Los Angeles’s Secret, Foreign Language Movie Theater Scene

Los Angeles is a film town — maybe the film town. Like the Hollywood district contained within it, the name “Los Angeles” a metonym for the American film industry in the minds of many. “La La Land,” “The Entertainment Capital of the World” and all that. I love movies; however, in my mind, the Hollywood film thing actually ranks pretty low in the long list of what makes Los Angeles the greatest city in the world. This is possibly (probably) shocking to hear/read if you’re a cog in the blockbuster factory or a celebrity worshipper but better you find that out now than never. Luckily, Los Angeles doesn’t just make movies, it also shows them. There are few cities in the world with as robust a film culture as Los Angeles.

For those who love celebrity-driven, gazillion dollar CGI superhero franchises you’re in luck; there are multiplexes in every mall and Redboxes at every 7-11. Thankfully for other varieties of cinéastes, there’s a lot more to Los Angeles’s mise en scène than that. There are architecturally beautiful picture palaces, romantic drive-ins, dingy dollar theaters, high profile revival houses, low profile smut houses, and actual art house chains. Additionally, there are all sorts of special screenings and festivals that take place every week of the year.

Most of the most interesting programming in Los Angeles is screened at single-screen theaters like the Academy Little Theater, the Aero, the Alan and Elaine Armer TheaterThe Arena CinemaArt Theatre, Billy Wilder, Echo Park Film Center, Leo S. Bing, Linwood Dunn, Million Dollar Theatre, New Beverly, Nuart, Old Town Music HallOrpheum, Palace, Pendersleigh, REDCATRegentSamuel Goldwyn, Silent Movie Theatre, WGA, or Warner Grand. (Please let me know if I’ve skipped any).

There are also a few multiple screen venues too that show interesting programming such as Hollywood’s Egyptian and Sundance Sunset Cinemas, Irvine’s Edwards University Town Center 6 and Edwards Westpark 8 Theatres, and West Los Angeles’s Landmark. The Laemmle, with theaters in Beverly Hills, Claremont, Encino, North Hollywood, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Sawtelle; is the county’s premier art-house chain. (Again, please let me know if I’ve skipped any).

Los Angeles also has film festivals. There are specific festivals for classics, comedies, horror, noir, shorts, 3D, Asian-Pacific, French, Iranian, Irish, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, Pan-African, Polish, and South East European film festivals. There are additionally loads of special screenings not just in theaters but in parks, cemeteries, former service stations, cultural centers and on top of parking garages. I once endeavored to cover all of these but then someone introduced me, thankfully, to Filmradar. But not even that venerable service can cover all the Southland cinema scene.

It’s often noted (although not at all reflected in Hollywood films) that Los Angeles is a microcosm of the world. There are nearly 10 million people living in Los Angeles County today – the most populous county in the country and one that has a larger population than 42 of the 50 states. There are at least 224 languages spoken in Los Angeles homes.  In Los Angeles proper there are 336 movie theaters in existence — though only 40 are currently screening movies. It shouldn’t then be surprising that Los Angeles has long had a diverse, popular foreign language cinema scene. In the latter half of the 20th century, as large numbers of mainstream film-going audiences abandoned movie houses in favor of home-viewing and TV, many movie theaters catered to various foreign language-speaking immigrant populations. Most of those have long since closed whilst others have opened with the express purpose of showcasing particular foreign cinemas.

As already mentioned, many foreign films are shown at festivals, special screenings, and art house theaters. I wouldn’t mischaracterize them all as art cinema but they’re almost never exemplary of popular cinema from abroad. But Los Angeles, with its massive populations of people from around the world, also supports a number of movie theaters that cater to specific audiences with popular cinema from their various homelands. In most cases these films aren’t likely going to be released domestically on DVD or Blu-Ray, they won’t be nominated for Oscars, and aside from the random VCD or import DVD, you’re not likely to see them in stores unless you specifically seek them out at small shops in the appropriate ethnic enclave. In other words — you should see them in the theater, the way they were intended to be seen!


