VINTAGE CINEMAS VISTA THEATRE CINEMA NIRVANA! Los Feliz - East Hollywood - Los Angeles
One of LA's best moviegoing secrets is a hidden treasure in a well-kept but unassuming building. On the former site of the huge Babylon set from D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic INTOLERANCE, the Vista Theatre is a rare artifact of classic Hollywood: a thriving, single screen neighborhood theatre, run with exceptional care, and held in exceptionally high regard by savvy and discerning patrons.
(When these pictures were taken, the theatre's exterior was an organic clay-coral color, which was deliberately enhanced for this layout. The building is now a muted milk-chocolate brown, which contrasts nicely with the new forest green awnings. The fact that the Vista has been repainted again says a lot about the owners, and their constant, admirable efforts to keep this 90 year-old theatre building fresh.)
There is a little controversy as to the Vista's location. Standing at the "five corners" intersection of Hollywood Blvd, Sunset Blvd, Sunset Drive, Virgil Ave and Hillhurst Ave, the Vista is listed as being in Los Feliz, but some locals will tell you "even the Los Feliz Theatre isn't in Los Feliz!" They say it's East Hollywood, and in fact, old pictures of the theatre do show the words "VISTA, EAST HOLLYWOOD" in neon on the rooftop sign. The Vista's phone recording says the theatre is located on Sunset Boulevard, yet maps and street signs show it clearly on Sunset Drive. Sunset Drive ends in front of the theatre, while Sunset Boulevard continues past it. All technicalities aside, it's easy to find. Right where Hollywood meets Sunset.
Another contradiction here is the Spanish revival style exterior, contrasting the Egyptian theme within. The Vista's somewhat incongruous architecture is said to have been inspired by the opening of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, and the discovery of King Tut's tomb. Both events took place in 1922 to 1923, while the Vista was being built. It's been said that the decision to go Egyptian was made after the theatre's exterior was already finished. There was a definite trend of Egyptian inspired theatres during that era. Several were built around Los Angeles, but few survive today. Ironically, Grauman's Egyptian now totally pales in comparison to the Vista. In fact, this theatre has attributes not found in most other movie venues today.
People grasping for words to describe the Vista's decor have called it "Camp" (defined as exaggerated for comic effect) and "Kitsch" (cheap, garish, in bad taste), but all evidence here is to the contrary. There is nothing cheap about the Vista, and the Egyptian theme is presented with tasteful drama and style. The decor is complementary, not over-the-top, and theatre feels unassumingly classy, like a comfortable but top-notch neighborhood theatre. The Vista is first rate all the way, thanks to the uncommonly high standards of its proprietor and staff...
Lance Alspaugh, owner/partner/director of Vintage Cinemas (formerly Five Star Theatres) inc, is one of the rare people in movie exhibition today, who truly understands showmanship, and insists on providing top quality. When Five Star acquired the property in 1993, the Vista was a dilapidated dive with a checkered past. Mr. Alspaugh was planning extensive improvements when he was approached by designer Ronald Wright, who proposed a complete and thorough renovation/restoration. "The process started in 1997 and was completed in 2000" Alspaugh said.
It cost nearly a million dollars, (probably about $1.5M today) and the results are clearly visible everywhere patrons look. Improvements include a new Harkness 15' x 35' high-gain screen, top-of-the-line projection (with a 3000 watt Xenon lamp run at full capacity) a digital sound system (with 28 JBL speakers), new carpeting, attractive gray speckled auditorium flooring, and new plush red velour curtains.
"Restoring the Vista was accomplished out of an enormous team effort," said Mr. Alspaugh. "An entire floor-to-ceiling cosmetic renovation was done on the interior and exterior. The largest expense was earthquake retrofitting, which affected the look of the interior. Huge metal braces have been cloaked and are now a part of the decor. The Egyptian heads inside were meticulously restored, one color at a time, and took almost a year to finish" Considering the state it was in, had Alspaugh and Co. not acquired the Vista, this Hollywood landmark would probably not be standing today.
One of the things patrons mention most about the Vista is "they took out every other row of seats!" Actually, during the renovation, all the seats were removed, the original floor was leveled off between every other row, covered with fresh vinyl, and new seats were placed in rows up to 5.5 feet apart. This unique arrangement provides an unheard of amount of legroom. The rows get closer together toward the screen, but there is still ample space between them. The theatre's seating capacity has been reduced from 800 to a comfortable 392.
Vintage photos of the Vista reveal not a hint of Egyptian decor outside, and there was no real boxoffice when Five Star took over, so Ronald Wright designed a striking new one, based on the themed elements inside. The new boxoffice, along with some other enhancements, now introduces the Egyptian theme right out front. The etched glass in the theatre's entrance doors is just another example of money spent for quality.
