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Rebirth of a Landmark

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 early talents.

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 ground-floor retail.

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 Downtown.

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.”

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“The place was trashed by the earthquake.” Karl Schober


“A few people still around can still remember the movie theater.”


“I just said, I ain’t going to do nothing.”


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