Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The story of the Azteca Theater

 The Azteca Theater was built by Gustavo Acosta and opened Nov. 30, 1948. Acosta had several theaters and worked out of  Los Angeles. It was the first Spanish-only theater in Fresno and served the whole San Joaquin valley.

The design was by Fresno firm  Johnson Engineers. They had also been involved in some of the facade work on the Warnor's Theater in Fresno and designed the Biola Theater which was similar in design to the Azteca.
Azteca Theater, December 1982
showing Ahi Esta El Detalle and
Juan Gallo for 99-cents.
Photo Courtesy American Classic Images
The iron roof trusses came from Sanger Iron. Add a lot of concrete and well-laid red bricks and  the theater has a long future ahead.

In 1956 Acosta  leased the Azteca Theater to friend Arturo Tirado.who had managed a theater in Bakersfield 1944-1953. The Azteca Theater received Spanish language  film distribution through Acosta in Los Angeles.

Arturo Tirado was born in 1912 to a family of entertainers originally from Spain  that moved to Los Angeles around 1918 and he acted in theaters and some cinema and even played violin in a music group.. His father Romualdo Tirado was quite famous in the theater as and actor and writer and the quintessential Cantinflas.

In addition to running the theater, Arturo organized tours in the US for many famous actors and musicians from Mexico. Many A-list performers passed through Fresno and the Azteca.

Mexican cinema had made great progress since the 1930s but was little known outside Latin America. The Spanish speaking community of Fresno strongly supported the Azteca Theater  and  several other Spanish language theaters that followed.

Tirado ran the Azteca until the mid-1980s. In its later years it became more of a social center for the Mexican-American community helping those in need, holding charitable food drives.  Tirado even wrote some Spanish language brochures on legal citizenship to help the many workers from Mexico who populated the San Joaquin valley.

The theater was the center for music, vaudeville, comedy and theatricals as well as cinema for the Mexican-American community. All the top stars from Mexico came to Fresno and filled the theater. When Cesar Chavez made his famous march with farm workers from Delano to Sacramento he stopped at the Azteca and rallied his followers. The mayor, Tirado and  somewhat notorius Fresno Police Chief  Morton escorted the march through the area to show respect and guarantee safe passage.

In 1961 Tirado held a meeting in San Francisco that resulted in the formation of  the Spanish Pictures Exhibitors Association. Elected President, Tirado represented almost 300 Spanish language movie houses nationwide in negotiations with distributors. It was the golden age for Mexican movies. Cantinflas, Pedro Infante, Maria Felix, Agustin Lara, Pedro Vargas, Miguel Aceves Mejia, Pedro Armendariz, Antonio Aguilar and Jose Alfredo Jimenez were among the luminaries seen at the Azteca Theater.

 In the early 1980s the theater ran budget films in English and Spanish. Karate films and Bruce Lee were also popular.  But the time had come for Tirado to retire and so did the theater. Single screen movie houses disappeared all over the country in favor of multi-screen theaters. (In the 1990s many multi-screen theaters closed in favor of 20-plus screen theaters.) Video tapes also appeared to lure customers away.

The theater fell into neglect in the late 1980s and by 1995 was in derelict condition with doors off, holes in the roof, and all seats and equipment removed.   The seats were hauled of to Levy's for recycling. The Fresno police patrol saw them being removed and when they understood they were being recycled a few offices bought a few. The only seats from the Azteca remaining are those in the homes of  a few police officers in Fresno!
 There used to be 10 large murals of  Mexican and Aztec life on the wall and many framed photos of stars of Mexico. Some were removed and only two few destroyed by water from the roof were left.

Several new owners got involved with ideas for a cotillion ballroom or other uses, but it did not materialize.
A roof repair job gone awry resulted in all rain water running into the building forming a pond.  Bums ransacked the interior  and occupied the place along with pigeons and cats. It had become a hazardous building by neglect.

Since 1999 it has been stabilized and has prospects for a good future with new owner David Owens. Fisk Construction  did the crucial roof repairs and it is looking much better. Especially after some paint and patch from Lance Fry's crew. The iPacific art gallery is open occasionally and a master locksmith, Archie Wood, occupied the left commercial wing until 2013.

Azteca Theater in 2014
Update!  On September 26, 2014, the Azteca Theater celebrated a grand reopening under the management of Laura Barboza!

Watch for more chapters from the Azteca Theater as the story continues!
Activities and events are now on Facebook.
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                       En Espanol

Manuel G. Gonzales wrote a great history of  the Azteca Theater and Latino culture in Central California in the  March 22, 2006 edition of California History Magazine titled, "Arturo Tirado and the Teatro Azteca: Mexican popular culture in the central San Joaquin Valley."
Find it in your library or it is available for purchase:
Arturo Tirado and the Teatro Azteca: Mexican popular culture in the central San Joaquin Valley.: An article from: California History


  1. Theaters' architectures are often different from those of ordinary infrastructures. Of course, greatly listening to the sound effects and music from movies or plays, indicate their walls are thicker; as well as the roofs and doors. More often than not, theaters don't have windows! People actually know that already.

  2. Hi Max, The Azteca Theater has thick brick walls and steel trusses for the roof. The windows om front are for the upstairs bathrooms. It was built solidly, for sure!

  3. It would be nice to see the theater come back to life and show Art House movies and be available for special events that regular theaters aren't willing the host. Also revitalize the old cafe next door so people can do a 'Dinner and a Movie' night. I think an 50's Art Deco style would look nice.