From silver screen to sundaes

Posted: December 2nd, 2016 | Columnists, Featured, Gaslamp Landmarks | No Comments

By Sandee Wilhoit | Gaslamp Landmarks

Prior to 1904, the property between 643 and 651 Fifth Avenue was nothing more than a series of small wooden buildings housing a shoemaker, a jeweler, and a cigar and cigarette merchant. In 1904, George J. Chambers, father of famed Olympic swimmer Florence Chambers, purchased the property from L.G. Pratt for the unlikely sum of $10.

Mr. Chambers, who at the time ran a second-hand furniture store on Sixth Avenue, decided not to develop his new property until 1912.

On March 23, 1912, the San Diego Union reported that excavation had begun for the first fireproof theater building on the Chambers lot, on the east side of Fifth Street, opposite City Hall.

The Casino Theatre was located at 643 Fifth Ave. for more than six decades, but has been home to Ghirardelli’s Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop since the 1980s (Courtesy GQHF)

The Casino Theatre was located at 643 Fifth Ave. for more than six decades, but has been home to Ghirardelli’s Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop since the 1980s (Courtesy GQHF)

The structure, to be built by A. E. Chaffey, would be a one-story concrete building that seated 800 patrons, and the first to comply with the new building ordinance. It would have a passage on either side and in the rear as a means of protection in the event of fire. Two exits would be located at the stage end of the auditorium, opening to the outside passageway.

One year later, a building permit was granted for a one-story, steel-reinforced concrete theater with a projected cost of $6,000.

Unfortunately, only two years after construction, the two side passages were converted into a restaurant and a shoeshine establishment. Although Chambers owned the land, the Casino Amusement Company owned the building. Hence, the building was named the Casino Theater.

In 1931, the property was acquired by Vincent and Concetta Russo, who had been running the theater since 1921. The Russo family continued to operate the business through 1956.

In his book, “Rabbit on a Bumpy Road,” Gaslamp pioneer Tom Hom reminisces about the times he treated himself and a friend to a show at the Casino. In the 1930s, one could pay a dime for entry, which would ensure the patron two or three main features, a serial chapter of the “Lone Ranger” — or another hero of the times — a comedy short featuring “The Three Stooges,” and a cartoon. The entire matinee lasted about four hours. So for a complete afternoon of entertainment, a quarter paid for two admissions, with a nickel left over for a hot dog to share! Not a bad deal!

An old newspaper advertisement (Courtesy GQHF)

An old newspaper advertisement (Courtesy GQHF)

In the years that followed, the building continued as a theater, though after the Russos, there were a series of proprietors. In addition, as the area below G Street deteriorated, the clientele also changed, X-rated movie houses became the norm and the Casino Theater followed suit.

In the 1970s, enter Mr. Tom Hom again, who along with his wife Dorothy, began a widespread restoration of the Gaslamp area to its original splendor. As the restoration continued, it became quite obvious that old movie houses had outlived their purposes and could not compete with the multiplex theaters now opening. Developers began looking for other viable tenants. The building underwent an extensive restoration, during which the marquee had to be replaced with an accurate, but slightly larger replica of the original.

The Casino re-opened as the very popular Ghirardelli Ice Cream Parlor and Chocolate Shop, which offers a tasty welcome and a complimentary piece of their famous chocolate to all who enter.

To learn more about the fascinating history of New Town, San Diego’s Downtown, visit the Gaslamp Museum and take one of the walking tours, Thursdays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. Visit

—Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at

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