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San Clemente Journal

Miramar Theatre - History in the Making

Dec 07, 2016 10:41AM ● By Joan Ray

The San Clemente Theatre , close to its opening on May 12, 1938, as “the most elaborate theater development on the entire south coast.”

by Joan Ray
On November 8, 1925
, the Los Angeles Examiner reported that Ole Hanson was developing a Spanish Village by the Sea named San Clemente. The development‘s opening day sales totaled almost $125,000, a veritable fortune at the time. The first tract was sold out in eight months, and San Clemente became an incorporated city in 1928. 
Beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets, hiking trails and other of nature’s wonders provided entertainment, but as more homes were built and population increased, more diverse amusement was needed and in 1937 The Casino opened for music and dancing. 
On May 12, 1938 the San Clemente Theater opened, described as “the most elaborate theater development on the entire south coast.” Built in Spanish Colonial style, the design included modern heating and air conditioning systems and seating that allowed patrons to sit upright or recline, notable luxuries for the time. The majestic interior, with elaborate chandeliers, comfortable seating for 750 people and showing first run movies, was a major boost for the city.
Acclaimed theater architect Clifford A. Balch, its designer, noted that “seats, draperies and furnishings have been carefully chosen for comfort and beauty, each element serving to create an intimate, restful atmosphere in keeping with the purpose of the building.” 
The exterior was embellished with a 44 ft. tower to create “a visible icon marking the city’s northern entrance.” Local residents were delighted. Visitors most likely were also.
In 1946, when WWII ended and the city’s population began to grow again, the Bowling Center, built in the same style, but less opulent, was opened adjacent to the theater. With the Casino, the trio presented a welcoming center and entertainment area. 
Though the city’s population grew, reaching a whopping 8,500 by 1960, the theater closed shortly thereafter. The consensus is that nearby multiplex theaters attracted more patrons. In 1970, after major renovations to the interior, including auxiliary areas like the lobby and the restrooms, the theater opened as the Miramar. 
Unfortunately, the Bowling Center closed in 1971, the edifice going on to house a variety of businesses, a health center, the Episcopal SVC Center and even the Elk’s Lodge until 1992. (The Elks ultimately purchased a building just north at 1505 N. El Camino Real.)
In 1969 President Nixon asked teenage aide Fred Divel – son of San Clemente’s matriarch, Lois Divel – to look around South Orange County for a coastal hideaway. Fred’s successful scouting led to the Nixon’s decision to purchase the oceanfront estate of one of San Clemente’s founding financiers, Hamilton Cotton. Notoriety the “Western White House” brought to the area plus the entourage the president brought, kept the city and the Miramar busy through the ‘70s. Sports movies, often featuring surfing or skiing, kept the youth attendance stable.
New owners Ann and Mike Madigan presented the theaters’ first five live performances in 1980. In 1989 ownership changed again, operating briefly before closing. In 1990 the Miramar reopened, focusing on live entertainment. Though this opening was also short-lived, 
Fred Divel reports that people still reminisce about the excitement of those live performances. An anonymous blogger who grew up in San Clemente wrote “I went to the Miramar all the time. I saw surf films, rock bands, midnight movies and regular movies. It was a great theater.”
 Richard Lee purchased the theater and bowling alley in 1998, but his redevelopment plans failed. The intervening years have seen a variety of owners and a variety of business plans for the Miramar and the Bowling Center, but to this point none have come to fruition. 
A fire caused damages of about $50,000 to the lobby and restrooms in 2005. Susan and Terry Hirchag, owners at the time, were proposing to demolish the building, replacing it with Miramar Plaza, a four story Spanish motif complex including a restaurant, retail spaces, business offices, 13 residential units, a coffee house and underground parking. To maintain a semblance of the original theater they would recreate its tower. San Clemente’s Historical Society joined a number of residents to oppose the demolition of the theater, by now deemed a historical landmark. The Hirchags said they would give the building to anyone who would move it to another site. 
Defending the Historical Society’s stand against the demolition, Mike Cotter, the society’s president at the time, said they were not concerned with any owner’s business plan. “The Historical Society is really about historical preservation. We’re not about business plans or anyone’s particular business plan over another.”
Fred Divel and his backers made an offer for the property in 2006, with plans for a working and teaching school for the performing and cinema arts. The working theater would be teamed with a coffee house/wine bar and restaurant. But Mark Spizziri, of Capistrano Beach Family Toyota, made the winning bid. Winning may not be the appropriate word because, as mentioned above, no plan has succeeded thus far. Some consider the ownership to be clouded at this point, but it appears that Spizziri is the current owner. 
New plans for the theatre complex include a food court in the old bowling alley building.
Over the years since the Miramar closed, there have been a variety of initial plans. None of them; however, made an application to the city. In October the current owner’s representatives made a formal application and have met with the Building/Planning Department. The proposal includes that the Miramar will become The San Clemente Performing Arts Center and the bowling alley will be redesigned as a high end culinary food court with a variety of restaurants including a landscaped courtyard. The process is anticipated to be heard before the Planning Commission in January 2017 and proceed to the city council in April, then to the California Coastal Commission.


Westlake Reed Leskosky and Lawson-Burke Structural Engineering recently prepared a Historic Structures Report for the city. The lengthy, detailed report concludes with suggestions and renderings of three options.
Option 1A, “Dinner and a Movie,” includes a retail center, restaurant, a theater and event center with a tiered floor system, offering options for various inside and outside dining, and entertainment situations.
Option 1B, “Screening Room and Cafe,” is similar, also creating a retail space in the Bowling Center, but allowing for larger audiences for screenings and events and a variety of dining options.
Option 2, “Art House and Public Plaza,” retains similarities, but with less retail, a flexible screening room and gallery and a smaller cafe with indoor and outdoor dining on the north side and a sizable public plaza adjacent to the box office, lobby and bar on the southern exposure.
The reports concluding remarks include: Theaters such as the Miramar speak to the spirit of the place ... cities often look to theaters to be the cornerstone of an active destination bringing vibrancy to neighborhoods. Technical requirements have increased over time so the Miramar Theater is fortunate to be paired with a second historic resource, the Bowling Center. The center’s ability to alleviate many of the technical challenges and support requirements that historic theaters often face is a tremendous advantage. Revitalizing the theater and Bowling Center will have a profound impact on the city ... providing a unique destination that improves the city’s quality of life can spur the revitalization of an entire area ... with determination, the Miramar Theater and Bowling Center will be an important part of the community for generations to come.