The Cove Theatre: Remembering a beloved La Jolla icon

view of exterior of the cove theatre in La Jolla and its classic marquee

Once upon a time, La Jolla was serious about its theaters, serving eager moviegoers since 1912 with its ever-evolving and memorable cinema experiences.

Since then, and while growing into the modern era, La Jolla has seen many theaters come and go, putting their stamp on history and giving people a social gathering place of solace, escape, and pure fun. 

While some historical landmarks of La Jolla have withstood time, allowing clear glimpses of the old days, a lot of La Jolla’s history has been torn down and rebuilt as something new where you’d never know what was there before. The Cove Theatre is one of those places, but it still lives on in the heart of La Jolla as a celebrated landmark that has had a lasting impact.

The reign of The Cove Theatre begins

black and white photo of the original cove theater building in La Jolla

In 1948, “The Playhouse” Theatre opened at 7730 Girard Avenue. Only a few months after its opening, the theater’s name was aptly changed to The Cove Theatre at the request of manager Spencer Wilson. This was only the beginning of Wilson and The Cove Theatre’s legendary, beloved reign in La Jolla.

The Cove Theatre took the village by storm when it opened, with better seats, 650, and improved and upscale programming and technology. Playing independent and foreign movies, restored classics, and documentaries, the theater was busy and full. 

The Cove was known for its Saturday matinees, and at one point, you could get in for 25 cents, with money still left over to go crazy on concession goodies. Sometimes it wasn’t even about the movie playing but about getting away from day-to-day life and having fun, and The Cove Theatre was that safe haven for so many. 

Fond memories at The Cove Theatre

present day view of Girard avenue in La Jolla with cars parked on the palm tree lined street and blue skies with clouds

The excitement of going to the movies is something that never dies, and if you looked back on your fondest childhood memories, somewhere in there would be a memory of you going to the movies with your best friends or family. For many La Jollans, those fond memories include The Cove Theatre in La Jolla.

In a forum dedicated to remembering classic cinemas across the country, comments about The Cove Theatre make it clear that it was near and dear to many and had etched itself into their memory. For example, one commenter shares–This is “where I used to go for 50-cent matinees in the early 60s. My whole family worked here in the box office, usher…got my first kiss here..” Another commenter recalls getting his 35-cent allowance and meeting up with friends every Saturday for the matinee. 

The legendary Spencer “Spence” Wilson

For many, The Cove Theatre was like family and can’t be mentioned without honoring the great Spencer Wilson. It’s been said that manager Spencer Wilson, often called the town’s babysitter and “Mr. La Jolla,” was a big part of what made the theater feel like home. He would often stand at the door to greet people by name. 

Spencer, or “Spence” as most called him, was a beloved community figure whose life was dedicated to the movies. Before moving to The Cove Theatre, he managed the Granada Theatre in La Jolla on the corner of Girard Ave and Wall St. He had a long run managing The Cove Theatre until his retirement in 1989 and still continued to help until it closed in 2003. It was the longest-running movie theater La Jolla has ever seen.

What remains

In the early 1960s, the building was remodeled, transforming its grand colonial revival exterior into a more contemporary look. If you drive by it today, you can still see hints of the renovated building.

Although gone, The Cove Theatre remains one of Southern California’s most successful single-screen theaters and La Jolla’s most popular community gathering places. It carries an aura of whimsy and nostalgia that will never be lost to those who loved it. 

Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.
Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.

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