Mrs. Fenyes and the Movies (Part 4 of 4): The Egyptian becomes the Uptown Theater

Pasadena Star News_25 November 1936_p14

When Warner’s Egyptian Theater closed its doors in 1935, Henry Warner, one time owner and then manager of the theater, was out of a job. Warner’s career in the movie business had begun in 1906, and he had personally witnessed its growth into an established, lucrative industry.  He had seen nickelodeons give way to movie houses and ten minute shorts become complex, multi-reel epics. He saw the rise of the studios and the creation of movie stars. He marked the end of the silent film era and struggled with the advent of “talkies.” Henry Warner had been bringing the movies to Pasadena since 1914 when Warner’s Photoplay opened on Colorado Street. But the early 1930s had not been kind to him. East Pasadena’s Egyptian Theater, once considered the epitome of what a moving picture house should be, had fallen from a first run to a fourth run house with a corresponding decline in attendance. Pacific Coast Theaters, a film distribution group which had purchased Henry Warner’s lease to the theater, made the decision to shut it down.  In 1936, Warner hired the law firm of Oscar L. Horn to negotiate a new lease for the Egyptian Theater with Leonora Curtin, Eva Fenyes’ daughter and heir, who had owned the theater since Eva’s death in February of 1930. (1)

Surviving detail of the rayed sun originally placed above the proscenium arch of Warner’s Egyptian Theater, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon, PSN-Theaters)
Surviving detail of the rayed sun originally placed above the proscenium arch of Warner’s Egyptian Theater, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon, Staff Photographer, Pasadena Star News; PSN-Theaters)

Surviving detail of painted Egyptian motifs from Warner’s Egyptian Theater, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon; PSN-Theaters)
Surviving detail of painted Egyptian motifs from Warner’s Egyptian Theater, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon, Staff Photographer, Pasadena Star News; PSN-Theaters)

Henry Warner must have felt an acute sense of failure and frustration at the fate of his theater. As Oscar Horn pointed out, he had devoted his entire professional life to the movies in one capacity or other. At one point, receipts for the Egyptian Theater were routinely $1,200 a week, and Warner was confident that this could happen again. No one in Pasadena was better qualified to oversee the restoration of the Egyptian. Based on his recent experiences, Warner did not feel that movies alone would draw audiences to this section of Pasadena, so he proposed a return to the model of the 1920s which combined live entertainment with moving pictures. Under this format, he was confident that the Egyptian could once more become a first run house. (2)

But in order to make money Leonora would first have to spend some. According to the attorney, certain structural improvements were needed. The depth of the stage had to be increased from ten to twenty feet. New fire exits were required, and the dressing rooms under the stage posed a fire hazard. The shops adjacent to the theater were currently empty. The theater’s success was vital to their economic well-being. The suggested improvements would not only benefit the theater but would enhance the over-all value of the property, thereby attracting new tenants to those stores. Warner declared that he would be proud to restore the fortunes of the Egyptian, “…under a proper lease arrangement with the trust --- a long term lease, to justify the expense of renovation.” (3) In closing, Mr. Horn added a gentle reminder that Henry Warner was the current owner of all equipment and furnishings inside of the theater. Any new tenant must either purchase them from him or install new ones.

While we do not have the formal response of the Trust to this proposal, we do know that they were actively pursuing others for the lease at 2316 East Colorado. Leonora was in the process of negotiating with Louis B. Metzger, General Manager for Universal Pictures. He and his uncle, Gus Metzger, managed various theaters throughout California. In 1931 they acquired the Spreckles Theater in San Diego and began to operate the Spreckles solely as a movie house (without live stage shows) featuring first run films. Notes in the file indicate that the Metzgers owned (or had owned) the Roxy and Arcade Theaters (located near the Cameo Theater in Los Angeles) as well as the Fairfax, Markey, and the Carmel Forum. Gus Metzger was interested in acquiring the lease for the Egyptian Theater. (4)

The Metzgers realized that the new theater would open in the winter, while film booking season began in July and August. It was therefore highly unlikely that the theater could start as a first run house. Instead, they proposed to open as a third or fourth run house and gradually move into second run pictures. Gus Metzger did not want any of Mr. Warner’s equipment because it was obsolete. “A Silent Picture Screen will not do for Sound.” (5) It is obvious that Henry Warner’s ideas were no longer keeping up with the rapidly evolving motion picture industry. He seemed frozen in the era of silent films and vaudeville houses and was having difficulty transitioning to “talkies.” Warner was not alone. Sound had a great impact on the way movies were made and shown. There were numerous technological advances in microphones, cameras, screens, projectors, and audio systems. Those who did not adapt went out of business.

As the negotiations progressed, things began to get personal. Gus Metzger offered a possible explanation as to the reason Warner’s Egyptian had failed. He wrote, “…the tenant was not liked by film exchanges, and it was impossible for him to obtain good pictures….” (6) Perhaps Henry Warner felt compelled to defend his reputation, because the file contains the cryptic notation, “Tales Warner is telling about the Theater.” Gus Metzger got the last word, however. He concluded, “[You] may rest assured that [I] will not sublease to Warner.” (7) 

On May 9, 1936 Henry Warner submitted a new bid for the theater. He wrote an impassioned letter to Leonora Curtin acknowledging that the closing of Warner’s Egyptian had represented a significant loss both for Warner and for the Estate. He wanted a chance to redeem himself and to try to recover some of the money lost to both of them. Henry Warner and his wife had lived in Pasadena for more than twenty years. For that reason, he offered to pay a higher rent than the “…outsiders coming in whose home interests are far from this city….” (8) Ten days later, on May 19, Henry Warner withdrew all offers. (9)  Leonora and the trustees had chosen Gus Metzger.