SPANISH CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES

The Golden Gate Theater in East LA
The Golden Gate Theater in East Los Angeles

There are roughly 3,582,992 residents of Los Angeles County who speak Spanish as their primary language, roughly 39% of the total population. According to the MPAA, although Latinos only make up 16% of the US’s population, they make up 25% of the theater-going audience (yet about 0% of the characters in Hollywood movies). Beginning around the 1970s, many small, local theaters switched to Spanish-language programming in their final years as movie houses. This was the case with the Arden in Lynwood, the Azteca in Boyle Heights, El Cameo in El Sereno, the Fox in Riverside, the Golden Gate in East LA, the Highland Park Theatre in Highland Park, the Orange Theatre in Orange, the Princess and the Yost in Santa Ana, the Rialto in El Monte, and the Wilshire in Fullerton – to name but a few (please let me know of more).

Despite this robust history, I’m not aware of any local theaters specializing in Spanish-language programs today. Perhaps, as with English-language cinema, the Spanish-speaking audience is too large and spread out to warrant a specialty theater… or perhaps there is/are Spanish-language theaters that I don’t know of. It seems most likely that, as with all immigrant populations in the USA, the second generation is fluent in English and by and large more eager to watch Hollywood fare than films from their ancestral homelands.


CHINESE CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES

The Garflied Theater

331,246 of Los Angeles County residents speak a form of Chinese (Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, etc) as their primary language. That’s roughly the same number as people as comprise the entire population of Honolulu. Los Angeles County was home to the first Chinese-American majority population of any city – Monterey Park. Nowadays the San Gabriel Valley has several Chinese and Taiwanese-plurality communities including Alhambra, Arcadia, Diamond Bar, East San Gabriel, Hacienda Heights, Rosemead, Rowland Heights, San Marino, South San Gabriel, Temple City, and Walnut.

In the past, there were at least four theaters specializing in Chinese-language Cinema. In the San Gabriel Valley, there was Alhambra’s Garfield Theater and Monterey Park’s Monterey Theatre — both defunct. Chinatown was in the 1970s and ’80s home to the Kim Sing Theatre, which is now a residence.

Today, there are no dedicated Chinese language cinemas in Los Angeles but there’s at least one multiplex that almost always has one Chinese-language film in their line-up at any given time, the AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, in Monterey Park’s Atlantic Times Square mall/apartment complex (aka “The Asian-Americana”).


TAGALOG CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES

Edwards Cerritos Stadium 10 (image source: Jason
Edwards Cerritos Stadium 10 (image source: Jason “The Don” A.)

There are 223,572 Pinoys in Los Angeles who speak Tagalog as their primary language – more than the entire population of Scottsdale, Arizona. There is only one theater that I know of that regularly shows Filipino fare: Edwards Cerritos Stadium 10 in Cerritos, near Orange County (which is home to an additional 41,391 Tagalog speakers). Filipino films have yet to really crack the foreign art film scene so I’ll be surprised if Graceland screens there.


KOREAN CINEMA IN LOS ANGELES

CGV at Madang, Los Angeles The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles
                                                   CGV                                                                                        KCCLA

There are 183,700 people in Los Angeles who speak Korean as a first language, a number larger than the entire population of Tallahassee, Florida. Orange County is home to an additional 68,811 residents who speak Korean as a first language and its Little Seoul neighborhood, though dwarfed by LA’s Koreatown, is one of the largest Korean enclaves in the country. The Korean Wave took off recently in the US, beginning in the early 2000s when 쉬리 (Swiri) was released and K-Dramas began to take over the world’s television sets. As far as I know, there are two venues that regularly showcase Korean films. CGV Cinemas (CGV at Madang, Los Angeles) in Koreatown shows a mix of Hollywood and Korean films 전설의 주먹 (Fists of Legend) is currently showing) and is the first American theater opened by the South Korean multiplex chain. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles (KCCLA) is a real treasure, showing FREE Korean films regularly (as well as other non-cinematic programming). Sometimes the films are great, sometimes they’re the opposite – but occasionally there are pastries to sweeten the deal… and again, it’s free~


