Linda Lea Theatre

251 S. Main Street,
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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Additional Info

Architects: John E. Kunst

Previous Names: Arrow Theatre, Teatro Azteca, Civic Theatre

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News About This Theater

Photo courtesy of Benny Ballejo.

Originally opened around 1925 as the Arrow Theatre. On March 24, 1940 it was renamed Teatro Azteca screening Spanish language movies. In 1945 it was renamed Linda Lea Theatre. Closed since the mid-1980’s, the former Linda Lea Theatre underwent drastic renovation in 2006/2007 when only the outer walls were re-purposed.

The rebuild was for ImaginAsian Entertainment, which operates the ImaginAsian Theatre in New York City and a cable television network. The new ImaginAsian Center opened on December 1, 2007 as a showcase for Asian and Asian-American features as well as film festivals and live events. Since 2008, it was known as the Downtown Independent Theatre, which closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic (it has its own page here on Cinema Treasures # 22371).

Contributed by William Gabel

Recent comments (view all 162 comments)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 1, 2017 at 6:18 pm

vienna: I’m getting a fatal exception when I try to use the link you posted. I’m wondering if the photo was this one? I only get three results when I search the LAPL database with “Linda Lea” and that’s the only one that actually gives a good view of the building, albeit when it was the Arrow Theatre.

I’m trying to puzzle out which Main Street theater you attended in the early 1970s that might have resembled an opera house. The only two old legit houses still standing by then were the Burbank Theatre and the Follies Theatre. The actual first opera house in Los Angeles was the theater listed here as the Grand, which was opened in 1884 and demolished in the late 1930s, but the Burbank, opened in 1883, was a large legitimate theater for many years before being converted to L.A.’s leading burlesque house, and the Follies, a bit smaller than the Burbank, opened in 1910 as the Belasco, and also became a burlesque house for many years. I believe both finished their days with x-rated movies.

There was also the large and very ornate California Theatre, opened in 1918 as a combination vaudeville and movie house, which later became a Spanish language movie theater and finally became part of the adult movie Pussycat chain. I’m not sure when the California closed, but it was demolished in 1989. I think the California is the most likely candidate to have been the theater you recall attending in the 1970s, as it was mostly intact up to the end, never having been extensively remodeled.

In 1970 there were also two good-sized early movie houses still operating on Main Street: The Optic, which remained in business with x-rated fare through the 1970s, and the Regent which, against all the odds, has survived and recently been renovated and reopened for live events, mostly musical. I believe all the other theaters still operating on Main Street in 1970, the Linda Lea excepted, were small storefront houses unlikely to be mistaken for once-grand theaters.

vienna on February 3, 2017 at 3:47 am

Mr. Vogel: I’m sorry I can’t really be more specific; it has been over 45 years and my memory is not what it was. It might have been the California, but IIRK, didn’t the Pussycat chain pretty much overhaul the interiors of their theaters, obliterating much of whatever remained of the of the original decor? It is entirely possible my recollection of the opera house claim may have been an exaggeration by some manager or other staff as to the provenance of the theater; some of them were also of an age when their own memories were ‘fuzzy’.

I moved to LA from San Francisco in early 1970 and quickly got a job working at a bank data processing center located on Main St. between 4th and 5th street. I worked the swing shift, starting at about 4:00pm and ending at about 1:00am. The entire area was a sort of a 24/7 battle zone. Just up the street was the old Follies Burlesque and just down the street, opposite was the Regent. There were a few “hole-in-the-wall” theaters and some arcade setups, some of which defy description other than “sleaze”. One of the times I went to the Follies, not long before its final closing, I got to go backstage and to an area upstairs where the were still posters, standups, and other advertising objects from the burlesque glory days. The Rolling Stones did some still and video photography for their “Exiles on Main Street” album cover art and promo films on Main St., Downtown LA. Some of the stills, on the original cover art, show some of the entrances and exterior lobby displays of some of the theaters; there are “Exiles” related videos on YouTube also showing film footage of some of the theater exteriors.

The Linda Lea was used for filming after its closure; I recall seeing the interior lobby used in the film “The Crow: City of Angels” and in a couple of TV crime drama series.

Regarding the photo link — I apologize on two counts:

1) I just found this website the same night I made my first post and didn’t know how to properly post a link;

2) I was also unaware of the “Photos” tab at the top of the Linda Lea Theater page; the photo in question is the first one to the left when the tab is clicked and the year in the caption is 1937; I should have known, on a site as extensively detailed as Cinema Treasures, someone had already posted the picture

I’m sorry I couldn’t be more specific on the theater you were asking about and thank you for you response and comments.

davidcoppock on February 3, 2017 at 9:04 am

“Was there a person called Linda Lea?”

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 3, 2017 at 1:50 pm

davidcoppock: I’ve wondered about it myself, but have never been able to discover if there was a person called Linda Lea. A web page which is no longer available (not even at the Internet Archive’s wayback machine) said that the first Linda Lea Theatre opened in the former Fuji-Kan Theatre at 324 E. First Street on February 10, 1945. It presented stage shows as well as movies for an African American audience.

The Japanese population had been interned in camps during the second world war, and Little Tokyo filled up with workers, predominantly Black or Mexican, who had come to work in L.A.’s booming wartime industries. Following the war, as the Japanese gradually returned to the neighborhood, the Linda Lea went back to its original function as a Japanese language movie house, but instead of returning to its pre-war name Fuji-Kan it kept the name Linda Lea. The Japanese management kept the name even when they moved their operation to this house on Main Street around 1955.

