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Arts & Culture

Historic Capri Theater Helped Usher In Modernism

The Capri theatre, formerly on Park Boulevard in San Diego.  Photo by Julius Shulman.
The Capri theatre, formerly on Park Boulevard in San Diego. Photo by Julius Shulman.

There's something tremendous about old movie theaters. If some of San Diego's bygone cinemas, like The Roxy, The Guild, The Fine Arts, bring back fond memories, or if you've ever caught the midnight show of "Quadrophenia" or saw "Harold and Maude"with "The King of Hearts" as a double-bill, then you know what I mean.

Aside from the Ken and the La Paloma (thank god!), must all movie theaters involve a trip to the mall? It wasn't always this way, and San Diego's own Park Boulevard was home to one of the city's first mid-century modern theaters, known as The Capri. Under new (and unconventional) ownership during the mid-1950s, the Capri also became an unlikely outpost of San Diego modernism. In fact, the Capri became a showcase for some of San Diego’s best artists.

The building’s facade looked like a bit like a Mondrian painting. An “ultra-modern” bronze sculpture hung from the 17-foot high lobby ceiling and there were Miró-inspired mosaics in the bathrooms. The main wall of the lobby became a de facto gallery, displaying carefully selected work by local artists.

The credit, or blame, for turning the theater into a bastion of Modernism falls upon its owner Burton Jones, aided and abetted by a writer named James Britton.

Jones, who owned theaters elsewhere in San Diego and Los Angeles, purchased the 1926 Egyptian Theater, the centerpiece of an exotic stretch of Egyptian Revival buildings along Park Boulevard just south of University, and promptly gutted it. Modernists could be ruthless in their efforts to bring things up to date and historic preservation issues did not keep them up at night.

Jones “completely rebuilt” the building “inside and out” according to a July, 1954 article in the San Diego Union, accompanied by a photo of the stocky Jones posing over a model of his “modernistic” theater. There are rumors that San Diego modern architect Lloyd Ruocco was involved with the Capri project, but Frank Gruys, AIA (of Beverly Hills) is credited with the design.

Along with new improvements like “draftless” air conditioning and an 800 square foot screen, much was made of the bronze sculpture commissioned for the lobby from Los Angeles sculptor Bernard Rosenthal.

Rosenthal (known as Tony Rosenthal after 1961) received a lot of architectural commissions through his association with Charles & Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and John Entenza. He gradually became synonymous with public art in the 1960s, exhibiting at major museums and galleries around the world until his death last July. His sculpture for the Capri was designed to “throw shadow patterns against the lobby walls."

The building and Rosenthal sculpture may have been unconventional for the time, but so was owner Burton Jones. He went out on a limb when he decided to have James Britton, an outspoken architecture critic, select and install art exhibitions in his lobby.

Britton arrived here in 1948, and soon began writing a column for Point Newsweekly called "Art of the City." In October of 1954, he wrote about events at the new Capri Theater and praised Jones’ “policy to show only top quality pictures aimed at discriminating audiences.” At the same time, Britton warned that this formula might not succeed in San Diego. “And the town will be the poorer culturally. San Diego will have demonstrated once more that it offers no easy hospitality to men of high artistic conscience.”

The Capri persevered. Two years later, Britton (who became an associate editor at San Diego and Point) was busy curating regular art exhibits in the lobby, featuring painters such as William Munson, Fred Hocks, Sheldon Kirby, Linda Lewis, Fred Holle and many others.

Holle was an aspiring young painter whose art studies were interrupted by four years in the Navy. Soon after being discharged in 1956, Holle and his wife went to see “Lust for Life” at the Capri, where they also saw “paintings by an artist named Sheldon Kirby. The pitch was that Kirby had learned from van Gogh. The paintings were dazzling! Powerful color coupled with strong execution. After seeing the movie coupled with Sheldon’s painting, I couldn’t wait to get home and try to pump some life into my own neglected ‘daubings.’”

