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What Is The Future Of The Historic Avo Theatre In Downtown Vista?

By   /  June 7, 2024  /  3 Comments

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TR Robertson – Since the City of Vista took over ownership of The Avo Theatre in 1995, located in Downtown Historic Vista, the former movie theatre has been used by a multitude of groups for numerous activities and performances. There has also been interest in the past from several parties in purchasing and/or leasing the building. The most recent group that had expressed interest, in 2020, was JCG Development. Currently, The Avo Theatre is used occasionally by Moonlight Youth Theatre for various productions. The Avo Theatre is also used for some graduations, but overall, the venue only brings in around $30,000 a year for rental income.

The City of Vista is now in the process of beginning discussions involving an Avo Use Committee discussing the short-and-long-term use of The Avo Theatre and what possibilities are for retaining the historic theatre in the downtown area. The first meeting covered a fact finding about the current status of The Avo regarding yearly use, income, and the general information about the theatre.

  • The Avo Theatre in Downtown Historic Vista

The Avo Theatre, located at 303 Main Street in Downtown Historic Vista, currently has a 385-seat auditorium, an elevated small stage, backstage dressing rooms with restrooms, an upstairs office and small storage area, a small lobby with a concession bar and men’s and women’s restrooms just off of the lobby and a ticket booth close to the entrance to the theatre. There are small parking lots close to the theatre on the same side of the street as The Avo as well as limited street parking. There is also a lighted Avo sign and a billboard on the outside of the front of the building.

What most people don’t know is the history of The Avo Theatre. The theater was built in 1948 as a neighborhood movie house built on the site of a former avocado grove, hence the name “The Avo”. Some even say the lobby resembled an avocado.  The original theatre was designed as a geodesic dome style single screen theater (Quonset hut style today) and designed by S. Charles Lee. Mr. Lee passed away in 1990. He was considered the most prolific and distinguished motion picture theater designer on the West Coast. The original theater had 800 seats and was over twice as big as it now is. The interior walls of the theater were once decorated in the ornate style resembling the Balboa Theater and the Spreckels Theater in downtown San Diego. One unique feature the theatre had was a “Crying Room” where parents could take children that were too noisy or crying and the parent could still see the movie.  The Avo Movie Theater opened for business on December 11, 1948, showing the movie “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, starring Edward G. Robinson. The owner of The Avo was Mr. Aderahiam Shelhoup. Abe also owned a department store in Vista named Shelhoup’s that was built in 1940. This department store closed in 1996. Abe’s son, Kam Shelhoup, was a chief flight instructor at Pinnacle Aviation Academy at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. The cost for a movie ticket when the theater opened was .25 cents and a bag of popcorn was .10 cents. Things have certainly changed. The Avo was the second movie theater opened in Vista. The first was The Vista Theater, once located roughly where The Wave is now located.

Another fascinating thing aspect of the History of The Avo. Involves the belief by some that The Avo Theatre is haunted. Reports of unusual occurrences began surfacing in the 1990’s. What is most unusual about this is the fact that no one has ever died in the Avo. In 2013, the San Diego Paranormal Research Society spent several nights over a weekend in The Avo to see what they could observe. This group had investigated reports about unusual happenings on The Star of India, a home in the Gaslamp Quarter and in Vista’s Rancho Buena Vista Adobe, where they reported hearing voices from owners from the 1800’s. Former Moonlight Artistic Director Kathy Brombacher said, in a San Diego Union interview, that she “had many uneasy moments in the creaky upstairs hallway and office”. The following are some of the occasional reports from those saying The Avo offers a lot more than the shows on stage.

  • A ghostly man that looks like a farmer in the upstairs spotlight deck above the house right seating area.
  • A male figure gliding along the balcony rail that may have resembled the theater’s onetime manager, Earl White.
  • A man laughing late at night when the theater was empty.
  • Strange white sunspots on interior photos of the theater that were shot in the early 2000’s.
  • Several reports of people feeling someone was behind them when no one was there.
  • Unusual cold spots suddenly appearing in several of the upstairs rooms or hallway.
  • Sounds of someone walking in areas when no one is there.
  • The voice of a little girl named Natalie.

What was mainly reported indicated that other than a “spooky” feeling, it was felt most of whatever is going on in The Avo, spirit wise, has “good emotional energy and positive memories”. This is good to know for those wanting to use The Avo for different events.

Whether you believe in ghostly or unusual occurrences or not, The Avo Theatre was once a thriving and popular location for many Vista citizens to gather, whether it was for movies or for a play or musical or for some other event. The City of Vista simply wants to see what can be done to use The Avo more efficiently and productively. The Avo Use Committee will be taking a look at what all of this will take. One of the recommendations is for the Committee to take a trip for a firsthand look at the Avo Theatre and all of the different areas. Who knows, maybe they will encounter some additional visitors who might have some ideas to share.

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3 Comments

  1. Kevin Leahy says:

    Mr Robertson,
    Thanks for the background on the Avo. I frequent Main Street often and have wondered about it.
    It’s a great venue for local dramatic group shows. As compared to the Moonlight – which I enjoy. But can chill you to the bones at evening performances.
    I hope something good can come of historic theater.
    Kevin

  2. Kevin says:

    Great deep dive article! Very interesting.

  3. Runa says:

    .Great article, love to learn the history. I sure hope they can keep and use for more events.

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