A 1956 black-and-white photo of Main Street’s East Village shows a Shell service station at the corner of Burton Drive — then known as Lee — where the French Corner Bakery is today.
A streetlight hangs from wires over the intersection, and across the street, where Heritage Oaks Bank is today, there’s a vacant lot. The brick building that houses The Vault gallery is there in the distance — it was Bank of America back then.
The only familiar business in sight is Soto’s Market: You can see the sign on the right side of the street, down past the Shell sign and another sign that reads “THEATRE,” running vertically in all capital letters.
Cambria historian Dawn Dunlap remembers the Cambria Theater from her youth.
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“I remember seeing a Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum movie there, the one where he was a soldier and she was a nun,” Dunlap said, referring to the 1957 film “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.” “I think that was the last movie I saw there. It was in pretty bad shape. There were seats that didn’t work.”
Dunlap said the theater was housed in an old two-story wooden building that that was built in 1890 and served at various times as a skating rink and dance hall. The top floor was removed in the 1940s.
In 1960, the Cambria Theater (the name was spelled with an -er ending in newspaper ads) opened its doors at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with the movies starting at 8 for single features such as “The Pajama Game” and “Pillow Talk.” It even showed a replay of the world heavyweight championship fight between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson (their second fight, won by Patterson).
Cambria has a couple of theaters these days: The Pewter Plough in the West Village and Cambria Center for the Arts, which operates in the Old Cambria Grammar School. There’s also By the Sea Productions in Morro Bay, where the former Pewter Plough Players have moved.
All these locales are known for theater of the live variety. If we want to take in a movie, most of us here in town have to head down the road to the single-screen Bay in Morro Bay or over the hill to multiplexes in Paso Robles or Atascadero.
There isn’t a new movie theater in town, but Cambria is seeing a resurgence in motion picture activity at both the Pewter Plough and Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre.
The Plough, at 824 Main St., is still hosting live theater offerings but has expanded its calendar to include weeknight offerings of everything from poetry readings to jazz to, yes, movies.
Giovanni Grillenzoni has launched a movie-and-buffet series at Harmony Café and the adjacent Pewter Plough, with films showing every Monday night. The buffet begins at 5 p.m. in the café, after which attendees will adjourn to the theater to enjoy the movie.
Grillenzoni isn’t just serving any ordinary food to go with the film. There’s a theme to each evening: “The food is exactly in the direction of the movie,” he said. “I know the movie; I know the story, so I’m going to create a specific food. … The buffet is inspired by the movie.”
For example, this week’s showing of the 1966 French film “A Man and a Woman” will feature a French buffet. Next up (May 1) is the 1951 classic “The African Queen,” featuring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Since it takes place in Africa, Grillenzoni will serve a buffet that includes Ethiopian food.
▪ On May 8, “Big Night,” a 1996 drama about two brothers who run a failing Italian restaurant, will be accompanied by Italian-American fare.
▪ On May 15, the 1961 Marilyn Monroe film “The Misfits,” set in Nevada, will be preceded by a buffet of American food with a Western flavor.
▪ On May 22, “The Apartment” from 1962 — featuring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray — will feature a classic American buffet.
“We select the movie, American or international,” Grillenzoni said. “It has at least a nomination for an Oscar or an Oscar. Very important movies.”
Admission to the movie, including the buffet, is $19.90 plus tax and gratuity. Reservations can be made by calling 805-924-1219.
Meanwhile, just up the street, Cambria Center for the Arts has launched a recurring film series called “Romance in Cambria,” with projectors set to roll on the next production May 9. Elaine Fournier will host a screening of the Frank Capra comedy “It Happened One Night” from 1934, featuring Claudette Colbert.
The show is set for 7 p.m., with a reception at 6 p.m., with wine available. Tickets are $8 each and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com, 800-838-3006 or the CCAT box office, 805-927-8190. The theater is at 1350 Main St.
And plans are in the works for a Cambria Film Festival to be held Feb. 8-11 of next year, featuring new romance and romantic comedies. CCAT and The Love Story Project, a local business in the East Village, plan to showcase classic films, new features and shorts — about two dozen films over four days. Local residents who are interested in helping to choose films or volunteer for the festival can visit cambriafilmfestival.com or the festival’s Facebook page.
“Recently, Allied Arts has experimented with showing movies in our theater, and the response has been fantastic,” says Nancy Green, Executive Director of Cambria Center for the Arts. “That success convinced us it was a perfect time to set our sights higher. We’re improving our sound and projection capabilities and we think our theater will be a wonderful place to enjoy cinema.”
What ever happened to the old Cambria Theater on Main Street? It closed in 1960 after a showing of “The Story of Ruth.”
In the mid-1960s, Dunlap said, the building was torn down to make way for a mini-strip mall with three units that ran perpendicular to the street and included Cambria’s first head shop (selling drug paraphernalia), Left Bank of America.
“People in town were just freaked out,” she said. “I’m sure they notified Bank of America Corp., and they were shut down.”
The strip mall was itself torn down to make way for the building that now houses Cambria Drug and Gift.
It’s unclear why the original theater shut down. The operators printed an announcement in the Oct. 13, 1960, Cambrian that “due to circumstances beyond our control, we find it necessary to discontinue our present schedule of fine motion pictures” and close the theater.
The ad didn’t mention what those circumstances were.
But more than a half-century later, movies — some of them from that same era — are showing again in Cambria.