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The AVO Theater in Vista circa 1992. Courtesy photo
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Old AVO Theater gone but not forgotten

VISTA — For Jack Larimer, Saturdays as a kid were happily spent at the local AVO Theater in Vista watching the latest Hollywood movies in color and for a mere 0.25 cents.

Located at 303 Main Street, it was constructed, using geodesic dome methods, as a single-screen theater with about 800 seats. It was the second movie house in town, four times the size of its competition the Vista Theater when The AVO opened on Dec. 11, 1948.

It was the main theater in town until competition from the multiplexes in adjacent cities caused it to close on May 29, 1989, according to the Vista Historical Society and Museum.

Larimer, who has lived in Vista since 1948, is the director of the Vista Historical Society and Museum and has many fond memories of The AVO Theater.

“It was a fun way to spend a Saturday there and movies were always in color while TV was in black and white,” he said. “You also knew most people there when you went.”

The old AVO Theater in Vista, pictured here in 1964, was originally built in 1948. Courtesy photo

He said The AVO indeed had only one screen and there was even a “crying room,” off to the side, a place that was quite common in those days.

“It was a room where women would take their kids if they started to cry inside the theater to settle them down,” he recalled.

“The AVO was nice because it was here, and you did not need to go out of town,” he said. “It was even better when they put in The AVO drive-in.”

Indecently, the theater was built on the site of a former avocado grove hence “The AVO,” and was owned by Abe Shelhoup.

The architect was S. Charles Lee, and according to the city of Vista, The AVO served as a cinema until the 1980s when it went dormant from 1989 to 1994. The city of Vista purchased The AVO in 1994, converting it into an intimate live theater for use by Moonlight Stage Productions as its winter season base starting in the fall of 1995.

The AVO, since 1995, has also been available to rent and today is utilized by local performing arts organizations. Moonlight Stage Productions utilized the AVO from 1995 through 2015. With the reconstruction of the Moonlight Amphitheatre, the city of Vista shifted its programming focus to the outdoor venue, according the city.

Early on

Abe Shelhoup’s son, Kamal “Kam” Shelhoup, 73, a chief flight instructor at Pinnacle Aviation Academy at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, said the idea of a theater began when two men approached his dad and said, “we see you own the property and we’d like to build a movie theater on it.”

At the time, Kam Shelhoup was only 4 years old, but he does recall his dad — who died in 1981 — having a keen sense for a good business deal. The family also owned a department store named Shelhoup’s. The elder Shelhoup built the store building in 1940 and his son closed the department store in 1996, but that’s another story.

“The men said if my dad would build a theater, they’d give him the money for the rent,” Kam Shelhoup recalled. “The interesting thing is that I have the old blueprints someplace in the house for that old theater … I’d love to find them.”

Like Larimer, Kam Shelhoup recalled the old theater was a fun place to spend a Saturday and like everyone else, he paid to 0.25 cents to see a movie (and popcorn was 10 cents).

In 1980, when the theater became too much to care for, Kam Shelhoup decided to sell it.

“Yes, it was a single-screen theater, and a real dinosaur by today’s standards,” he said. “It was an uphill battle to keep it going and it needed a lot of work.”

He confirmed he convinced the city of Vista to buy the theater and take it off his hands.

“I saw a lot of movies there as a kid,” he recalled. “I have vivid memories of my time there especially when I was 12 years old — a guy barreled in with a rifle and shot into the ceiling.”

He also said the most memorable film he saw at The AVO and one that he still enjoys today was “Hans Christian Anderson” with Danny Kay.

“It was definitely a fun place to go and watch movies as a young kid,” he said. “I’m glad that The AVO was able to be a place where people could go to be entertained.”