HINDI CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES

The Naz 8 (image source: LA Weekly)
The Naz 8 (image source: LA Weekly)

There are only 10,296 native Hindi speakers in Los Angeles County but Bollywood films have long been popular far beyond the borders of Mumbai. The NAZ 8 in Lakewood (just outside Little India) almost exclusively shows Bollywood films (with English subtitles). Right now Chashme Baddor, Ek Thi Daayan, Himmatwala, Kai Po Che, Nautanki Saala, Rangrezz, and Shootout At Wadala are showing. Occasionally the theater also shows films from Afghanistan, China, Hollywood, Iran, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. The AMC Orange 30 in Orange also usually has a Bollywood film in its roster.


JAPANESE CINEMA IN LOS ANGELES

George and the Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre
George and the Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre

Today there are only 57,376 Angelenos who speak Japanese as a first language (obviously tens of thousands more ethnically Japanese Angelenos speak English as a first language). The Japan America  Theater at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo opened in 1983 — in 2001 it was re-named George and the Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre. To this day it hosts a variety of programs including Japanese films. I caught a Korean film there too during the Little Tokyo Korea Japan Festival although that proved to be been a one-off event.

In a building constructed in 1925, the single-screen Fuji-kan Theater was probably Los Angeles’s first Japanese cinema. It was operated by Toshinori Kumamoto. In January 1942, he was arrested for screening Japanese newsreels which were deemed to be propaganda. In February 1945, it re-opened as the Linda Lea Theater, which, although apparently owned by a Chinese businessman and named after his wife, featured both films and floor shows aimed at black audiences — this being the tail end of the Bronzeville era. The house band was Sammy Yates and his Linda Lea Orchestra. By 1946, the cinema had been purchased by San Pero businessmen Ed Penn and Charles J. Golden. Toshinori Kumamoto took back over and by at least as early as 1951 it was once again screening Daiei Films (大映映画株式會社). By 1952, it was known as Nichibei Kinema. It re-opened in August 1955 simply as Kinema. In 1964, the property was purchased by ThriftyMart and the cinema, then owned by Toshinori Kumamoto’s son, closed. It was succeeded by Kinema East, which operated in Boyle Heights from 1964 until 1972.

The La Brea Theatre was a 1,200 seat, single-screen cinema built in 1926 — initially part of the Chotiner’s cinema chain. By 1934 it had been acquired by Fox. The Fox La Brea closed in 1954 and after a renovation, it re-opened in 1960 and very briefly operated as Art La Brea. It was soon after taken over by Toho Co (東宝株式会社) re-opened as the Toho La Brea in August 1960, screening films from that studio as well as those of Nikkatsu (日活株式会社). The building’s second story was home to a Japanese restaurant, the Cherry Blossom. The Toho La Brea closed sometime after September 1974 and today the building is currently home to Bethel Presbyterian Church.

The 500-seat, single screen Arrow Theatre. It later became the Aztec Theatre. In 1955 it became the new location of the New Linda Lea Theatre. Around 1957, Shinsuke bought the theater and it became a showcase for films produced by Toei (東映株式会). Sometime after 1965, Shinsuke re-sold the cinema back to the same Chinese businessman who’d opened the original Linda Lea and he began screening Kung Fu movies there. In 2007, it was rebuilt and re-opened as the ImaginAsian Center — which showcased Asian and Asian-American films. In 2008 it became the Downtown Independent.

