Security guard Sal Licone, or “Big Sal” as he’s called at the Jewelry Theater Center, where he's protected the gems of the downtown Jewelry District for 12 years, misses the movies. “I took my picture with John Wayne right there,” he says, pointing to the front entrance.
After moving to Los Angeles from New Jersey as a boy in 1969, Sal and his family settled in Boyle Heights. Every Sunday they rode the No. 2 bus to downtown L.A. to see a movie on the big screen. “It was a treat,” Sal says. “All the families would get dressed up, eat dinner at Clifton’s Cafeteria, and then go to the movies.”
At Seventh and Hill streets, the Jewelry Theater Center (or JTB, for Jewelry Theater Building) has taken the place of what was the original Pantages theater, which later was sold to Warner Bros.
Here, Sal and his team cruise the first floor while jewelers work, gems sparkling under blindingly bright light. At his post, Sal looks like a movie star himself, with his black sunglasses on (part of the job), sipping Coke from a glass bottle.
Behind him you can see the original Beaux Arts proscenium and balconies trimmed in gold and dappled with crystal chandeliers. But as Sal will tell you, there is no photography allowed. “It’s because of a cat burglar,” he says. It sounds like a scene from a film noir, but this is just the day-to-day life of a jewelry district guard: catching thieves, hopping roofs and even handling ghosts.
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Originally built in 1920 for the vaudeville circuit, the JTB is said to be haunted. “You can hear applause and acceptance speeches,” Sal says. It’s his duty as a security guard to investigate any and all disturbances, including spooky stuff. “Locked doors will open and shut on their own. I’m not kidding you! You hear a lot of footsteps.” According to Sal, some city workers discovered three speakeasies connecting a system of catacombs beneath Ninth and Olympic. They found liquor bottles, fedoras and dusty black books. Sal heard there were lists of mobsters’ names written on the walls next to celebrities they were associated with.
By 1977, the theater had become a jewelry center with a Burger King in the basement, which has since been boarded up. The old Warner Bros. shield is blank and burnished with a giant painted diamond. The “E” in “jewelry” is missing in the marquee sign. The Jewelry District has seen better days but retains a certain vibrancy.
“There’s already life in these buildings,” Sal says. “I like that they’re renovating downtown, but some things just need to be left alone.” Sal’s personal history is etched into the old theater block as much as the city’s. The auditorium he watched John Wayne movies as a kid is the same place he stands watch as an adult.
“The movies, man!” Sal says, looking up at the marquee. “It used to be something we all did together.” He laughs and shakes his head. “VHS ruined everything.”