Nostalgia and uncertainty abound as Highland Theatre’s 99-year lease comes to an end

Highland Theatres in Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

The Highland Theatre building, a Historical-Cultural Monument and home to a discount cinema since 1925, has been listed on the market. Located at 5604 North Figueroa St., the building’s 99-year lease expires in 2023. The sale does not include the theatre business itself, and the façade of the building cannot be altered.

Anthony Ramirez, a theatre staffer, said that with the recent spate of theatre closures, Highland Park’s sole discount cinema has stood out as a link to both the history of the community and cinema itself.

“As times have changed, this specific theatre remains classic,” Ramirez said.

Jamie Tijerina, the president of Highland Park Heritage Trust, said the theatre is very important to long-term residents of Highland Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, many of whom have fond memories there.

“Thinking about Highland Theatre tends to bring back both a sense of nostalgia and a sense of the present because many of us still make new memories there regularly,” Tijerina said via email. “From first dates to hanging out after school with friends, seeing the latest movie with your family, attending the Highland Park Film Festival, or even a premiere.”

Tijerina said that the long-standing theatre is not only a nostalgic sight but also a draw in its own right.

“The Highland Theatre has been an important community hub for us here for a long time,” Tijerina said. “I hope to see this remain as a theatre that is accessible for all in the community.”

Highland Theatres in Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

Community Organizer Mando Medina, who owns an anti-gentrification Instagram page, said locals often cannot afford to open new enterprises in Highland Park since leases are so expensive. With gentrification ongoing, Medina said he strongly fears the sale of the Highland Theatre will contribute to the displacement of original inhabitants of Northeast Los Angeles, the majority of whom are Latino. Medina said that many non-locals overtake long-standing businesses and open businesses that cater to newer and wealthier residents.

According to Medina, in addition to adding an influx of unwanted capital, the sale of the theatre would be a loss of affordable communal space. Ramirez said the Highland Theatre has community-building power not available through streaming services, which provide a more individualistic experience.

“It’s an area where a lot of families and friends could come gather and watch a movie together, in person, face to face,” Ramirez said. “The theatre’s largest customer base is families with children.”

To these families, the movies themselves are sometimes not the only reason for the theatre’s importance. According to Ramirez, during the heatwave that ripped through California recently, many found themselves taking shelter for an hour or two in the theatre and enjoying its air conditioning.

Highland Theatres in Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

Despite community efforts and wishes, Tijerina said, little can be done to ensure the property remains a movie house. Though there have been cases where people have raised money for a nonprofit to purchase businesses that benefit the community, Tijerina said that with the end of the lease fast approaching, the future of the theatre is uncertain at best.

“The reality is that we are limited by the available capital in the community,” Tijerina said.

Medina said that although he was aware of the obstacles to the fight to preserve the theatre, he had organized a group called Defend Highland Theatre to make the voices of Highland Park residents heard.

“You’ve got to contest every single one,” Medina said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to stop it, and we know we can’t, but I mean, in my opinion — at least we’re going to try, right?