Ryan Chase’s family roots in downtown Santa Ana (DTSA) date back to 1919, when his great-grandfather opened a shoe store on Fourth Street. A third-generation principal at S&A Management and president of the Downtown Inc. business-improvement district, Chase, with the support of a family that is the largest private-property owner in Santa Ana, made reinventing DTSA his “pet project” half a dozen years ago.
Part of that involved changing the name of Fiesta Marketplace to East End, where new tenants were encouraged to open shops, markets, brewpubs, trendy restaurants such as Playground and yet another reincarnation of the Yost Theater, which had been among a cluster of movie theaters concentrated in and around DTSA.
A short walk from the Yost was the Fiesta Twin movie theater, which opened in 1988 and had a program of mostly mainstream Hollywood films with Spanish subtitles. That made perfect business sense because, by 2001, Census Bureau estimates showed Santa Ana had the highest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents in the nation.
However, when Chase was setting the East End reinvention in motion, he took a hard look at the two-screen Fiesta Twin’s operator, Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Theaters, which at its peak had 68 screens in multiple states that predominantly featured movies for Spanish speakers. The chain was down to only two venues, including Fiesta Twin, where the short-term lease was up. “Frankly, their concept was not working anymore for a variety of reasons,” Chase says, mentioning one: Most immigrants had assimilated to the point that they patronized theaters with English-language movies more than those presented, dubbed or subtitled in Spanish.
“We were looking at what the options were, and at the same time, this idea of alternative movie venues came across our thoughts,” Chase recalls. “I have traveled to downtowns all over world and looked at what drives them. Independent film is definitely a piece of the puzzle.”
Theaters such as the Regal’s University Town Center in Irvine and Regency’s South Coast Village in southern Santa Ana would (and still do) include indie and foreign titles in their lineups, but “Orange County was lacking a true arthouse,” Chase says. “We felt if we could find someone who could bring one here, it would be good for the culture of Orange County, the film industry in Orange County, and a good driver for the area, a good anchor.”
That someone turned out to be Logan Crow, the executive director of what is now the Frida Cinema, which on Thursday, Feb. 21 celebrates its fifth anniversary.
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Crow was viewed as an outsider when he arrived to helm the Frida Cinema, but he was born at Fountain Valley Community Hospital to parents from Central (Nicaragua) and South America (Ecuador). He spent most of his childhood and teen years in the Gardena, Torrance and Redondo Beach areas, where he credits the Bijou Theatre in Hermosa Beach with being his “home away from home starting at a very early age.”
While Crow did go to Mann’s Torrance or General Cinema in Redondo Beach for mainstream films such as Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was the two-screen Bijou that really shaped him, showing fare such as Diva, Eraserhead and Cinema Paradiso. “I was 10 when I saw Blue Velvet,” he says of David Lynch’s twisted fever dream. “There was a dark whimsy about it. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.”
He’s now a lifetime devotee of darker films best enjoyed in the dark. Nearly as much as viewing, he loved sharing titles with friends, just as his big sister Giselle had done (and still does) with him. Of course, it never occurred to him that such an affinity could lead to a job, even once he was grown up, living in Silverlake and volunteering at American Cinematheque, the nonprofit alternative-screening organization that presents films at the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica.
As a volunteer, Crow learned the ropes of running an arthouse and plugged himself into national organizations dedicated to their survival. “I realized you can make a living doing this,” he says, bringing up something he now drives home to student groups he is asked to speak to: “If I had not volunteered, I never would have made that connection.”
But volunteering was not paying his bills, and wanting to attend film school, he enrolled at Long Beach City College to dispense with the general-education requirements. Using the connections of his father, who was in the real-estate business, Crow also started working as a part-time mortgage-loan broker. “I did that for eight years,” he says, “but I was very frustrated because there was nothing creative about it.”
In his spare time, he parlayed his love for indie films into the MySpace page Mondo Celluloid, which featured listings for Los Angeles-area arthouses and later branched out to include movie reviews and interviews. He built up such a following that Mondo Celluloid began booking midnight movies around LA County, including at what was then the just-reopened Art Theatre in Long Beach.
Mondo Midnights were first held monthly, then weekly because of their popularity. Crow then started hearing from older people who wanted to attend his showings but could not swing the midnight start times. They asked if Mondo Celluloid would entertain earlier screenings, but Crow could not afford the higher booking fees of the time slots before midnight. But that got him thinking about a membership organization like American Cinematheque.
In 2009, the nonprofit Long Beach Cinematheque was born (and Crow is now celebrating the 10th anniversary of that outfit). The Long Beach nonprofit began presenting earlier shows at Art Theatre, and grant funding led to the acquisition of projection equipment for outdoor screenings all over town. A May 2009 showing of Night of the Living Dead was paired with Long Beach’s first Zombie Walk. By 2011, the Zombie Walk occupied an entire city block and drew 3,000 people to devour food, music and cult-classic movies. “It was fun,” Crow says, “and exhausting.”