The beautiful Crenshaw Theater — an 800-seat, single screen cinema on Crenshaw Boulevard designed by the great S. Charles Lee — opened in 1942. Around 1952, it was operated by black actor Nick Stewart and his wife, Edna, who turned it into a black theater known as the Ebony Showcase Theatre. In the late 1950s, it became the L.A. Jazz Concert Theatre. By 1966 it had become the Kokusai Theater, which screened Japanese films and was owned and managed by Moto Yokoyama. It continued to show Japanese films until 30 October 1986, when (after having been purchased by the West Angeles Church of God In Christ) it turned it into the West Angeles Christian Arts Center. It’s now the West Angeles Performing Arts Theatre.

After the closing of Kinema in Little Tokyo, Kinema East opened in a former Meralta Theater in June 1964. For its grand reopening, it screened Akinori Matsuo‘s 1963 yakuza film, Otoko-no Monsho, and Toshio Masuda‘s action film, Akai hankachi. It screened Nikkatsu films, meaning the Toho La Brea by then only screened the films of Toho. It seems to have closed in 1972 and was, by 1983, home to the Spanish-language Teatro Azteca.

The 1,100-seat, single screen cinema, Bard’s West Adams was opened in 1925 by Lou Bard. In 1929, it was listed as Bard’s Adams Street. By the early 1930s, it was the Fox West Adams but by 1936 it was listed as Bard’s Theatre. It closed around 1957 and re-opened in 1962 as the Adams West. By 1964, it was the Japanese language Kabuki Theatre, which screened films by Shochiku Films (松竹株式会社)In 1973 it was again showing Hollywood films but by the early 1980s was a black cabaret called Apollo West. It’s been home to Iglesias de Restauracion since 2000.

Little Tokyo’s Yahoan Plaza was built in 1985 by Al Taira and Wilson Liu. Within it was the two-screen Little Tokyo Cinemas, which opened in 1987 to fill the void left by the closure of Kokusai Theater. By 1990, the entire plaza had fallen on hard times and Shochiku pulled out that June, at which point Moto Yokoyama and Terry Boyle took over as assistant manager and chief projectionist/publicist/assistant booker, respectively. Under the management, Little Tokyo Cinemas soldier on until October 1990, when it closed for good. In 2000, Yahoan Plaza was purchased by Richard Meruelo and renamed Little Tokyo Square. Today the building is known as Little Tokyo Galleria. In 2017, following a costly remake, the owners of the Galleria have filed to build a large residential development on the property.


TAIWANESE CINEMA

Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, as part of their mission to promote Taiwanese culture overseas, oversees the Taiwan Academy which operates branches in numerous countries. The Los Angeles branch, Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles, opened in Westwood (at 1137 Westwood Blvd.) in 2014 and is open from 9 am to 6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Their programming includes free music, dance, lectures, food in Westwood and occasionally, the Diamond Bar Public Library. I was told, too, that there are free Taiwanese films every Thursday and that if one shows up early enough, usually free pizza! (The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles has Korean movie nights on the same night which have been known to offer pastries and coffee beforehand — you decide). On 1 May 2015, the Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles is organizing the Taiwan Films in Retrospect. The academy is served by Big Blue Bus‘s 1, 2, 3M, 8, 12, and Rapid 12 lines; Culver City Bus‘s Route 6 and Rapid Route 6; Metro‘s 2/302, 305, 734, and Valley/Westside Express lines; and LA DOT‘s 431, 534, and 573 Commuter Express lines. For the incredibly patient, 2035 is the unlikely date that the Purple Line Subway to the Sea(or at least toward the sea) is scheduled to arrive.


VIETNAMESE CINEMAS IN LOS ANGELES

The Southland is home to 225,158 native Vietnamese speakers – two thirds which live in Orange County.  Little Saigon was once home to the Thu Do, which replaced the Edwards Westbrook Theater and showed Vietnamese, Chinese, and French films in the early 1990s.  In 1994 it showed Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya) and director Tran Anh Hung and star Trân Nu Yên-Khê were in attendance. The theater closed around 1996.  I’m not aware of any Vietnamese theaters currently locally operating.


Are there any foreign language cinemas that I missed? Please do let me know. And get out there and take advantage of being in Los Angeles to visit these theaters!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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