If you can’t afford a DeLorean or other time machine, you can get a lot of the same effect by visiting the Gem Theatre on Main Street in downtown Garden Grove.
Opened in 1923 for vaudeville shows and silent films, the Gem has had its ups and downs over the century and now is a literal “gem” as a venue for high quality musical theater.
We saw a production of “Oklahoma!” there on Sunday, with performances that would rival that of Broadway. The music, the acting, lighting, singing and choreography, all would stand up to the scrutiny of all but the most elitist theater snobs.
The Gem was, for many years, the only movie theater in town. In fact, there were no other places to see flicks closer than downtown Anaheim or Santa Ana until the 1950s.
When my family moved to Garden Grove in 1960, the Gem was best-known by me and other kids as a place for Saturday matinees. The White family, whose home was located directly north of the theater on what was then Euclid Street, programmed the place with slightly stale but nevertheless enjoyable kid-friendly movies.
My brother, sister and I would walk there and stand in line with about 100 other kids to pay 25 cents each for a seat, buy some certainly nutritional snacks (I favored Jujubes at that time) and watch a series of Biblical movies, westerns and adventure tales.
“Tarzan,” “Ben Hur,” “Wagon Master, “Jason and the Argonauts,” “The Ten Commandments” exploded across the screen in the dark, firing our grammar school imaginations.
So what if the venue was less than pristine? (Wags at the old Garden Grove Daily News on Century Boulevard called it “The Germ”). So what if your sneakers stuck to the floor?
The Gem would eventually fall on hard times as competition grew from other larger, more modern movie palaces. It closed in 1971 with the promise of “Open Soon!” on the weathered marquee.
Even though shuttered, the place was too beloved and of such historic and sentimental value that tearing it down was unthinkable. The City of Garden Grove, along with some visionary and hard-charging residents, stepped up and acquired the place, renovated it and it reopened in 1979 as a live theater.
A companion 550-seat outdoor amphitheater was built next door, and is now the Garden Amp. The Gem survived some changes in management, a fire, and the coronavirus. Under the management of Nicole Cassesso and Damien Lorton, the Gem is probably the most outstanding local live theater in the county. Performances are frequently sold out and reviews are full of adulation.
There are lots of good reasons to go to the Gem. For me, or anyone who munched popcorn while watching Samson pull down the temple or Tarzan swing through the jungle, it’s a trip back to a simpler and memorable time.
We were those kids that used to go there. My parents bought their home in Garden Grove and raised 10 children there, in 1956. Every Saturday we would go to the movies, pay our 25 cents and watch what was ever on.
Something fun and usually there was 2 movies with the break between them…
I am happy it is still entertaining people today and is still there.