Great ideas to further expand Long Beach Cinematheque kept coming to Crow, but he realized they could not come to fruition without a venue of their own. “I heard the term ‘spinning your wheels’ a lot,” he says. It’s expensive enough for a nonprofit to rent an existing old movie theater, especially with them disappearing because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to invest in digital-projection systems required for current films. As this struggle was playing out for Crow, an email arrived from a stranger named Ryan Chase.
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When the Zombie Walk was really humming, Crow wanted to investigate serving hard liquor, but he had no idea how to go about getting the proper permitting. By then, he was living in Santa Ana, where he was put in touch with Jeff Hall, the co-owner of DTSA restaurants C4 Deli: The Cure for the Common and Chapter One: the modern local. “We didn’t move forward with the liquor idea, but Jeff and I loosely stayed in touch,” Crow says.
Over in Santa Ana, the theaters at MainPlace Mall started presenting second-run films because massive cineplexes such as the AMC in nearby Orange locked in ever-expanding lineups of first-run pictures for its 30 screens. A recast Fiesta Twin would have to somehow carve out a different niche than those, so Chase needed ideas. He asked among the DTSA brain trust if anyone knew someone with movie-theater expertise, and Hall told him about “a guy in Long Beach who was, for whatever reason, very limited because he could only present cinema in off-hours but was doing some very cool stuff.”
Chase confides he immediately thought Crow might slide in and “take over” Fiesta Twin, but the landlord wanted to vet the newcomer because it would be “a big step for Logan” and “running a full-fledged theater was not a full-time thing for him.”
Crow needed to see what he was dealing with, so he arranged to meet Hall outside the Fiesta Twin. An enthusiastic attendee of DTSA’s monthly art walks, Crow thought the movie house in question was the old Princess Theatre, which is about a half block away and now a church. Once he arrived at the actual meeting place, walked inside and looked around, he immediately saw the potential.
“Remember the movie Bugsy?” he asks. “It didn’t really happen, but Warren Beatty [as Bugsy Siegel] looks at a gambling joint in the middle of the desert and visualizes what would become Las Vegas. That’s how I felt. I could see where the movie posters would go and how the counter would be set up. As an arthouse, it could be Cinefamily meets the New Beverly.”
However, he knew doing it right would be costly, and at the time, Long Beach Cinematheque had $2,000 in the bank. Money could be raised to get in the door in DTSA, but a costly digital conversion also loomed.
A larger issue would be what the new incarnation of the Fiesta Twin would represent. While Crow likes to present movies that represent who he is—“I am a Latin, LGBT, horror-movie lover”—the perception could not help but be that an artsy-fartsy arthouse would drive out a mamí y papí theater to become the DTSA symbol for gentrification.
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Before Fiesta Twin closed on Jan. 5, 2014, and reopened as the Frida Cinema on Feb. 21, 2014, an odd welcome had already come 11 months before, as summed up in the headline “Long Beach Cinematheque to Program Fiesta Twin Theatre in Downtown Santa Ana, Furthering the Area’s Gentrification.” The date: March 13, 2013. The publication: OC Weekly. The writer: yours truly.
The Frida Cinema and the DTSA gentrification have gone together like Bogey and Bacall. Of course, before Crow’s arrival, the Chases’ rebranding of the Fiesta Marketplace as East End had been chided, as summed up by another Weekling, former el jefe Gustavo Arellano, who accused the family of “driving out every last vestige” of Mexican culture in the area.
Ryan Chase now says it was clear to him the downfall of the Fiesta Twin and other DTSA businesses—whose predominantly Latino clientele migrated to big retail and entertainment chains that were wooing them specifically—indicated that market forces had dictated a multicultural crowd was vital to the survival of Fiesta Marketplace/East End.
Not everyone bought that argument. Outside the Yost in October 2016, Santa Ana City Council members mingled with Chase and other business owners and merchants to celebrate the American Planning Association having honored DTSA with one of its 16 “Great Neighborhoods in America” awards. The turd in the punch bowl came in the form of protesters with signs and loud chants of “Gentrification is racist!” marching toward—where else?—the Frida Cinema.
Protege Santa Ana-Against Gentrification members say they were the ones taunted one evening in August 2017, when they showed up to disrupt a Downtown Inc. forum at the Frida before being escorted out by police. “Our demands were clear,” read the group’s recap of the evening via Facebook. “Get out of Santa Ana.”
Crow says he knew from the get-go the gentrification rap would be applied to whatever moved into the Fiesta Twin space. That’s why, before he even took the gig, he met with Latino artists downtown to explain his vision for a cultural gathering place that was community-based and mission-driven. Crow says he was told that as long as the theater stuck to that, it would be fine, but any deviation would be found out, exposed and amplified to Frida’s peril.
The most symbolic gesture, which came after months of agonizing, was naming the 680-seat venue after Frida Kahlo, the lauded Mexican painter and champion of self-expression. Her portraits, self-portraits and other works were inspired by the nature, artifacts and popular culture of her native country as she explored questions of race, class, gender, identity and post-colonialism in Mexican society.
For the Frida Cinema, the real proof has been in the programming. Santa Ana’s own OC Film Fiesta festival moved in during Frida’s inaugural year, and there have been numerous bilingual screening events since, with some even flipping the old Fiesta Twin format by having Spanish-language films with English subtitles for the assembled gabachos.
