Recollections of the Aero Theatre By Two Men Who Tore Tickets When The Aero Was Brand NewDonald Krehbiel was 13 years old in 1939. He lived on 14th street in Santa Monica in a middle class neighborhood where school teachers, pharmacists and even the LA County Sheriff (who lived on Euclid) made their homes alongside Hollywood celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Shirley Temple (and family lived at 20th and she took dance lessons on Montana) and even the creator of "Popeye." "Everyone in the neighborhood drove Fords and Chevys and Pontiacs," Donald recalls. His high school teacher father bought the lot for the house he grew up in, in 1923 for $1000 and built a house for $4000.
Donald believes it was summer (" otherwise I would have been in school," he says) when he noticed some workers digging a hole on Montana Avenue. He stopped to ask what was going on and learned that a movie theatre was to be built on this sparsely commercially populated Santa Monica street. He remembers telling the friendly man that he met, "Then I guess youll need an usher." That man turned out to be Ed Thompson, the operator of the Aero Theatre (a construction project of Donald Douglas Aircraft). Donald compares Ed to the actor Brian Donlevy, "he was short and dynamic and very personable. Former theatre manager Jim Talmadge, the son of Norma and Constance Talmadges sister Natalie, recalls that Ed was, "a very nice man." Incidentally, Norma Talmadge was one of the investors in Sid Graumans Chinese Theatre.
When asked about the story that Douglas Aircraft built the Aero Theatre to entertain employees of the plant during 24-hour wartime production, Donald debunks the myth he has heard before. "In 1939 we werent in the war yet, " he says assuredly. Douglas was building bombers for the British. A friend of mine worked there and I asked him if they were on 24 hour shifts then and he said he does not remember being on that schedule." Donald surmises that the theatre was simply built as a real estate investment. The employees of Douglas did not live in that neighborhood so it doesnt make sense to have built the theatre just for them.
By January 10, 1940 when the Aero opened for business, Donald was 14 years old. He was one of the four staffers that ran the theatre seven days a week. There was the head usher, Shorty who had the front aisle and there was Donald on the back aisle and a gal in the box office and then the theatres proprietor Ed Thompson. The Aero was truly a neighborhood theatre. Ed Thompson made sure that if he showed a picture that a neighbor acted in, he proudly made mention of that persons name on the marquee. Part of Donalds job was to set the marquee (movies generally changed three times a week) and he recalls, "Ed Thompson gave top billing on the marquee to locals such as Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. I recall an early Glenn Ford movie, perhaps his first one "Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence" (1939), in which he was not the lead, but was featured at the top of the marquee "Glenn Ford in " .
In the first month of business the theatre played a number of double features including the films: ON BORROWED TIME, MYSTERIOUS MISS X., ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, IN OLD MONTEREY, THE OLD MAID, UNDERPUP, THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS and HAWAIIAN NIGHTS. Although the format was usually three films a week at the Aero, Donald recalls that THE GREAT DICTATOR ran for a whole week. There was one show a night for nineteen cents, around 7 PM and matinees on the weekends. Saturday afternoons were kids matinees which were generally Westerns and some cartoons. Jim, recalls that it was quite a mess to clean up after the children left. It should be noted that concessions werent even sold in theatres at this time. "You went out to a MOVIE in those days," says Donald. "Eating wasnt part of the experience then." Jims wife does recall that there was the popular Sunburst Malt Shop at 12th and Carlyle where you could get a snack before or after a movie.
When Shorty left, Jim Talmadge, who, like Donald, was also a student at Santa Monica High School (class of 1942), came on as theatre manager until 1942 when he went into the service. "The Aero was my first job," says Jim, "I still have my original social security card and it says "Aero" on it." He and his wife (also a Santa Monica High Class of 1942 grad) remember HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at the Aero while Jim worked there. When asked if he watched the movies, Jim said, "oh yes, many times from the back of the theatre."
Both Donald and Jim recall Saturday nights as the most crowded. Jim says they would give away cheap depression glass green and yellow dishes on Saturday nights in a drawing. It was his job to put all the half tickets in a Bingo cage and to draw winners.
Montana Avenue had proximity to the street car system in those days via the Venice short line which could get you all the way to the coliseum for a game. One of the retail spaces in the Aero building was Aero Hobbies and other local businesses included a Van de Camps Bakery (at 14th and Montana), a Shell gas station on the northwest corner and a pharmacy frequented by Leo Carrillo. At 2nd and Wilshire was Harold Lloyds bowling alley, Loadamar.
As a teenager, Donald doesnt recall World War II (the US entered the war in 1941 not long after the Aero opened) changing things at the Aero. "Everything was the same, except it was very dark at night. We had to keep all of our lights out black outs they called them and teens were recruited to patrol the beaches on their bicycles. Even car headlights were taped out to form just a slit of illumination. "Most people walked to the Aero though. Probably we couldnt turn the marquee on either," he says. Donald was in the lobby on Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941 when a friend came in and told him Pearl Harbor had been bombed. He asked where that was and realizes now that the full impact of this news of war didnt hit him until one day when he found the box office girl crying and learned that her boyfriend had been killed overseas.
Jim, a life-long car enthusiast recalls driving his $190, 12 miles per gallon Dusenberg Roadster to work at the Aero. He parked it across the street at the Shell gas station and one night, when he went to leave at 1 AM, he turned on the car and the backlights lit up, incurring the wrath of the block monitor (a person assigned to patrol the area during war time, ready to put out fires from bombings and lights).
Donald recalls watching the projectionist cut in the news reels and coming attractions. "Sometime after the start of the war (mid 42 he thinks), Clark Ross, having been wounded while on a PT Boat in the Philippines, arrived as projectionist. I spent a lot of time in the booth before the shows learning how to splice film, run the projectors, and make "changeovers." Great fun!," recalls Donald.
The Aero was first and foremost a neighborhood theatre built to serve the local community. According to Donald, the pecking order of Westside theatres in the early 1940s, was first, the Dome & Rosemary on Ocean Park Pier, which got all the movies first, then either the Majestic (which Don recalls was eventually turned into an English Music Hall) or the Criterion, third the Wilshire (now the NuWilshire) and fourth, the Aero. It was the Carthay Circle theatre (demolished in the 1970s) that eclipsed them all. The glittering lights of Hollywood shone brightest on this Beverly Hills Fox premiere palace at6316 San Vicente Boulevard.
Since 1940 the Aero has maintained its status as a beloved neighborhood movie theatre. In 1997, James Rosenfield purchased it from long time owner Sandy Allen with the intention of maintaining its status as a single screen venue. It stayed in the Donald Douglas family for some time.