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Entrance to the Laguna Hills Malls Cinemas on their last day of operation.
Today is the last day to catch a movie at the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas. The final showings will be Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, and Eye In the Sky – all starting about 8:30 PM. The three-screen theater will close tonight after nearly 33 years in business.
Originally a collaboration of Edwards Cinemas and Sanborn Theaters, the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas opened on Friday December 16, 1983, ten years after the mall’s opening. Advertisements for the theater boasted of ‘fabulously beautiful art-deco interiors by Hershberger-Denker & Associates’. On the screens on opening day were Gene Hackman and Robert Stack in Uncommon Valor, Burt Reynolds in The Man Who Loved Women, and Disney’s The Rescuers (with Mickey’s Christmas Carol as an added attraction). Ronald Reagan was in his first term, Madonna had just released her first album, and the Berlin Wall would be up for six more years. The cities of Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel didn’t exist yet.
The story of the theater is intertwined with the story of the Laguna Hills Mall itself. When the theater opened, the mall still had its original four anchors: The Broadway (now Macy’s), Sears, Buffums’, and JC Penny. Of the four, only JC Penny remains. Buffums’ closed in 1991. Its upper level became the food court for the center – in case you ever wondered how the food court got up there.
Today, the mall is preparing for a very extensive remodeling. But in the early 1980s, it was in its (first) prime.
When the theater opened, it was a rarity in that it was a mall-based theater outfitted for 70mm projection. At four times the size of 35mm film, 70mm for decades represented the pinnacle of the movie-watching experience. Only IMAX and digital projection would dethrone it in the minds of film aficionados (if anything has). The first film shown in 70mm at the mall was The Right Stuff, followed shortly by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was the 70mm projection that separated the mall cinema from the 11 screens just across the highway. Edwards El Toro Theaters had five screens in the building that is now a Crunch gym. Before its razing and rebuild into the Arbor, there were another six screens at General Cinema’s (later Edwards’) Saddleback 1-2-3 and its newer addition, the Saddleback 4-5-6. Competition was fierce, but the mall cinema outlived them all.
Both the Laguna Hills Mall and its theater were each updated in due course. The mall had a major overhaul in 1994 and the theater was given a makeover in 2000. In 2011 the theater saw its last upgrade — to digital DLP projectors capable of 3D projection, with sound capabilities to match. (Plans to split each screening room in two for a total of six theaters never materialized.)
Recently, the cinema has had a daily total of 14 screenings in its theaters. If that’s been the average the last 32+ years, that comes out to about 160,000 screenings for untold millions of patrons bridging four generations.
I sat down today to talk with the current owner of the theater, Atul Desai, president of the Parth Theatre Group. Desai came to the USA from India in the early 1980s and distinctly remembers where he saw his first film in the United States. It was at the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas in 1984. The film was Romancing the Stone with Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. His wife’s first job in the US, also in 1984, was as a baker at a French-themed bakery called La Petite Boulangerie. The bakery was in the Laguna Hills Mall. It shared a wall with the theater she and her husband would one day own.
Desai said he was schooled as an engineer, but in America he gravitated toward entrepreneurship. Within a decade he had opened his own grocery store and restaurant on El Toro Rd, which he named for his daughter Nina. Though Desai later sold the business, Nina’s is still in operation as Nina’s Indian & British Grocery + Restaurant. (Nina, now quite grown up, is a newly-minted doctor.)
Desai says that it was about 1997 when he first became interested in exhibiting films. He wanted to show films produced in India on screens in Orange County. At the time, Edwards (then-owner of the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas) wasn’t interested in renting screens for foreign films, but both AMC and Dan Akarakian of Whittier-based Akarakian Theatres were open to it. In 2000 Desai and Akarakian came to a “four wall rental” arrangement by which Desai would rent a single theater/screen to show his films. Akarakian would be paid a rental fee and keep all the concessions sales. Desai would keep the box office receipts. And with that, Atul Desai was in the movie business.
Three or fours years later, the two men were having lunch at Nina’s. The subject of Akarakian’s recent acquisition came up – the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas, bought when Edwards Theaters filed for reorganization in 2000. Desai made the rather off-the-cuff remark that if Akarakian ever wanted to sell the theater, he’d be interested. In 2005, the sale was made.
Desai operated the cinema for six years, then set upon a substantial remodel. The screens were replaced with 3D compatible screens. The sound systems and projectors all went digital. Even the seating was upgraded. And then the news came that the owner of the mall, Simon Property group, was planning to tear it all down.
Fortunately for the cinema, such progress takes time. The mall is only now being fenced off for its remodel – some five years after it was first seriously proposed. In the interim, the mall changed hands. Now owned by Merlone Geier Partners, the mall will soon be transformed into Five Lagunas. The plans call for outdoor shops, a park, apartments and, yes, a state-of-the-art luxury movie theater that promises to once again restore the neighborhood to 14 screens.
Though Desai won’t be involved in the new theater, he has no plans to leave the business. In fact, he’s expanding. Desai recently purchased Ultrastar Cinemas’ 10-screen theater in Lake Havasu to continue his journey as a film exhibitor. Will he ever move there? “No, my family is in Orange County. Everyone is here. This is home”.
Thanks for the memories.
Please drop me a line if you can add anything to this brief look at the history of the Laguna Hills Mall Cinemas.
For more on the history of cinemas in Orange County: 70mm in Orange County