The Vista building includes upstairs office space (once used by famous B-movie schlockmeister Ed Wood) and two storefronts. One is currently being repurposed from a copy store, the other is an attractive, inviting cafe.
The Vista cafe serves a nice variety of cakes, cookies and pastries, along with coffees, smoothies and sodas. Decorations include a waterfall wall, and projections on curved screens overhead. The cafe is a perfect place to grab a snack, relax and chat before or after a movie. There is also free Wi-Fi wireless internet connection available. Visa and Mastercard are accepted here.
Often a new movie is booked simultaneously at the Vista Theatre and the ArcLight/Cinerama Dome, giving local patrons an interesting choice. Which venue provides the best overall moviegoing experience? Which has the best presentation, brightest picture, and most effective sound system? Which has the best value, nicest staff, coolest atmosphere, and a comfortable adjacent cafe? For enlightened moviegoers, the choice is clear...
"It's my favorite theatre in LA."
"It's the last theatre in LA worth waiting in line for."
"This is the closest thing to the movie experience you used to get in the 70's and 80's."
"My favorite Vista moment: taking my girlfriend there for the first time, and her saying "I never want to go to a movie anywhere else."
"A superb screen, great prices, dynamic sound, patrons who understand that a theatre is different than a living room, and a staff that cares! Cares to the point that every now and then the manager actually dresses up in costumes apropos to the movie!"
"Epic" Manager Victor Martinez next to a poster marking his 20 years with the company.
"In my humble opinion, this is one of the most PERFECT theatres in all of Los Angeles. It is beautiful, historic (built in 1923) and the sound/picture quality is fantastic!!!"
"The Vista Theatre is why those big-ass theatres like the ArcLight suck. Ambience."
"The line on an opening weekend can be an experience all it's own."
"This is what going to the movies is supposed to be like."
"What a GREAT theatre!"
- Just a few of the many raves posted on various websites by patrons of the Vista Theatre.
Several years after the renovation, The Vista still has a patina of freshness throughout, due to constant and meticulous maintenance. Mr. Alspaugh is quick to credit his conscientious staff, many of whom have been with him for years. The theatre crew is a vital element in the Vista's success. It is obvious that they enjoy working here, and have a real sense of pride about the place. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
In 2010, Mr. Alspaugh changed the name of his company to Vintage Cinemas, inc. We see this as an indication that he intends to cultivate a brand of traditional movie theatres like the Vista. We look forward to seeing the results of his company's growth.
VC's current project is an exciting makeover of the Village Theatre in Coronado, near San Diego. It's interesting to be aware of a new theatre project throughout its development, and so many good ideas have gone into this one that we regret Coronado is such a long trip from Hollywood.
Images & Text: TJ Edwards © 2008
CINEMA REVIEW by GARAN GREY
7/17/2009: This theatre provides a superior moviegoing experience. The Vista's prices are better than the nearest pretentious multiplex, as is their generously packed popcorn, which is actually hot when you get it. You get one free refill with the large popcorn. (I wish that was also true with the large soda, as it is in other cinemas) The place still feels brand-new throughout, and has real showmanship: The curtains opened to a full picture, not a blank screen, the movie was preceded by a vintage cartoon, and amusing promos for the snack bar. Bright, clear picture, and sound quality is very good. This theatre gets an amazingly civilized audience, who laugh when its appropriate, but you don't get incessant chatter or other noise, perhaps because there is so much space between your row and the ones in front and behind you. The widely spaced rows also improve sightlines. The Vista truly provides a superior moviegoing experience in most every way, for a reasonable price. I wish more theatres were like this one. Update 2010: Still a great place. Fresh & Comfortable, Five Stars: our highest rating. UpdateFall 2012: The Vista now has new, more comfortable seats and digital projection.
OUR HIGHEST RATING: FIVE STARS
COMING: Details of The Vista Theatre's history, Its forecourt hand and footprints.
Vintage Cinemas' VISTA THEATRE 4473 Sunset Drive at Hollywood Blvd. LA (323) 660-6639
The Vista Theatre is just 3 blocks East of the Vermont/Sunset Metro station.
General Admission: $9.50. Children 4-12 and Seniors over 62: $5.50. Children under 4 are not admitted. Bargain Matinees before 6pm: $6.50. Credit or ATM cards are now accepted at the Boxoffice and Concession. Not surprisingly, the Vista often fills up or sells out, so many patrons arrive early for the best choice of seats.