Del Mar Theatre: The Crown Jewel of Pacific Avenue

Del Mar Theater, 1120-1126 Pacific Avenue, 1936, Zig-Zag Moderne Style; Architect: J. Lloyd Conrich. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Historical Commission.
Del Mar Theater, located at 1120-1126 Pacific Avenue, was built in 1936.  Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Historical Commission.

Arguably “the crown jewel of Pacific Avenue” in downtown Santa Cruz, California, the Del Mar Theatre stands as the oldest theater in the city of Santa Cruz. Originally built as a vaudeville theater in 1936, the Del Mar is best known for its vibrant exterior lights, independent movies and Art Deco architectural design—both inside and out.

The architectural style of the theater is Zig-Zag Moderne (a style within Art Deco that used highly geometric shapes as ornamentation) and was built by architect J. Lloyd Conrich.  The façade, divided into three sections bordered by grooved piers, is focused on its tall sign and project marquee decorated with neon stars and seashells. Beneath the zig-zag, bas-relief border bare-breasted maidens can be seen. The interior of the Del Mar was designed by noted theater decorator William Chevalis.

Decorative interior lobby ceiling by noted theater designer William Chevalis. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Historical Commission.
Decorative interior lobby ceiling by noted theater designer William Chevalis. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Historical Commission.

The Del Mar opened its doors as a cinema palace on August 14, 1936, with the world premiere showing of Warner Brothers China Clipper, starring Pat O’Brien. The movie experience was quite different in those days. At the opening, according to the Sentinel, “six usherettes, all blondes, in attractive red uniforms, and three ushers in white sports coats showed the guests to their seats.” Due to the overwhelming splendor of the newly built theater and its success, the nearby New Santa Cruz Theater dropped the “new” from its title in hopes that it would bring in more customers. Furthermore, another theater, called the Unique, closed down altogether.

Commemorative plaque next to the Del Mar theater. Plaque detail.
Commemorative plaque next to the Del Mar theater. This plaque details how the Del Mar began and how the theater was saved from being sectioned off and made into shops and offices in the late 1990s.

As decades passed, movie-goers dwindled and the Del Mar closed in 1999. The following year it was purchased by the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency which leased it as a joint-venture between local developers George Ow Jr. and Barry Swenson Builders. The Nickelodeon, a local independent company, together with community support, restored the theater following a design by Lerner & Associates of San Francisco. The grand re-opening was held on March 2, 2001. Of special note are the restored refreshment stand, mezzanine ceiling, light fixtures and lady’s restroom.

On December, 15, 2015 the Del Mar was bought by Landmark Theaters, a large US-based company, dedicated to exhibiting and marketing independent and foreign films. According to the previous owner, Landmark Theaters will keep all the existing staff and does not plan to make any changes.

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  1. Sources Used

    Fullerton Heritage Art Deco: Zigzag Moderne & Streamline (Art) Moderne. Web. Accessed December 2015.



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4 Comments

  1. Bruce Bratton

    “Your statement “The Nickelodeon, a local independent company, sub-leased and continues to operate the Del Mar theatre today” is out of date. The Nick et al are now owned by Landmark the second or third largest theatre group in the USA.

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