The Coast News Group
Tom McMahon stands in front of the Carlsbad Village Theatre, which he and his wife are selling after running the 86-year-old venue for the past two decades. Photo by Rachel Stine

Curtain closing on family’s ownership of local theatre

CARLSBAD — The lights are going dark and the curtain is closing on one family’s decades-long management of a historic Carlsbad venue.


The McMahon family has put the Carlsbad Village Theatre up for sale for what they hope is the final time.

“We’re not getting any younger,” explained Tom McMahon.

Tom and his wife Judy have been the owners and operators of the Carlsbad Village Theatre since the early 1990s when they inherited the venue.

The theatre originally opened on Feb. 8, 1927 with the showing of the film “It,” which starred actress Clara Bow. Built for $40,000, the Carlsbad Village Theatre boasted a full stage, orchestra pit, pipe organ, fly gallery, and flyable movie screen.

Judy’s parents, Donald and Alice Dunham, first bought the theatre in 1961. Back then, the couple owned and ran four theatres in Southern California that showed both movies and live productions.

“(My mom) and my dad were quite a partnership,” said Judy, adding that her parents enjoyed their business. “They loved the people, they loved the hours. They just liked it.”

Though the Dunhams sold the theatre when they retired in 1987, the theater ended up back in the family when the new owners sold it back rather than completing structural upgrades to the 66-year-old building to meet new state building codes.

Tom and Judy had no intention of getting into show business. Tom had been a commercial real estate consultant for about 30 years and Judy worked as an accountant for Bank of America as well as the cities of Encinitas and Carlsbad. Nearly all of their children were grown and retirement was approaching.

After Judy’s father passed away and her mother getting on in years, the couple took on the task of upgrading the building to code.

“It just happened that I wasn’t going to let the theater go dark,” Tom said.

Since 1993, Tom and Judy have booked and attended every show, completed a major upgrade of the space in 1999, and kept the multitude of equipment in working order. In total, they’ve put on more than 1,000 individual children’s community productions, musical performances, movies, community events, and other shows.

Over the years they’ve developed a smooth partnership with each other that keeps the theater booked with one or two shows nearly every weekend.

Judy looks after the finances for the business, books reservations, and lends a hand during shows.

Most days, Tom can be found tending to odd jobs inside, readying the stage and all of its accoutrements for the coming weekend’s events. He grants tours to potential clients, showing off the lobby with its crystal chandeliers, the house with its blue and red plush seats, the adaptable stage and the movie screen with its grand red curtain.

The couple says they’ve enjoyed their serendipitous second careers.

Judy vividly remembers a particularly humorous show called, “Crazy Love,” from a few years ago. “We had people come as many as three times,” she recalled, “I thought it was the funniest show ever.”

Tom points to a recent youth production of “Charlotte’s Web” as one of his favorite shows.

But now Tom is 76 years old and Judy a close but undisclosed age, and they are ready to pass the theater on.

Judy said that they are constantly tethered to the show schedules and she would like the chance to travel more.

“Now we’re up to seven (grandchildren) and I kinda want to go spend time with them,” she said.

Over the past 20 years the McMahons have tried selling the theater and came close with three different buyers, but each deal fell through for one reason or another.

With the theater listed at $2.3 million, they said now they have a few interested parties and hope to close the deal once and for all.

“It would be a nice thing if a younger group came along and wanted to take it to the next level,” Tom said.

Judy added, “I hope it’ll be someone who maintains (the theater) as entertainment than convert it to retail.”