Mrs. Fényes and the Movies (Part 2 of 4): The Mission Theater

what the Mission Theater marquee might have looked like

Clune’s Broadway Theater, built by William (Billy) Clune on Eva Fényes’ property at 528 South Broadway in Los Angeles, opened in October 1910. Just months later, in March of 1911, Clune’s Pasadena Theater opened at 61 West Colorado Street. While Eva did not own this Pasadena property, her successful business venture with Billy Clune might have encouraged his interest in building a motion picture house in her community. Clune’s Pasadena Theater is thought to be one of Pasadena’s first motion picture houses. By the early 1920s there were several movie houses in Pasadena. Warner’s Photoplay and the Strand opened in 1914, the Florence in 1918, and Jensen’s Raymond in 1921. (1) With one successful theater in Los Angeles, Eva must have felt confident that she could eventually accomplish the same in Pasadena. The effort, however, would take a number of years.

In the meantime, Eva remained open to other investment opportunities.  In 1904 she had acquired three adjacent Pasadena lots:  Dr. Macomber’s house on East Colorado Street, the empty lot east of it, and the parcel immediately behind with access to Green Street.  Dr. Macomber’s house was converted into a boarding house called the Lenox Hotel, and on the vacant property Eva built a bungalow court with one ten-room bungalow and six smaller bungalows.  She called this residential complex Cabrillo Place. (2) Today this stretch of land is known as the Garfield Promenade, and it extends from Colorado Boulevard at Garfield Street, through the Paseo Colorado, to Green Street across from the Civic Auditorium.  

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1910
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1910, portion of Sheet 161. Accessed through Pasadena Public Library’s online database.

In Eva’s day, this area of the city was gradually becoming less residential and more commercial, and in 1910 she hired the Richard-Neustadt Construction Company to design eight shops for the site. The Lenox Hotel was demolished, the larger bungalow was relocated on the same property, and eight shops were built along Colorado Street.

Then, in December of 1921, Eva moved closer to fulfilling her dream. She and her husband Dr. Adalbert Fényes were approached by Henry Warner, a local theater impresario. Through the Pasadena firm of J .H. Woodworth & Son, a real estate, insurance, design, and building company, Mr. Warner submitted his plans for a movie theater to be built at Cabrillo Place. Initially the theater was going to be located “…directly back of the stores” on Colorado Street, but Dr. and Mrs. Fényes were concerned that this would limit future development of the property. They wanted to erect a large commercial building in addition to the movie theater. 

So Mr. Warner came up with an alternate plan which included a site map incorporating this new proposal. (3)

The theater (yellow area) would be placed along the eastern boundary of the lot in place of three small bungalows. Two of those bungalows, #1 and #2 on the site map (within the yellow area), would be relocated north of the larger bungalow on the west side of the property (blue area). The new theater would incorporate one of the existing shops (green area). Shops are represented by the eight long rectangles set between Boadway's and Felix Furs. Twenty feet of new construction would connect this older building to the new one, with the area becoming the theater's entrance and foyer (pink area). (4)

Site Map. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

Mr. Edward Graham of J. H. Woodworth & Son assured Eva that the new plan would allow for a store , “…as large as Boadway’s to be built the full length of the lot…” and would still leave room for a smaller shop to the left of the Colorado Street theater entrance. Or, if Eva wanted to build along Colorado Street between Boadway’s and the new theater, she could, “…put in a building as large as the Chamber of Commerce Building, which is the largest building in Pasadena…” (5)

The plans included detailed interior drawings. The building would be 150 feet long by 53 feet wide on the outside, making it 147 feet by 50 feet inside. Seating would be in tiers. The ceiling height would vary, from 18 feet in the rear to 25 feet in the front. A “…5 foot imitation stage with proscenium opening…” would be located at the front of the auditorium. A small ten by fourteen foot balcony at the back of the auditorium would contain the “motion picture room” in the center with a stairway for access. (6) Two secluded balconies would be placed on either side of the motion picture room, with balustrades separating them from the main theater for “private observation purposes.” No doubt Eva Fényes would have appreciated this amenity. (7)

Mission Theatre interior (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)
Theater interior. Top portion shows side view of Motion Picture Room and Private Seating at the rear of the auditorium. Overhead view shows location of orchestra pit and stage at the front. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

It was to be named The Mission Theatre and décor and fittings were to be in the Spanish Revival style.

Detail of rear of Mission Theatre. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)
Detail of rear of theater. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

The ceiling was to be evocative of “…heavy beamed eccentric Spanish mission in the rough…” Ambient lighting would come from ten “…immense rope suspended plaster bowls…” with dimmers. Faux windows would line the room, five on each side, each with an iron balcony at the bottom for flowers and vines. Landscape scenes painted on specially treated muslin would be set into the window frames and back-lit to resemble a “California Mission landscape.” Mood lighting suggestive of sunrise, high noon, and dusk would be controlled by dimmers from the projection room.