Site plan for the Uptown Theater with notes by Leonora Curtin’s Secretary Margaret E. Nicholas, 1936. (Fenyes Collection, FCP.162.4)

The lease for Eva’s Los Angeles movie houses had been written so that a large part of the construction and maintenance costs were passed along to her tenants. Gus Metzger, however, proved to be a tough negotiator, and attorney Conley complained, “Smith (one of the trustees) has been too anxious to get these people in and Metzger has been in the driver’s seat.” (10) Costs kept mounting, and the haggling continued. An asbestos curtain, required by the Pasadena Building Department, was estimated at $1.75 a square foot. A new screen and booth equipment would cost between $3,500 and $4,000. Sound could only be leased and would cost another $3,500.  Nine hundred seats would be $9,000, installed, a bargain at a mere $10 a seat. The marquee was to be “the finest in Pasadena” and would exceed the allowance in the lease.  Machines for the ticket office would cost another $800. And flooring, which had originally been estimated at $300, had jumped to the astronomical figure of $2,000 which included 300 yards of Presswood carpet with ozite, a preservative, underneath. (11) Margaret E. Nicholas, Leonora’s secretary, confessed to Leonora that, “The floor finish or preservative is my own idea. I haven’t the heart to subject new wood to wear without some preservative treatment. This would be for the protection of the floor only and is not required by the lessees, so use your own judgment about it.” (12) Finally, $2,500 was set aside for the décor for the foyer, lobby, and auditorium. Initially, Gus Metzger was willing to split this last expense, but he changed his mind. At one point, Mr. Conley noted that his office had spent more than 40 hours and $350 on the Metzger lease, and it was STILL not finalized. (13)

Interior of the Uptown Theater showing the wood flooring discussed in the 1936 Metzger Lease, Rick Corpron, Uptown Manager, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon; PSN-Theaters)
Interior of the Uptown Theater showing the wood flooring discussed in the 1936 Metzger Lease, Rick Corpron, Uptown Manager, 17 August 1980. (Photograph by Judith Gordon, Staff Photographer, Pasadena Star News; PSN-Theaters)

In the final agreement, Leonora and the trust agreed to finance the décor, install the ventilating system, pay $1,200 toward flooring costs, assume the $500 for the asbestos curtain, and carry earthquake insurance at an added cost of $426. They would also bear all structural costs including repairs to the roof and electrical system. Mr. Metzger agreed to carry the cost of all theater equipment at $12,500. (14) From the trust’s perspective, this was a far less advantageous agreement than many of the earlier leases. Nevertheless, 2316 East Colorado Street became the Uptown Theater, and the managing corporation was known as Lamanda Park Theaters, Inc.  

In a fitting conclusion to this episode, Gus Metzger sent Leonora Curtin a Season Pass to the new theater. On November 30, 1936, she wrote him a note:

“Last night I had the pleasure of attending the ‘Uptown’. The theater impressed me by its cleanliness and good circulation of air and I thought the pictures excellent. You have made a good choice of seats and the spacing is very generous. The crowd last night was encouraging and I wish you every success.” (15) 

Advertisement for “Rose Marie” with Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy at the Uptown Theater. Leonora Curtin attended the show on Sunday evening, November 29, 1936. Pasadena Star News 28 November 1936 (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library)

Eva Fenyes’ last cinema, the Uptown Theater, opened posthumously in 1936. She was fascinated by the movies, marveling at their realism. As an artist, Eva was in a unique position to appreciate how craftsmanship and technology combined to create those unforgettable visual images. With characteristic enthusiasm she embraced the fledgling industry, and for the last twenty years of her life she owned movie theaters in both Los Angeles and Pasadena. When Eva died in 1930, two theaters continued to operate as a part of her estate under the care of her daughter, Leonora Curtin, and a team of trustees, an eloquent testimony to the strength of her vision and the shrewdness of her business acumen.  

The Uptown Theater building as it looks today:

Uptown Theater, front view, 4 October 2013 (Photograph by Sheryl Peters)

Uptown Theater, architectural detail, 4 October 2013 (Photograph by Sheryl Peters)

Uptown Theater, back view, 4 October 2013 (Photograph by Sheryl Peters)

The following websites provide additional images and information on the Uptown Theater.

- 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 and Bob Bennett for their on-going research and editorial work.

(1) Oscar L. Horn to Leonora Curtin, 27 March 1936.  Fenyes-Curtin-Paloheimo Papers, Box 162, Folder 4 (FCP.162.4), Pasadena Museum of History (PMH) Archives.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) “Notes to Mr. Unthank,” 29 April 1936. FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Henry Warner to Leonora Curtin, 9 May 1936. FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(9) Henry Warner to Leonora Curtin, 19 May 1936.  FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(10) Spiral Notebook of Margaret E. Nicholas, “Mr. Conley’s Office,” 28 May 1936. FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Margaret E. Nicholas to Leonora Curtin, 1936.  FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Spiral Notebook of Margaret E. Nicholas, “Mr. Conley’s Office,” 28 May 1936.  FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.

(15) Leonora Curtin to Gus Metzger, 30 November 1936, FCP.162.4, PMH Archives.