theater goers.
The city has a pretty strict sign ordinances, and I don't think the proposed new advertising sign being proposed complies with it.

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Avatar for user 'gvgerak'

gvgerak | December 15, 2011 at 7:32 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

That sign is part of San Diego's history. My grandparents and family members regularly drove to Tijuana to visit the races. My grandmother has told me stories of how elegant the Casino was. The Caliente 5-10 is legendary in San Diego's history. It would be a shame to paint over this particular sign for what - BRANDING a beer? How awful. Let them have their sign, but as originally proposed with a vinyl over the original to leave the Caliente sign as is.

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Avatar for user 'Enrique Limón'

Enrique Limón | December 15, 2011 at 9:33 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Strenght in numbers! Please sign the online petition to save the historic Caliente mural:

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Avatar for user 'pcs'

pcs | December 17, 2011 at 8:45 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

I can't really get worked up about the sign; have lived here 40 years and it never seemed worth preserving to me.

What does get me worked up in a major way is how the California Theatre building is deteriorating. The term "crying shame" comes to mind. If you haven't walked around this building to see San Diego's Shame, you should.

I know the present owners probably don't have an income stream from the building at all. Maybe income from putting a banner advertizing beer on the side might at least start to give them a little money which might possibly help provide an income stream to fix this building up.

That to me is the true historical preservation issue. Why put any energy into preserving a painted sign when the building itself looks like it's falling down?

Priorities, people!

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Avatar for user 'Satariel'

Satariel | December 19, 2011 at 2:50 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

This entire building has been a dangerous eyesore for over 10 years. The entire thing should be torn down and the area redeveloped. It has been sitting abandoned, making the entire area look trashy. The next big earthquake should bring the whole thing down anyway, so maybe we won't have to see it there much longer.

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Avatar for user 'Enrique Limón'

Enrique Limón | December 28, 2011 at 1:07 p.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

The 'Save the Historic Caliente Mural' petition is still going strong. Let's do everything we can to save it by signing and sharing it:

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Avatar for user 'MGTRRZ'

MGTRRZ | April 10, 2012 at 7:56 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Historical Landmarks are a Vital Part of History and of Tremendous Importance for the Community in which they Exist...Let Us do Everything possible to Preserve this Incredibly Wonderful Historical LANDMARK... Thank You...Please Sign Petition;

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