Detail of windows and lighting of Mission Theatre. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)
Detail of windows and lighting. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

Plans also included fifty aisle lights at the ends of rows, exit lights, lights for the organ, lavatory lights, as well as lights for the foyer, lobby, box office, and marquee. Final details included a modern heating and ventilation system (Warner’s Photoplay was well known for its air conditioning). There would be two lavatories:  one for men and one for ladies. There was space for a private office for the manager, as well as a janitor’s closet. According to Mr. Graham the “…character and construction of the building will be of the very best.” (8)

Warner’s Photoplay torch (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)
Warner’s Photoplay letterhead featuring the Warner torch. The torch is also represented on the Mission Theater marquee drawing. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

Marquee, Foyer, and Lobby of Mission Theatre (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)
Marquee, Foyer, and Lobby. Upper portion shows side elevation. The lower portion represents the overhead perspective. (Fényes Collection, FCP.17.3)

Edward Graham also assured Eva that this theater would be a good investment for two reasons. First of all, Henry Warner, owner/manager of Warner’s Photoplay at 28 East Colorado, would manage The Mission Theatre. Mr. Warner was known for his experience, integrity, and his connections with movie distributors. (9) The Motion Picture Board regulated when motion pictures were released to the public. Certain theaters operated as “first run picture houses,” meaning that they screened pictures when they were first released. (10) The Mission Theatre would be one of these first run houses, and that fact would be crucial in attracting and maintaining its audience. Mr. Warner had “…the assurance of some of the best distributors and their encouragement and advice to start a theater here.” (11) Secondly, The Mission Theatre would be financially sound. Mr. Warner had agreed to install all interior furniture and fixtures at his own expense. This represented $15,000 to $20,000 that Eva would not have to spend. Edward Graham thought that Eva should be able to get approximately $6,000 in rent for the space – an amount which would equal 20% of the construction cost. This rent would have been enough to cover maintenance expenses, as well as payment of interest on the construction loan. The mortgage would have been paid off within ten years. (12)

But Eva Fényes never built The Mission Theatre. In 1922, George Ellery Hale (the famous astronomer) went before the Pasadena City Council with his City Beautiful plan. The Chicago firm of Bennett, Parsons and Frost created a proposal for Pasadena’s Civic Center. Along Garfield Avenue they placed the Library facing south at Walnut Street, the City Hall facing west at Holly Street, and the Civic Auditorium facing north at Green Street. This plan would require extending Garfield from Colorado Street to Green Street, and Cabrillo Place fell directly within this Garfield Avenue extension. In June of 1923 a $3.5 million bond was passed to finance the construction of the three landmark buildings. (13) Eva’s plans for Cabrillo Place were never realized. But, once again, Eva had sensed the potential. Today’s Arclight Cinemas Pasadena is located one block east of the old Cabrillo Place and does a thriving business. [Editor's Note: This article was originally written and published years prior to the theater's temporary closure due to COVID-19.]

- Sheryl Peters

This article was originally published on the Hometown Pasadena website in 2013. Sheryl Peters is a former PMH docent, researcher, and educator.  

Many thanks to Julie Stires, Project Archivist at Pasadena Museum of History, for her research and editorial work.

(1) Matt Hormann, “Ghost Theaters of Colorado Boulevard, Part 1,” Hometown Pasadena, 29 July, 2011. Matt Hormann, “Ghost Theaters of Colorado Boulevard, Part 2,” Hometown Pasadena, 22 August, 2011.

(2) Julie Stires, “When Garfield Promenade Was Cabrillo Place,” Hometown Pasadena, 25 March 2013.

(3) Edward Graham to Adalbert Fényes, 8 December 1921. Fényes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, Box 17, Folder 3 (FCP.17.3), PMH Archives.

(4) Specifications written on Warner’s Photoplay letterhead. FCP.17.3, PMH Archives.

(5) Op. Cit. Edward Graham to Adalbert Fényes.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Op. Cit. Specifications written on Warner’s Photoplay letterhead.

(8) Op. Cit. Edward Graham to Adalbert Fényes.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Oscar L. Horn to W. W. Smith, 27 March 1936.  FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(11) Op. Cit. Edward Graham to Adalbert Fényes.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ann Scheid, “Pasadena’s Civic Center:  A Grand Vision Realized, Despoiled, and Revived,” Southern California Quarterly, Winter 2009-2010, Vol. 91, No. 4, pp 389-394.