Inside the golden history of Encinitas’ La Paloma Theatre

La Paloma Theatre (right) is an an Encinitas landmark.
La Paloma Theatre (right) is an an Encinitas landmark.
(Karen Billing)

As the 93rd annual Academy Awards are set to get underway on Sunday, April 25, one of this year’s major contenders is the acclaimed Minari. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung and focusing on a Korean family who moves to Arkansas, the film is part of another season of award contenders showcased at the La Paloma Theatre, an Encinitas landmark which has experienced an awards season, and past year, unlike any other since its 1928 birth.

“It’s going to take a while, maybe another six months, before we’re able to get anywhere close to what we were doing before the pandemic,” explained the theater’s longtime President Allen Largent. As the only single screen cinema left in the San Diego area, the La Paloma has been handed unique challenges as a privately-owned business grappling with not only the effects of the pandemic, but the shrinking reliance on theaters to exclusively screen the latest films.

“I can’t tell you how often so many people express an interest in helping out,” says Largent who says the operation is all-consuming, especially when it comes to working in a nearly century-old building. “I randomly get checks in the mail thanking me for what I’m doing (to keep it alive). They’re not huge, but I’m thankful for them.” According to Largent, they’re currently operating $150,000 behind on rent.

It’s a legacy that has endeared movie fans stretching back to its opening 93 years ago this past February, a gala event attended by then-Hollywood legend Mary Pickford. One of the first theaters in the nation to screen talkies (movies with sound), stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Bill Murry have since paid the La Paloma a visit. “One day Quentin Tarantino was driving up the coast and stopped in,” explained Largent. “We gave him a tour and a couple weeks later we held a private screening for just him and his friend.”

The La Paloma Theatre, shown in its early days, opened with a star-studded gala that included silent film star Mary Pickford.
The La Paloma Theatre, shown in its early days, opened with a star-studded gala that included silent film star Mary Pickford.
Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)

The theatre is also known for its history of live performances, a major part of their business since the days of vaudeville. In recent years, the theater hosted the likes of Eddie Vedder, Nickel Creek, Switchfoot, and Leon Russel.

For Largent, caring for the theater has been his passion since he began working there as a kid in 1979, later buying the business in 1992. “My brother and his friends happened to be employees and I was hanging out with them,” he remembers. “The next thing you know, I was threading the projector, then working the stage, lighting, maintenance, repairs, box office, and concessions. I started with nothing and put my life savings into this place when I bought it. I went to work right away and worked every day since.”

When COVID-19 reached California last year, the theater shutdown. It then re-opened in June, and was shut down again until opening in October for about a month. They were then shut down again until earlier this year.

“When the pandemic happened, it didn’t surprise me,” Largent says. “But what did surprise me is how long it has lasted. I’ve always felt I’m a pretty adaptable individual and able to roll with the punches. We’re glad to be open again. We may have conquered it, but we’ll see.”

For more information and showtimes, visit Address: 471 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas.