Once Upon a Time… at the Vista: Quentin Tarantino Breathes New Life into an L.A. Classic

Few filmmakers have been as vocal about their love of cinemas and the cinema experience as Quentin Tarantino. A longtime Los Angeleno, the Oscar-winning writer/director has a history of putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to preserving and supporting the cinema culture of his hometown. In the early 2000s, when the New Beverly Cinema was in danger of closing, he began donating $5,000 a month to owner Sherman Torgan to keep it above water. Later that decade, after Torgan passed away, Tarantino bought the cinema outright; in the 15 years since, the cinema has thrived as a bastion for repertory cinema, always screened on film.

In the summer of 2021, Tarantino announced the addition of a second at-risk cinema to his portfolio: the Vista Theater, located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. Built on the site of the Babylon set from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, the Vista was already a part of film history even before it opened i in 1923. Over the next century the Vista would go through several different names and owners, closing its doors for a span of several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It reopened in 1997 after it was purchased by Lance Alspaugh, who also operates the Los Feliz 3 Cinemas in L.A. and the Village Theatres in Coronado, California.

In March 2020, the Vista—like the rest of the cinemas in L.A. and many around the world—closed its doors in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Roughly a year later, when L.A. cinemas began to reopen at limited capacity, the Vista’s doors remained shut; for several months, until Tarantino announced his purchase of the Vista in July, it looked like the august movie palace might become another Covid casualty.

It was roughly two and a half years between Tarantino announcing his purchase of the Vista and its official opening, which took place on November 11, 2023, with several screenings of the Tarantino-penned True Romance. Now, the Vista stands as a sister theater to the New Beverly, screening a mix of first-run films and repertory programming. The auditorium, which seats 400, is “virtually intact from how it was during our occupancy,” says Alspaugh, who still handles operations for the Vista. Tarantino “spared no expense in creating an all-new state-of-the-art projection booth, primarily focused on film projection in 35mm and 70mm formats,” Alspaugh adds. The mezzanine and exterior design, with its Egyptian motifs so popular in the 1920s when the theater was first erected, are the same as well, albeit spruced up for the 21st century.

It’s in the redesigned restrooms and the lobby that the Vista’s new ownership is most obvious; the latter renovation was helmed by Proctor Companies, which designs, makes, and installs food service equipment and facilities for cinemas and other venues. Proctor was first approached about the project at the August 2020 CinemaCon. Michael Giacinto, sales director at Proctor Companies, says that on their end the project was “roughly three years in the making, from initial contact to the [theater] opening.”

When Proctor first got involved, the brief they received was that Tarantino “want[ed] a vintage-type concessions stand. Well, what does ‘vintage’ mean to you? Some people think that ‘Family Matters’ is vintage, and others think ‘Good Times’ is vintage, and they’re both right. It’s an [issue of] perspective,” says Giacinto. Various early design concepts were inspired by the Vista’s original Egyptian motif and Tarantino’s own Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. “We came out with three different designs in our first stab at this, and then we started moving forward on one, and we got a year down that road before they said, ‘No.’ And we had to make a 90-degree turn,” says Giacinto.

Proctor then based a new design concept—the one that would eventually be turned into reality—on a blue-and-red color scheme suggested by Tarantino. The addition of a faux brick wall behind the concession stand really “drew the space together,” says Giacinto. “I started to get a better idea of where we were going. I was like, ‘Okay. We’re going to go with the cosmic stone [counter]-top. We’re going to do black reveals in between the red to break some things up in that respect. We’re going to use that negative space to draw your eyes towards the candy case. Quite frankly, as we sit here today, I don’t know what [Tarantino] was thinking. But I do know I like it. I do know it works.”

If the overall vision came from Tarantino, Proctor had to be sure that the lobby and concession area fit the operational requirements of a modern-day movie theater. Under Tarantino’s ownership, Giacinto explains, the Vista “is not designed to be profitable. But we do have to put things in place that continue to give people jobs.” While Tarantino wanted the Vista’s concessions menu to reflect his childhood moviegoing experiences—the only hot food for sale is hot dogs and White Castle burgers—he was convinced as to the efficacy of adding a selection of beer and wine. “The amount of money you make on alcohol sales is a profit margin that can’t be denied,” says Giacinto. “[Tarantino’s] team went to bat for us in that respect and said ‘This is a good idea.’ I’ll be quite honest with you: It was one of the few things where when we did push back, it was a pretty easy win.” (Coffee is also available to Vista patrons, though they’ll have to go next door to Pam’s Coffy, a coffee shop owned by Tarantino that is also an homage to actress Pam Grier.)

