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A year-by-year, film-by-film history of 70-millimeter wide gauge exhibition in Orange County, California


 Compiled by Michael Coate and William Kallay



70mm Equipped Theatre Pictures



Theatre Specifications
Chains: Edwards / Regal
Opened: February 11, 1969
Expanded: May 22, 1974 (Theatre #2); May 26, 1989 (Theatre #3 with "THX" Sound — Later dropped); Theatres #4-6 added in 1990s with stadium seating
Seats: Approx. 1250 ("Big Newport" main auditorium) Approx. 500 (Theatres #2 & #3)


The granddaddy of new theatres opened on February 11, 1969.  Edwards Newport Cinema, located at the Fashion Island Shopping Center overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was James Edwards Senior’s late-1960s equivalent of the grand movie palaces of yesteryear.  Edwards had made a foray into the Orange County film exhibition market in 1963 with the opening of its Cinema in Costa Mesa.  But the Newport Cinema was Edwards’ foundation for a building spree through Orange County over the next three decades.


With over 1200 seats, four aisles and a 75-foot wide screen,* “Big” Newport (as it’s referred to by locals), has managed to survive for over 30 years without being split into a twin cinema or worse, a multiplex.  The theatre is large, especially by modern standards of how many new theatres are built to accommodate small audiences of under-500. 


Patrons can drop off passengers underneath a canopy covering a driveway in front of a set of stairs leading to the lobby.  Once inside, patrons are greeted by a tall and wide lobby which has a snack bar and entrances to the main auditorium.  Behind the snack bar is an array of glass mirrors.  Turning around with your back to the snack bar, you can see Fashion Island across the street.


By entering the auditorium, you can choose from two doors which lead into a slight turn and straight into the huge auditorium.  The seats are arranged in three wide sections, subdivided by four aisles.  For a number of years, before the auditorium was renovated and updated, orange curtains covered the walls and screen.  Two very large surround speakers sat on shelves on the left and right sidewalls.  By the 2000s, the auditorium received a facelift where burgundy curtains and new, smaller surround speakers were installed.  Since Regal bought into the Edwards chain some years ago, the screen curtains are open when the audience enters and there is a digital “pre-show” on screen.  This “added touch” takes away from the experience of this theatre’s potential showmanship from days past.


And what a fun past this theatre has had.  Though I can’t specifically comment on the theatre’s glory days before 1982, when I first went there, I can comment on historical facts that Michael Coate and I have uncovered, as well as first hand experience. 


“Big” Newport showed a number of 70mm engagements since its opening in 1969.  One of the most prominent engagements for coastal Orange County audiences was Star Wars,” which ran for 54 weeks, the longest engagment in the theatre's history.  James Edwards paid a then-unprecedented $1-million to have an exclusive engagement of the film in this part of Orange County.  An advertisement (see below) in The Orange County Register, the county’s major newspaper, gave moviegoers a hint of the theatre’s specs.  1252 luxurious mohair loges.  A 75x35 foot screen—2625 sq. feet.  “Lots of seats.”


Unfortunately, I don’t recall the gentleman’s name, but during a symposium on digital cinema in 2001 in Hollywood, he remarked that he worked at the “Big” Newport in 1977 when “Star Wars” was playing.  Apparently, the 70mm print they had was somehow damaged and unplayable.  It was replaced with a 35mm print (while waiting for a 70mm replacement print) and he boasted that the audience was none-the-wiser!  To paraphrase him, “We still advertised it in 70mm and nobody noticed the difference!  And even better, we had more screen to show it on.”     


Opening nights and Saturday nights at this theatre were always a treat.  A few people would bring beach balls and they would be tossed around the huge auditorium, at least until theatre employees, wearing grimaces on their faces, took them away to a loud chorus of boos & hisses.  During the 1990s, the theatre manager, with his booming voice, would come out and introduce the film and coming attractions.  This would get the audience hyped up for the film to come.


The lights dimmed and the curtains opened, wider, wider and wider.  It seemed like the screen size would never be revealed.  [Films shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio even seemed large on this screen.]  Previews began and seemed bright and clear in 70mm.  Six-Track Dolby Stereo would fill the theatre.  In 1991, during a presentation of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the preview for Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” was exciting just to hear John Williams' theme on the massive speakers of Newport Cinema.


It wasn’t uncommon for audiences to see Mr. James Edwards himself patrolling the theatre’s lobby or driveway.  Even though he was in his late-80s or early 90s, he still showed up for work and made sure things were running smoothly at his flagship.


The Sound Of Music (1973 re-issue), the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the restored version of “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” were just some of the many 70mm presentations held at Newport.  Almost every one of these presentations packed the house.  During Christmas of 1986, I recall standing in line for “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”  On this cold December night, the line snaked around the theatre and all the way through a large parking lot behind the theatre.  It seemed, in my mind, that it would be impossible to get a seat, especially since my girlfriend and I were nearly at the very end of the line.  But true to the size of this theatre, it swallowed us whole, with room to spare.  Granted, we were sitting nearly in the front row, but that didn’t matter.  The film, the audience and theatre added up to a memorable experience.


Presentation was almost always perfect here in the times I’ve attended the theatre.  The major drawback of seeing matinees here, though, was that bright sunlight filtered through the auditorium doors and onto the screen.


“Big” Newport has been expanded over time.  A second auditorium was added in 1974.  This screen is often cited by many enthusiasts as a bad screen on which to see widescreen films.  Forget seeing a ‘scope film in here; the screen was fixed at 1.85:1.  The picture is cropped and often, titles are really cropped.  In recent years, though, Edwards has masked the screen to allow for the entire widescreen image to appear.


Another screen was added on the left side of the original main auditorium in the late-1980s.  This screen was far more accommodating for widescreen and 70mm prints.  Early on, it was one of a few Edwards theatres with THX-certification.  The Big Newport was among the first theatres in the world to install Cinema Digital Sound (CDS), Dolby Digital and DTS digital sound systems.  By the late-1990s, Edwards demolished an old Good Earth restaurant down the hill next to the theatre, and built an additional three screens, all with stadium seating.


Even though no 70mm has played here since 1997, the theatre is still open and successful.




Edward Newport Cinema grand opening ad (Feb. 11, 1969)


Edward Newport Cinema ad for "Star Wars" (1977) [Enlarge]


Edwards Newport Cinema (1987)


Edwards Newport Cinema close-up


James Edwards III, James Edwards, Sr., and Joan Edwards Randolph (c. Jan. 1988)


James Edwards III and James Edwards, Sr. sitting inside the Big Newport auditorium (c. 1988)


Big Newport featured Cinema Digital Sound (CDS), but abandoned it after a short time like most other theatre chains who installed the system — The system was plagued with issues of relability [Enlarge]


The front of "Big" Newport and its driveway (2005)


Big Newport's drive-thru canopy


Marquee on Newport Center Drive


Edwards Newport Cinema complex (as seen from Fashion Island Mall)


A crowd has lined up for "Star Wars: Episode III"


Edwards Newport Cinema big auditorium (screen wall)


Edwards Newport Cinema big auditorium (screen wall) wider angle


Edwards Newport Cinema big auditorium and Theatre #3 on right side (screen walls)


Edwards Newport Cinema big auditorium and Theatre #2 on left side (screen walls)


Edwards Newport Cinema complex


Edwards Newport Cinema complex and marquee on Newport Center Drive

[1] The Orange County Register / Edwards
[2] William Kallay
[3] Los Angeles Times
[4] Michael Coate
*The size of the Newport Cinema has varied over the years in print between 70-75ft.



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