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Long Beach Retro Row's Iconic Art Theatre

Beatrix Whipple
Feb 16 6 minutes read

Long Beach Retro Row's
Iconic Art Theatre

You can't take the Art Deco out of the Art Theatre

By Lindsey Goodrow

Illustration by Jamie Tableson

When the sun is setting in the Retro Row neighborhood of Long Beach, CA, it’s impossible not to gaze in awe upon The Art Theatre, an Art Deco treasure that has been home to film aficionados since the 1920s. The marquee shines brightly like a beacon, it’s warm teal glow attracting the entire community to it. Just shy of turning one century old, The Art serves as an architectural time capsule, still maintaining it’s 1930’s streamlined splendor after all of its renovations and modifications. The single-projector movie house has survived destructive earthquakes, business-crippling recessions, and now a life-altering pandemic. The historical Art Theatre is not going anywhere, and it’s vibrant architectural history is proof of it’s adaptability and resilience.

The Art Theatre’s opening night showcased the silent film “The Siren of Seville'' on January 22, 1925. A crowd, dressed in their evening finest, lined up around the Spanish style building, huddling under it’s red-tiled roof and rounded archways. As they entered the theater, they were met with an orchestra pit boasting a large pipe organ, plus 636 seats. The Art Theatre operated peacefully like this for nearly a decade, up until it was shaken by two events: the switchover from silent to sound film and the devastating 1933 earthquake.

Any other business might not have been able to survive such catastrophic changes, such as the other dozen single-screen theaters in Long Beach, but the community banded together to rebuild what was destroyed of the Art Theatre. The Long Beach architectural firm of Schilling & Schilling took over remodeling the building, desiring to create a space that signified an ushering into a new era, turning the theater into an Art Deco masterpiece. They transformed the marquee with streamlined signage, constructed glass entrance and exit doors clad in stainless steel and sporting wave-like handles, and put in a clean, geometric-tiled walkway. It was these 1933 blueprint features that the now owners of the theater, Jan van Dijs, Mark and Helen Vidor, and Kerstin Kansteiner continue to uphold.

Jan van Dijs and his partners have a track record of renovating historical buildings in Long Beach, such as The Ebell Club. They bought the Art Theatre in 2008 from Howard Linn, who lovingly operated the historical space for 35 years, but had to defer to van Dijs in order to return the theater to it’s previous grandeur. 

“The theater was not in the best condition”, owner and film-lover Kerstin Kansteiner recalls, “it never stopped operating as a movie theater, but I remember going to the Art in the early 1990s and the lovely former owner would ask if I wanted a blanket because it was so cold and drafty in the screening room”. Just as Schilling & Schilling had done in 1933, van Dijs and his partners made what was once old, new again, and brought life back into the Art Theatre with their renovations. While the theater has the aesthetics of a 1930 movie house, it is up to 21st century code with a state of the art sound system, a modern HVAC system to replace the blankets, an online ticketing system, and organic wine from the concession stand.  

Photo from The Art Theatre’s Facebook Page

The theater industry is constantly shifting, but Long Beach’s Art Theatre continues to grow and evolve in tandem with the city. The local community is here to support it every step of the way, such as when they helped to raise funds to switch from 35mm film projection to digital in 2013. And the theater gives back to the community, having turned into a non-profit organization. The Art regularly works with local schools and other non-profits to support budding filmmakers by bringing their work to a large audience. The Art is unlike any other theater in the area, committed to showing independent, first-run, and documentary films that you will not find anywhere else in Long Beach. It continues to be a community anchor, where people can find introspection, provocative thinking, and a place to always return to. There is something undeniably nostalgic about the Art, and you can really feel that it has withstood the test of time as you look from across 4th Street at it.

Smiling faces fill the sidewalk and burst out from the enclosed patio of the intimate wine bar connected to the Art Theatre. A film is about to begin and the crowd buzzes past the ticket office, through the double glass doors, stopping momentarily at the concession stand to grab a bag of hot, buttery popcorn, and excitedly plop down in their seats in the dim glow of the single projector movie theater. The popcorn is sure to pair nicely with the bottle of natural wine that was purchased, corked, and handed over with a few plastic cups to enjoy while watching the film. The loud chatter drops to whisper and a hush as the theater goes pitch black - everyone in the room relaxes and exhales as the opening credits begin to roll.

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