Among Tarantino’s requests were the Vista’s mammoth candy case: at nine and a half feet wide, it’s the largest Proctor has installed in its 53-year history. The poster cases are also oversized, at 60 inches wide by 80 inches tall. “You would be very hard-pressed to find any theater in North America that has poster cases that size,” says Giacinto. Proctor is also responsible for the lobby’s oversized memorabilia cabinet, which as of the Vista’s reopening featured costume items and props worn by Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill: Volume 1.

With typical cinema renovations jobs, says Giacinto, “there’s a rush to shut it down, get the work done, and get the theater back open as soon as possible” so as not to miss out on revenue. With revenue not so much a concern on the Vista job, it became even more crucial that every little detail fit Tarantino’s vision. “The menu board above the popper is a custom-designed menu board [designed] to replicate a marquee. We usually don’t do anything that’s rounded like that. He really pushed our creative [limits],” says Giacinto. The RC Cola signs on the soft drink machines were fabricated by Proctor based off a print Tarantino owned. “We had to fabricate them to sit on top of the soda machines,” says Giacinto. “And then, on top of that, we had to link [the soda machines] up so that he could find RC Cola and a vendor that could supply it to him in the Los Angeles area.” The popcorn popper and butter machine are both vintage; the latter sits completely on the countertop, with a footprint that Giacinto likens to that of a TV made in the 1980s.

Tarantino’s attention to detail extended to the outside of the building; the letters visitors see on the marquee are vintage, provided by Belfast, Maine-based Bay City Cargo, which has been buying and selling old-school marquee letters since the last two companies to manufacture them stopped doing so several years back. “I’m the last guy standing. I have thousands of these letters,” says Mike Hurley, founder and owner of Bay City Cargo. Whether it’s theater owners or propmasters hunting down props for movies and TV shows, Hurley says “people want the letters, and I’m happy to sell them. But the first thing I do is try to talk them out of doing it. [Tarantino] wants to go old-school. Well, the problem is, these letters are expensive. They’re rare and hard to get and getting more so every day.” ewer digital alternatives are more cost-effective and can be made to replicate the traditional marquee look. Tarantino and his team, obviously, were un-swayable in their quest for authenticity. Bay City Cargo ended up selling them around 300 letters for the Vista.

Giacinto recalls advice given to him by Bruce Proctor, son of founder Bill Proctor and current president of Proctor Companies, when he first joined the company: “You’re going to sit down with dozens of clients. Everybody’s going to tell you they know how to run a concession stand. And they’re all right. AMC doesn’t run [things] the same way that Cinemark does, the same way that Regal does, the same way that Quentin Tarantino and the Vista does.” It’s advice that carries beyond the concession stand to the movie theater as a whole. At the Vista, all those little details come together to make a cinema that’s at once retro and unique, inspired by cinemas of the past and crafted in such a way as to ensure that it will go on helping moviegoers create memories long into the future. Says Giacinto: “What they’ve created here, it’s more than just ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ It’s ‘Let’s go have an experience at the movies.’”

Giacinto recalls advice given to him by Bruce Proctor, son of founder Bill Proctor and current president of Proctor Companies, when he first joined the company: “You’re going to sit down with dozens of clients. Everybody’s going to tell you they know how to run a concession stand. And they’re all right. AMC doesn’t run [things] the same way that Cinemark does, the same way that Regal does, the same way that Quentin Tarantino and the Vista does.” It’s advice that carries beyond the concession stand to the movie theater as a whole. At the Vista, all those little details come together to make a cinema that’s at once retro and unique, inspired by cinemas of the past and crafted in such a way as to ensure that it will go on helping moviegoers create memories long into the future. Says Giacinto: “What they’ve created here, it’s more than just ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ It’s ‘Let’s go have an experience at the movies.’”

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