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Fallbrook Mission Theater turns 75

FALLBROOK – On Oct. 7, Fallbrook Mission Theater will celebrate 75 years being in the heart of Fallbrook. Since 1948, the Mission Theater has been an integral part of downtown Fallbrook and has been a place for entertainment and creating memories for the community.

The motion picture theater has had a certain place in the heart of America and American history.

One of the first moving pictures shown to a public audience was in 1895. It lasted 46 seconds and showed workers leaving a factory.

It was so successful that, a year later, it was followed by "Arrival of a Train at a Train Station." Moving pictures were so new that people actually fled the theater thinking that they were going to be crushed by the oncoming train.

The public was so enthralled with this moving picture invention, that inexpensive Nickelodeons began to pop up all across the country. For a few cents, you could watch in action all sorts of things from women dancing to what at the time was shocking: the first screen kiss.

It didn't take long to realize that instead of charging 5 cents per person per viewing machine, why not charge 5 cents per person and project the image on a screen where many could watch at the same time? And so, the motion picture theater was born.

The new invention was so popular, so affordable, and so well attended that by the 1920's, movie theater palaces with thousands of seats appeared. They were elaborate and at least 3 out of 5 Americans attended the movies at least once a week.

To capitalize on this profitable venture, in 1936, believing that a modern professional theater showing more than one or two movies a week would be a good investment, Henry and Alice Appleford, bought an empty lot on Hawthorne Street and built a large concrete two-story building to be Fallbrook's new 300 seat movie theater.

The Appleford's leased the business to an operator who named it The Mission Theater. The theater opened on Saturday, Dec.12, 1936. The new theater was open seven nights a week, with Saturday matinees. The feature movie changed every third day. Curtis and Dorothea Donath, a local couple, bought the successful Mission Theater soon after it opened. Dorothea managed the theater. Her husband had a contracting business.

Within 10 years, in 1947 with the end of the war, motion picture attendance was at its highest level and the Mission Theater on Hawthorne was no longer big enough.

In 1947, the Donath's bought another lot on Main Avenue to build a new Mission Theater with nearly twice the capacity. The New Mission Theater had a soundproof crying room with a window and audio so mothers with restless babies could enjoy the movie.

The lobby snack bar was open to theater patrons and sidewalk customers. The new Mission Theater with 600 seats opened on Oct. 9, 1948. The Donath's lived in the 3-bedroom penthouse upstairs.

In 1952, the theater boasted it had air conditioning for cool comfort. In 1955, the theater was purchased by the Mitterling Family.

In 1987, a group called the Fallbrook Players rented the theater. They eliminated half the seats and reduced the seating to 300. Where the seats once stood, a large stage was built along with four dressing rooms for theatrical performances.

The movie screen was moved from the back wall to the front of the new stage. A movie producer, who lived locally, donated the stage curtains and the old theater seats were replaced with seats from a closed down movie theater in Palm Springs. The Fallbrook Players produced four theatrical shows per year and showed movies in between.

In the late 80's/early 90's, the theater stopped showing movies.

For decades the theater was the center of downtown Fallbrook. But like most movie houses dealing with the advent of television, and now the internet, it struggled to survive and eventually stopped showing films.

In an effort to survive over the last three decades, the theater has hosted theatrical plays, musicals, theater classes, concerts, contests, and film festivals.

And through that time, the theater felt its age and fell into disrepair and deferred maintenance. In 2018, it went on the market and its future was uncertain.

Many small-town theaters cannot survive in today's world and have just remained closed. Others have become venues that are no longer entertainment related such as churches and are not the best use for a property on Main Street

Over the last several years the theater has undergone extensive repairs and improvements and is showing movies once again. The theater currently shows classic films and has live performances on a regular basis.

Most people who have lived in Fallbrook long enough to remember the Mission Theater have fond memories of their time there.

On Oct. 7, the theater will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a special event including hors d'oeuvres, champagne, cake, a history of the theater and a special screening of the very first movie shown at the theater in October 1948, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

This event is open to the public and promises to be an educational and fun evening.

The revived Mission Theater hopes to remain a main fixture in the heart of Fallbrook by becoming an entertainment center with movies, live shows, and special events.

In an era when most theaters are closing due to home live streaming, the Mission Theater hopes to bring back a gathering space that will create a sense of community that once existed all across America, especially in small towns like Fallbrook.

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Submitted by Fallbrook Mission Theater.


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