In 1958, Holle’s own work was shown at the Capri. “It was a real treat, especially since I first experienced that venue when I was a nonentity, a half-formed art hopeful. Britton took notice of my work and was very encouraging to me (and others) in his critiques in SD magazine.”

Another young artist that Britton encouraged was James Hubbell. The individualistic sculptor, painter and architectural designer defies categorization and is now one of San Diego’s best-loved artists. Hubbell’s creative community activism and nature-based designs have been recognized around the world.

It might surprise Hubbell fans to know that his first solo exhibition in San Diego took place at the Capri!

Following his return from two years at Cranbrook Academy of Art, the young sculptor’s 1956 Capri exhibition featured architectural panels of plastic with fused glass. For one piece, Hubbell used “great crude chunks of colored glass broken off the edges of pouring crucibles, setting them in a bed of white plaster.” A grid-like structure suggestive of the building’s exterior held the colorful architectural panels upright and also left room for displaying smaller sculptural pieces. It was an eye-catching lobby installation, prompting Britton to declare that it would “win converts to ‘modern art.’”

Still, you can’t please everyone. In his "Art in the City" column, Britton described an elderly patron whose offhand critique of Hubbell’s work - “It stinks!” - was delivered with such force that it knocked her off balance, “but she regained enough equilibrium to teeter back outdoors into the unstudied-but familiar and therefore comforting-ugliness which is the average city street.”

Then there is the case of Marjorie (Marj) Hyde, another young artist who helped shape the San Diego mid-century art scene. Hyde received national attention in 1956 when one of her award-winning works, a mosaic, toured the nation with an exhibition called, “Craftsmanship In A Changing World,” put on by the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.

However here in San Diego, Hyde's work caused a stir. The same year of the traveling exhibit, a group of Hyde’s “innocent, elegant” paintings were hung in one of Lloyd Ruocco’s buildings, the Security Trust and Savings Bank in Hillcrest, where they were supposed to remain for a month.

Instead, the paintings came down after just two days, having provoked many complaints, including the following: “If my kid painted pictures like those, I’d give him a beating.”

Burton Jones and his Capri Theater came to the rescue. Britton’s June, 1956, Art of the City column documented the whole affair while announcing that Hyde's paintings were being shown at the Capri, where “Burton Jones, the outstanding San Diego businessman-connoisseur, always has ‘modern’ art on view.”

Marj Hyde was a devoted artist and teacher; she became the founding head of the Department of Art at Grossmont College, where the Hyde Gallery is named in her honor.

Britton’s writing is an invaluable, however skewed, record of Modernism in San Diego and while his art shows at the Capri lasted for only two or three years, they are preserved in his "Art of the City" column and bring the challenges and champions of San Diego’s modern community into sharp focus.

As for the Capri, its new look resulted in an unusual domino effect. Britton wrote in 1958 that “the Capri Theater made modern architecture popular in San Diego.”

After a fire gutted the nearby Garden of Allah restaurant, the owners asked San Diego modern architect Richard Wheeler to replace it with a Mondrian-inspired building. They called their new enterprise The Flame and Wheeler is said to have designed three more similar buildings in the area in quick succession - creating the city’s only Egyptian/Mondrianesque neighborhood!

The 1950s proved to be the Capri’s heyday. By the mid-1970s, it had succumbed to screening “porno splits” such as “The Devil in Miss Jones” and “Deep Throat.” Landmark Theaters tried to revitalize the run-down space in 1987 as an art house theater (the chain also operated the Ken, the Guild and the Cove at the time) and re-named it the Park.

But in disappointing 21st Century fashion, the entire corner at Park and University was transformed in 2005 into a towering mixed-use, 80-unit condominium development called “The Egyptian.” A prime example of what D.A. Kolodenkorecently called “…a major San Diego trend: We like to wreck things and then replace them with new things that celebrate, pay lip service to or otherwise acknowledge the things they replaced.”

Dave Hampton is a mid-century art and design enthusiast, collector, and co-founder of the mid-century art collective Objects USA.

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