In January 2016, Frida partnered with Arts Orange County to present screenings of The Other Barrio, a 2015 neo-film noir that follows a housing inspector investigating the suspicious circumstances of a fatal fire in a residential hotel in San Francisco’s Latino Mission District. The two dates of showings were followed by panel discussions on gentrification and the displacement of low-income communities.
Four films were shown at Frida last year as part of Latin American Studies in Motion, a series of cultural events presented by UC Irvine and Bowers Museum, with California Humanities grant funding. That $5,000 award was aimed at programming of contemporary interest and relevance to Latin American and Latinx residents of Santa Ana, as well as community members interested in learning about Latin American history, culture, and recent social and environmental change.
Roma earned multiplex chain bans because it debuted on Netflix, so Frida showed Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language, gorgeously shot, black-and-white drama, which is loosely based on his middle-class Mexico City upbringing in the 1970s. The current Oscar-race leader with 10 nominations, including Best Picture, packed Frida for a week.
The nationally touring Hola Mexico Film Festival, which included nine Spanish-language films released south of the border recently, played over seven days at the Frida, with two showings of the excellent horror movie Vuelven drawing the largest crowds of anywhere except San Francisco.
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Gentrification is one thing, but what about “gaytrification”? That’s what New Santa Ana blogger Art Pedroza accused the Chase family of trading in by replacing Fiesta Twin with the Frida Cinema. (I swear had I known Pedroza was posting that on March 13, 2013, I would have saved my own gentrification bile for the next day.)
Pedroza’s point was an arthouse and other like-minded businesses and their patrons would drive out mom-and-pop Mexican shops and, well, mom and pop Mexicans. Snark alert: “The silver lining in all this is that the creepy men who congregate at night in Santa Ana’s Santiago Park will now have somewhere else to hook up in the dark.”
Homophobia aside, the Frida has sought to make gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning people feel welcome—and vice versa. The marquee was paid for with proceeds from a fundraiser held by the grassroots group Gay Neighbors, Families and Friends of Santa Ana, who felt the old signage looked too worn and cracked.
Frida has returned the favor with screenings benefitting various LGBT causes, from Orange County schools’ Gay-Straight Alliance chapters to DeColores Queer OC’s Reyes Scholarship, which provides financial support for transgendered youth after the tragic murder of DeColores founding member Zoraida Reyes. A screening of Pride celebrated the opening of the Frida’s upstairs neighbor at 305 E. Fourth St.: the Orange County LGBT satellite center. That nonprofit holds benefits at the Frida just about monthly, and there is no better place to watch season debuts and finales of RuPaul’s Drag Race, hosted live and in-person “by the always fierce and fabulous duo Isabella Xochitl and Kunda Couture.”
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Crow says he is fine with programming challenging titles that draw only 15 to 20 viewers, so long as each of them leave the Frida being changed. He’s as willing to take risks with a title as Chase was with him. “He took a huge risk,” Crow says. “It’s a pure, faith-based stab at this guy who seems passionate. The risk he took makes no sense in retrospect. Thank God he did. I am just eternally grateful.”
His goals to make “Orange County’s year-round film festival” even better includes physical repairs, “starting with the restrooms and moving to the lobby.” Crow also wants to pump up marketing, upgrade the projector and sound system, bring in more guest speakers and educational programs, and carve out a small screening room for overflow crowds and student films. He would like the ability to sell liquor, hold more live events, screen 3D movies (and a 3D movie series!), offer scholarships to local filmmakers, hold classes for interns earning school credit, and develop his staff so people can do one job instead of several. Oh, and a certain executive director sure could use an assistant.
“We’ve talked a little bit here and there,” says Chase, when asked if Crow has shared his goals. “I would like to see it taken to the next level, but I think that is going to take more patrons to help support it. By having a proven track record of doing what he’s doing, which is showing films that are only seen by a few people in the country, by curating attractions as an independent operator, there is no question he can reach his goals.”
As for how much the Chases are willing to assist with that, he answers, “My family and I did some very creative things to get the theater off the ground.”
He did not want to elaborate except to say, “We did some stuff most owners don’t do. But we believed in Logan, we believed in his concept, we believed in the area, and we believed it would be very good for the community.”
Chase says he was convinced his family made the right decision after he walked out of a downtown restaurant, looked over at the Frida Cinema entrance and saw a long line of people waiting to get in. Each was in costume, as the theater is a safe space for cosplayers to congregate.
“That’s the epitome of what you just don’t see anywhere else in Orange County,” Chase says. “It is so cool and unique. And we knew it really would just keep getting better and improving. We support Logan, we believe in him, because he does amazing things at the Frida. I am happy for him.”
The Frida Cinema’s Fifth Anniversary Screening and Celebration at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Thursday, Feb. 21, mixer, 6:30 p.m.; presentation on the theater’s accomplishments and a screening of Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece Casablanca, 7:30 p.m. $20 (includes drinks, hors d’oeuvres, movie, popcorn and soda).
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.