Santa Monica’s landmark Aero Theatre celebrates 75 years

By Michael Aushenker

Aero Theatre founder Donald Douglas welcomed members of the California State Guard to the theater in July 1942 Photo By Santa Monica History Museum

Aero Theatre founder Donald Douglas welcomed members of the California State Guard to the theater in July 1942
Photo By Santa Monica History Museum

Where else could you hear Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau deliver live commentary during a screening of “Iron Man,” meet Werner Herzog or watch “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” director Blake Edwards, wife Julie Andrews beside him, skewer a moderator to hilarious effect?

It’s safe to say there’s no other venue this side of the 405 that’s anything like the Aero Theatre.

Built by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1940 to entertain its employees, the single-screen Montana Avenue movie palace celebrates its 75th anniversary — and its tenth year as the American Cinematheque’s Westside annex — with a champagne party and special screening of Disney’s 1940 classic “Fantasia” on Friday and a special movie trivia contest on Saturday, the winner earning the chance to plan an upcoming double feature.

Aero Theatre landlord Jim Rosenfield, who in 1997 partnered with Chicago-based investor John Bucksbaum to rescue the theater from decay, vividly recalls the night Edwards bandied his acerbic wit between screenings of his comedies “So What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” and “A Shot in the Dark.”

There’s a lot for him to remember: appearances by Mel Brooks, Wes Anderson, Dustin Hoffman and the time Clint Eastwood broke his own no-autographs policy after his eyes chanced upon Rosenfield’s 7-year-old son holding an Eastwood film poster. “Anybody got a pen?” the gruff star inquired.

“The Aero Theatre is an important part of Santa Monica’s history,” said Louise Gabriel, CEO of the Santa Monica History Museum, which launches an Aero 75th anniversary exhibit on Feb. 24. “Being one of the earliest theaters, it has the distinction of being the oldest running theater in the community.”

Rosenfield goes further, believing the 437-seat Aero to be the longest continuously operating single-screen theater in California.

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