By Jorge Casuso
March 19 -- For most of the 20th century, the Mayfair Theater survived
the birth of opulent movie palaces, a string of unsuccessful impresarios
and an earthquake that shook the building apart.
Now 14 years after the Northridge earthquake, what will be left
of the old structure will become the façade of a new 34-unit
apartment building with retail on the ground floor just steps away
from the bustling Third Street Promenade.
“The place was trashed by the earthquake,” said Karl
Schober, who owns the building. “The guts of the theater collapsed.”
The saga of the Mayfair began when Schober’s
grandfather Charles A. Tegner, one of Santa Monica’s
pioneers, built the old theater for the silent movies that
were all the rage. The theater was called the Majestic when
it opened its doors in 1911, one of the many buildings designed
by Henry Hollwedel in the fledgling beachside city that numbered
less than 1,000 residents.
The son of a Swedish merchant, Tegner had hit the seas at
an early age, sailing to New York from Sweden, then making
his way to the West Coast in 1890, where he was a carpenter
for legendary developer Lucky Baldwin, ran cattle in Malibu,
worked on the soundings for the world’s largest pier
and fished the Pacific.
(Karl Schober in front of the boarded up Mayfair Theater.
Photo by Jorge Casuso)
Tegner married his wife Emma and settled in Santa Monica in 1905,
where he launched his career in real estate and hired Hollwedel
to build a series of buildings in Santa Monica, including the original
Henshey’s Department store and the Majestic, a silent movie
house on Santa Monica Boulevard off the 2nd Street alley.
The old Majestic thrived during the silent movie era, but the theater
fell on tough times when films started to speak. Despite a major
overhaul for the “talkies,” the 20-year-old venue couldn’t
compete with the bigger state-of-the-art theaters going up in towns
across the film capital, including Santa Monica and Westwood.
“A few people still around can still remember the movie theater,”
said Schober. “It had a bad reputation.”
The old theater screened second-run movies until 1975, when Milt
Larson of the Magic Castle converted the Majestic into a venue for
live acts and christened it the Mayfair.
“He put in parts of old buildings,” Schober said. “The
inside was paneled with doors.”
In 1985, Larson gave up and sold the lease to series of entrepreneurs.
But their ventures in the heart of a flagging Downtown all failed,
including a stint by Chicago’s Second City, the nationally
renown troupe that nurtured many of Saturday Night Live’s
By the time the earthquake hit in 1994, the last tenant had died
during renovations, and Schober, who had bought the building from
his fellow inheritors in 1986, planned to rent it out for occasional
events and movie shoots.
“I got the theater back three days before the earthquake,”
Schober said, noting that the last tenant hadn’t paid rent
nor done the seismic upgrades called for in the lease. “I
was going to keep it as is. I was going to do intermediate things
to keep it afloat.”
But the building wouldn’t withstand the temblor, which knocked
out the roof and left only the teetering walls standing. Days after
the earthquake, it was condemned and red tagged by the City.
“We had to put stuff up there designed by engineers to protect
people,” Schober said. “It was designed so it wouldn’t
fall in the alley and so people could get around it . . . We wanted
to tear it down.”
Schober’s plan was stopped when the City’s Landmarks
Commission voted to declare the battered structure a landmark, protecting
it from the wrecking ball. Schober thought the ruling unfair. When
a building is condemned, he said, the owner has the right to tear
it down or bring it back to code. In the end, Schober did neither.
“I just said, I ain’t going to do nothing,” Schober
said. “I opposed.”
By 2000, Schober had embarked on a new idea for the abandoned structure.
He was building a new structure behind the façade of another
old building he owned on 4th Street that would house offices above
Perhaps he could do the same with what was left of the Mayfair.
But the City had changed its regulations and putting up a commercial
structure required a lengthy and costly planning process. Under
the new guidelines, it would be easier and cheaper to build housing
Schober’s plan for an apartment building is now before the
Architectural Review Board (ARB), which will review a third version
of the design by Santa Monica Architect David Hibbert. Schober,
however, still feels the old Mayfair should have had a second life
as a commercial building.
“I think this is a commercial area,” he said. “This
is a very important job center for people. It’s a very important
office and retail area.”