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The marquee for the Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana still occasionally shines at night, the 1920s-era lettering aglow with vintage neon tubes. But it's not film fans who fill the 960-seat movie palace nowadays.
"Do you believe in the Rock?" a man asks in Spanish if you try to enter, referring not to the wrestler-turned-thespian, but rather the Rock of Ages. The man is an usher for Mount of Olives Ministry, a Latino Pentecostal church that rents the theater. If you don't believe in Him, you cannot receive the Yost.
The ban angers the 50-ish Louie Olivos Jr., whose family owned the Yost for decades. "These people want to put restrictions—come on!" Olivos says. "If we still had the theater . . ." He lets the thought sit, droops his head, then sighs.
Mention the Yost Theater to Orange County Latinos older than 35, and they will let out the same dejected breath. From the 1940s until it closed in 1985, "el Cine Yost" screened Spanish-language films almost every day. Mexican movie stars such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Antonio Aguilar and Tin-Tan would make the trek to Santa Ana and work the sell-out crowds. Louie Sr. and the rest of the Olivos clan owned the theater, served the popcorn, managed everything.
The Yost/Olivos era is so significant in Mexican cinematic history that on Feb. 12, Olivos flew to Mexico City to participate in a weeklong celebration marking the 75th anniversary of Mexican talkies—the only American invited. "The business and friendly relations between the Mexican film industry and the Olivoses goes back years," says Mexican film producer Pepe Romay, the conference's organizer. "For us, it's interesting to hear what Louie Olivos Jr. has to say about what happened to the Yost."
But in Santa Ana, the city where the family brought so much international acclaim, the contributions of the Olivos clan continue to fade away like the Yost's paint job.
Sagas like that of the Olivos and their Cine Yost play out every day in Santa Ana, where city officials have tried to drive out Latino merchants from the downtown of the most-Latino big city in los Estados Unidosand replace them with out-of-towners for decades. But the Olivos story remains the most bitter. It began in the 1940s, when Santa Ana native Louie Olivos Sr. convinced his bosses at the now-defunct Princess Theater to screen Spanish-language films once a week. The idea proved so successful that Olivos, through scrupulous savings and savvy business senses, would buy the larger Yost Theater in 1952 to host the overflow crowds.
Louie Jr. and his four brothers did the dirty work. They drove buses throughout Orange County's barrios and citrus-worker camps to pick up laborers looking for a double bill of cinematic balm. "There was little else to do back then for Mexicans, so that was their outing on the weekends," remembers Olivos. "The adults would sit downstairs; the kids went to the balcony to make out. We'd bus in families, but the husbands would sneak off to bars on Fourth Street, and my brothers and I had to find them once their wives reported them missing."
Business remained strong as more Latinos moved to Santa Ana, and the Olivos family purchased the Fox West Coast Theater in 1971 to keep up with demand. In 1985, however, the Olivoses nearly went bankrupt after the city required they seismically retrofit the Yost. The city bought the Yost for $600,000 with the promise they would resell it to Olivos at that price when he could secure funds. Just a couple of months later, though, Santa Ana officials sold the Yost to a group of developers for $50,000.
The Fiesta Marketplace Partnership, the investors who bought the Yost, said they would continue to run the theater as a performance venue, but that never happened. The Olivos family was left in financial ruin. The family had to sell its 180-acre ranch in the Cleveland National Forest and other properties to fund an unsuccessful lawsuit against Santa Ana. The Olivoses kept the West Coast Theater, but their souls stayed at the Yost.
"They bamboozled us," Louie Jr. says, still seething at the memory. "My father was a loyal servant of the community—and they just bamboozled him. After the city stole the Yost, my father hung his head in grief for the rest of his life."
"As long as I live, I'll say that the city stole the theater from us," Olivos Sr. told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "It was like taking an arm off—it hurt me that much." Olivos sold the West Coast Theater in 1991 and suffered a stroke a year later. He passed away in 1999. Toward the end of his life, Olivos would repeatedly ask his sons, "It's 5 p.m.—who's going to open the theater?"
Louie Olivos Jr. has made a name for himself as a playwright and actor since the demise of the Yost; last year, he won an Independent Spirit Award for Lead Debut Performance in Robbing Peter. But a couple of years ago, Olivos moved his acting troupe, stationed since the early 1970s in Santa Ana, to Hollywood due to a lack of money and space.
"If I had money, I would come back to Santa Ana. But what the city did to us . . ." Olivos pauses, then sighs again. "They finished us."