It’s possible that there is still someone around who knows if there was a person named Linda Lea for whom the theater was renamed in 1945. If there was a Linda Lea, given the programming of the theater at that time, she was probably African American. I suspect that if anyone ever discovers the origin of the name it will be someone researching the history of the Black community in Los Angeles.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 3, 2017 at 6:22 pm

vienna: While the Pussycat chain usually did spruce up the theaters they took over, I don’t think they did much with the California. It was very large, and anything more than cosmetic changes would have been very costly. I believe they only had a short term lease on the house, in any case. Pussycat’s main downtown location was the Town Theatre on Hill Street, which they operated for almost two decades. I don’t think they took over the California until after the Town closed, though.

I never went to the California, but in the mid-1980s I had occasion to pass by it on foot on several occasions, and from the outside it looked pretty much as it had in the 1960s when it was being operated as a Spanish language movie house.

The only Main Street theater I ever attended was the Regent, back in the 1960s when it was a fairly busy triple-feature grind house. I only went there once, and it was pretty grim, with more than a few of the seats occupied by sleeping drunks.

vienna on February 5, 2017 at 12:38 am

Mr. Vogel: If memory serves, I seem to recall both the California and the Town being open as Pussycat theaters at the same time. I have a recollection of taking notice of the same film title being shown at both theaters at the same time and find the booking as odd.

One thing I do seem to remember about the putative ‘first opera house’ was the existence of some fixtures that appeared to be re-purposed gas light fixtures and, bit more dimly, the possible presence of box seating on the sides. Again, I am working from dim memories growing dimmer every day.

I probably attended, at one time or another, almost all of the theaters in Downtown LA and Hollywood, not to mention a goodly number of nabes and Westside theaters. Your experience at the Regent was more than typical of the other Main St. theaters and then some. If it wasn’t out of the curiosity to see what the interiors of the theaters looked like, I wouldn’t have had a reason to go into any of them. Still, at least I got to see some of those now lost treasures before they faded away.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on February 5, 2017 at 3:15 am

The California never had side boxes, but the Follies did, as did the Burbank, which was built in 1893 when that feature was still de rigueur. As I was never inside either of them I don’t know how much of their interiors survived later remodeling jobs. Both got streamline modern exteriors, but the one on the Follies was removed for some reason (possibly it was damaged by the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake, which was fairly strong even in Los Angeles) and I have no memory of it. The Burbank kept its streamlined exterior to the end.

The California was showing regular movies at least as late as 1983, though it might have shown x-rated stuff earlier, as well as later. This photo from Ken McIntyre’s Facebook album shows the California with the 1983 film The Outsiders among those listed on the marquee.

I regret not having been more adventurous when I first began going downtown on my own in the early 1960s. I attended all the major theaters still open on Broadway and Hill Street south of Sixth, but never went to the rest of the downtown houses, other than the Regent, because they looked a bit too dicey to me. The only reason I saw the Regent was because a more adventurous friend insisted on seeing a movie there that he had missed earlier.

rkmovg4wd on May 17, 2018 at 7:40 pm

My Father, Toshiyuki, and G'Father, Shinsuke, owned the Linda Lea. The first Linda Lea was at 322 E.First St.. Originally, it was the Fuji-kan when my G'Father bought it. He operated it, and the Chinese restaurant next door as well. When the war broke out, he was arrested by the FBI, January 1942, as a propagandist, for showing Japanese newsreels. Newsreels, as you may recall were the only way you could get visual news in those days, so this was not a valid reason for imprisonment. During that time, Little Tokyo came to be called Bronzeville, and a Chinese businessman from Chinatown, bought the theater and named it, the Linda Lea, I believe after his wife. After the war, my G'Father reacquired it based on his previous ownership. The Chinese businessman then opened the Linda Lea on Main St.. My G'Father bought it about 1957-1968. It was my Father’s voice that was on the theater schedule recordings. We sold the theater back to the Chinese businessman, who began showing Kung Fu movies. Of interesting note, an article in the Los Angeles Times in 2007, mentioned that while remodeling the theater for an office space conversion, they discovered a second wall was hiding the original. It still had the window boxes and the Japanese movie posters that my G'Father had left there when he sold the theater! In regards to the Fuji-kan theater on First St., G'Father renamed it Kinema (Later the Nichibei Kinema) in 1955. The theater was a success, and this allowed my G'Father to bring over Japanese movie stars for their premieres, and often tied their visits to the Nisei Week Parade, of which my G'Father was one of the founders. In 1968, ThriftyMart, who had purchased the property with cooperation of the City of LA and Mayor Bradley, evicted my Father (who had taken over the business) to create the present Little Tokyo Plaza. He moved the theater to East LA, Boyle Heights, and named it Kinema East, leasing the old Meralta Theater. The location failed to draw enough of the Japanese-American market, so he filed for bankruptcy in 1972. During the late 1950’s through the 1960’s, in their heigh-day, they owned or leased nine movie theaters, including the NuArt Theater in Santa Monica.

Jim_C on March 1, 2023 at 6:03 pm

Although the opening date of this theater is given as 1940 on this website, a story printed in an Oct 1938 issue of BOXOFFICE magazine, says that a fire caused by “exploding film” in the projection room of “The Arrow Theater at 251 S Main St”, caused $5000 in damage, but everyone got out with no injuries. It also says “the owner plans to re-build” (BoxOffice, 10/15/1938 Pg77)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 1, 2023 at 7:57 pm

Jim_C: I think the information got lost from the description at some point, as we’ve known for many years (since 2004, in fact) that the Arrow Theater dated to the 1920s. The notice that construction contracts had been let was published in October, 1924. The 1940 date is for a reopening under the new name Azteca Theatre. I don’t think we’ve ever discovered the original opening date, but it must have been either late 1924 or early 1925. The Arrow’s first appearance in the city directory was in the 1926 edition, so early 1925 is the most likely opening.

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