Wednesday, June 27, 1923, was a day of celebration in Hermosa Beach.

It's the day the Metropolitan Theatre opened in the small beach city promising tourists and residents alike a more modern spot for watching movies.

The informal opening was billed in the Hermosa Beach Review as a “program unparalleled in South Bay history.” It included the world premiere of “Circus Days,” featuring silent film child star, Jackie Coogan, who came to fame starring opposite Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” in 1921.

The historical event also featured the Lew Lewis Orchestra, speeches by prominent citizens and appearances by cast members of “Circus Days,” along with producer Sol Lesser.

“Sol Lesser was a big time silent film producer and he came down for the opening... there was also some vaudeville acts that performed on opening day,” said Hermosa Beach Museum consultant on exhibitions, Bradley Peacock.

An exhibit at the Hermosa Beach Museum, “Going to the Movies: The Story of the Bijou Theater,” hosted by the Hermosa Beach Historical Society, opens Thursday, March 5, and traces the history of the Metropolitan Theatre through its decades as a movie theater, until its closing as the Bijou Theater in 1996.

On Friday, March 6, the documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” directed by Hermosa Beach's April Wright, which features vintage images of the theater, will be screened at the Hermosa Beach Community Theatre beginning at 7 p.m.

Cinematic history

The Metropolitan Theatre was the brainchild of Ralph E. Matteson and his business partners who wanted to build a new home for a bank, theater and other businesses at the southwest corner of 13th Street and Hermosa Avenue.

“Originally it was the First National Bank of Hermosa.... they built a temporary bank and then they built the existing complex, which became the theater in the bank and multiple other retails at that location,” Peacock said.

The new theater, designed by local architect Richard Douglas King and the Los Angeles Engineering Co., had 1,200 seats and a pipe organ and was named through a contest in the Hermosa Beach Review.

The Metropolitan Theatre later became the Hermosa Theatre in the early 1930s. It was still open as a movie theater and sometimes concert hall when it became known as the Bijou in 1983. The Bijou finally closed its doors after years of financial struggles in December 1996.

Using artifacts in the Museum's collection, the exhibit features original theater seats, a vintage projector used at the Hermosa Theatre, newspaper articles, theater brochures and photos.

“The biggest challenge was trying to pinpoint some dates especially when it transitioned from the Metropolitan Theatre," Peacock said. "It was later sold to Fox (West Coast) Theatre company, which operated a lot of theaters, they changed its name to the Hermosa,” Peacock said. “But I don't really have much information in that general area about the theater. We don't get much on it until it becomes The Cove theater in 1973.”

Movie palaces

Hermosa Beach's April Wright recalls seeing films like “Untamed Heart,” starring Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei, and director Peter Jackson's first film “Heavenly Creatures,” at the Bijou when she moved to the beach cities in the 1990s.

As a tribute to her local theater, Wright added an image of the Bijou, as well as when it was known as the Hermosa Theater, in her documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” which has been on the movie festival circuit since last year.

The documentary focuses on the rise and fall of movie palaces, mostly in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, that showcased motion pictures as they became one of the country's most popular pastimes during the early 20th century.

“My documentary tells the overall story and the context of what and why it happened,” said Wright of the rise of the movie palace. “But as I've been traveling, even theaters that are not included in the film feel like it's their story, because their theaters went through all the things shown in the film. I don't know if our Bijou would ever be returned to a theater, but somebody cared enough to save that beautiful historic building.”

On March 6, a reception in the museum will take place at 5:30 p.m., with the screening of “Going Attractions” in the Community Theatre at 7 p.m. Tickets to the screening are $10, and can be purchased at HermosaBeachHistoricalSociety.org, and at the door.

Community stories

The Museum is collecting stories about experiences at the theater during its long history. They are hoping to get oral histories on tape or stories in writing at the museum.

Jamie Erickson, museum administrator, said the “benefits of being a local museum that serves the community, is the opportunity to hear about history first hand” and “connect with one another.”

“We will have postcards available during our exhibition opening and documentary screening events, and encourage people to share a piece of their history with us,” said Erickson. “We have greatly enjoyed curating this exhibition, and are looking forward to the stories the community has to share with us.”

Erickson added, “From film premieres to a favorite movie candy, I have not met a South Bay resident who is unable to tell us a story about the theater.”

For those interested in telling their stories, visit HermosaBeachHistoricalSociety.org, or visit their Facebook page.

Admission is free for the exhibition opening and reception, which takes place March 5, beginning at 6:30 p.m., at the Museum, located at 710 Pier Ave.

Contact this reporter at mhixon@tbrnews.com or on Twitter @michaeljhixon.com.

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