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The Village Theatre – Part 1

by John Neiuber

Salt and pepper.  Bread and butter. Hugs and kisses. When we consider things that go together, not many would disagree with movies and popcorn.  It wasn’t always that way.  In the 1920s, theaters were adorned with ornate architectural elements and were referred to as movie palaces where owners attempted to create a first-rate atmosphere.  Popcorn was sold from a cart—a street food.  Operators contended the messy nature of the snack would ruin a theater’s furnishings. 

Popcorn vendors soon realized that there was money to be had if they set-up outside of a theater.  Some theater owners resisted and banned popcorn from their venue, but along came the Great Depression and the cheap treat was the perfect match for the luxury of the movies. Today, the price of popcorn and a drink at the movies often exceeds the price of admission!

Movie theaters are opening back up after the long hiatus caused by the pandemic.  Our own local theater, the Laemmle is open and offering patrons the opportunity to again form that perfect pairing of popcorn and a movie.  The Laemmle has been a welcomed addition to the Village.  It shows first run movies but, in keeping with the Laemmle art house traditions, it offers independent films, short films and documentaries as well.

Before the Laemmle came to town, there was another theater, whose intention it was to offer a different fare also. The Village Theatre was located on the southwest corner of Bonita and Harvard. The building today, better known as Harvard Square, has been adaptively reused to house shops and a restaurant.  Designed by prominent Los Angeles architect, Sumner Spaulding, he was also well known for his other works, including the Los Aneles Civic Center, silent-film star Harold Lloyd’s estate Green Acres, the Avalon Theatre on Santa Catalina Island, and locally for much of the north campus of Pomona College.

The Village Theatre was constructed of brick and stucco and had a cutting-edge modern design for the time that saw the lobby and shops jut out from the main structure with a sleek and uninterrupted roof line.  The undersized brick pillars and bench wall around the patio were also part of the character defining features of the building.

The theater had a grand opening with much fanfare on January 17, 1940.  The Courier carried a full page pictorial of the festivities on January 19 under the heading, Gala Opening Night at Village Theatre in Pictures.  The owner, A.L. Reeves, was a well-known Pomona Valley resident of 25 years who had recently moved to Claremont.  He selected Spaulding who had shared with Reeves a prospective development plan for a modern civic and business center in the Village.

Spaulding proposed wider streets with adequate parking which appealed to Reeves.  According to the opening night program, “The deciding factor which caused him [Reeves) to erect a distinctive theatre building was that it would be run as an independent show house catering to a cultured public under an unusual policy and with individual management.”  He called his theater a “modern monument to entertainment” with the slogan “Glorifying the World’s Cinema.”

Though Reeves used a Los Angeles architect, he enlisted the services of local contractors W.P. & C.T. Stover to build the theatre.  Willard Stover was a resident of Ontario.  He was well known in the community and was a member of many civic organizations, most notably the Rotary Club.  Clarence Stover was a resident of Claremont.  He was a member of the Kiwanis Club, a director of the El Camino Citrus Association and a director of the Claremont Improvement Company.

Clarence was a graduate of Pomona College and after graduation worked for the George McKenna ranches and groves and later for the Pomona Pump Company, along with his brother, where they gained building experience.  In 1929 he formed the Stover Company with his brother.  The company became one of the largest and most successful to ever operate in the Pomona Valley.

Among their projects, in addition to single residences and entire housing tracts, was the Progress-Bulletin building in Pomona, Clark, Frary and Mudd Halls at Pomona College, the Pomona College Student Union Building and several buildings on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, including the grandstand and the Fine Arts Building.  Most notable of their residences was the McKenna House at 500 West 11th Street and the Garner House in Memorial Park.  He was the builder of Claremont High School (The Old School House), the Courier Building (Press Restaurant) and most of Harvard Avenue between First and Second Streets.

Reeves also recruited a manager who shared his vision for the theatre.  Brought to Claremont in January of 1939, Richard L. Bare worked with the architect and builder and helped guide the concept through construction.  Born in Turlock, California, he attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he directed a notable student film, The Oval Portrait, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story which earned him the Paul Muni Award of 1934.

Bare arrived in Claremont with almost ten years of experience, having owned or managed five film theatres.  In his early twenties he managed the Community Playhouse in Carmel and oversaw the conversion of the theatre into a motion picture house for the exhibition of independent film called The Filmarte.  The theatre earned him country-wide attention for the theatre’s individuality.  He promoted the policy slogan “Productions of merit regardless of age or origin,” which he used to guide the management of the Village Theatre.

After leaving the Village Theatre, Bare became a director, producer and screenwriter for television shows and short films.  He wrote and directed the Joe McDoakes series of short films for Warner Brothers.  He directed seven classic The Twilight Zone episodes and directed every episode of the CBS television series Green Acres.  He also directed feature films, including Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend and Wicked, Wicked.  He wrote two books on directing, including Confessions of a Hollywood Director.

To be continued.


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