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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

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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