First there was the Ice Age, then the Stone Age, and finally, the Teen Age. Back in the day, 1972 to be exact, when I sixteen, I discovered a magical place in La Jolla called the Mithras Bookstore. This was the premier place to go in San Diego for counter-culture, avant garde, and off-the-beaten track material. Incredible hard-to-find books, films, records, underground newspapers, etc… The Mithras served free coffee and natural goodies to eat. And herbal tea! Nobody had even heard of herbal tea in 1972! We were still drinking Lipton’s, Earl Grey, and if you were in a instant hurry… Constant Comment! There were comfortable couches to lounge around in while you perused the amazing stock on hand. My eyes were opened to so many important things in that store. They always played soothing classical music and the smell of incense wafted throughout the bookshelves. A resident cat kept watch with a somewhat bored attitude.
But that’s not all! In the back of the bookstore was a door that led to a small one-screen theatre that had about 200 seats. This was the Unicorn Theatre, for years San Diego’s only source for foreign, independent, and avant garde films. I was introduced to the surrealistic and experimental films of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, Fernand Léger and Hans Richter at this small theatre and have many fond memories of watching life-changing films there. They also hosted early animation film festivals. I remember a Betty Boop Revival that was particularly well received. I also was fortunate enough to attend some early shows sponsored by Spike & Mike. Great art and music films. I was at the San Diego premier of Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” in 1972. The article below fills out the back-story in magnificent fashion. Originally published by the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2005, and written by Staff Writer, Peter Rowe.
Harold Leigh was in charge behind the film projector
By Peter Rowe
June 12, 2005
Imagine a city without videos, DVDs, cable TV or movies on demand. Where theaters offer little except first-run Hollywood flicks. Where “foreign film” is a foreign concept.
That’s San Diego in 1964.
Now imagine San Diego without Harold Leigh, who died May 8. Leigh and Harold Darling ran the Unicorn theater from December 1964 until March 1982. A generation of San Diegans is too young to remember, but their elders recall a cinema-lover’s Shangri-La.
“It was pretty special,” said Manny Farber, the artist and former ICS New Republic film critic.
“The level of culture that they brought to San Diego at that time was just phenomenal,” said Alexandra Riordan, a retired instructional TV producer for SDSU.
“The Unicorn was like the Cadillac, like the handmade Maserati of the art houses,” said Welton Jones, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s retired critic-at-large. “That theater was the marriage of Darling’s merchandising genius and Leigh’s fussy perfectionism.”
Leigh was more than finicky. He was a superb photographer whose slides graced the Unicorn’s screen before and between shows. He was an exacting technician, able to revive ancient, balky projectors.
He also was a mystery. As the Unicorn’s co-owner, he was Harold Leigh. As a landlord who owned commercial properties in La Jolla and downtown San Diego, he was Leigh Leeper. In 1990, he went to court to legally become George Leigh Leeper.
“He changed his name around quite a lot,” observed Sandra Darling, Harold Darling’s wife. (She knows about pseudonyms. As Alexandra Day, she has written and illustrated a series of popular children’s books about a Rottweiler named Carl.)
Leigh, as he preferred to be called, had eclectic tastes. In the early 1960s, he rented high school gymnasiums in San Diego for a new type of entertainment.
“He made a living taking around surfing movies,” said Xian Yeagan, an artist whose carved wooden doors and passageways adorned the Unicorn. (He, too, knows pseudonyms. His: Xian Christian.) “No one had surfing films at the time, and he’d get all sorts of surfers to show up.”
Harold Darling had opened an art house near San Diego State, the Shadow Box. In late 1964, he moved his operation to an empty storefront on La Jolla Boulevard. The Unicorn opened Dec. 11 with a double bill of Francois Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and an obscure American comedy, “Hallelujah the Hills.”
Leigh visited on Dec. 12. After chatting with Darling, he inspected the projectors. He tinkered. On the screen, the picture sharpened. And so it went for the next 17-plus years, Darling handling the programming and Leigh – pulling strings at studios – finding the reels and ensuring that they looked their best.
“He was absolutely meticulous mechanically with the projectors,” said Michael Mahan, a developer who managed the Unicorn for five years. “We never showed a movie without inspecting each reel.”
Good thing. When the Merry Pranksters bused into La Jolla, Ken Kesey mentioned that they had been shooting a film of their acid-fueled journey. Darling scheduled a showing. Leigh asked several times to see the movie, but Kesey played coy.
“The night before it was to show, they gave him snips of film in a box.” recalled Alexandra Riordan, “He nearly died.”
Working until dawn, Leigh spliced together the world premiere of the Merry Pranksters’ movie.
The world didn’t notice, but Darling and Leigh didn’t care. The Unicorn danced to its own jazz-and-classical beat. In 1966 Darling leased space next to the theater and opened the Mithras bookstore. Film-goers were routed through the shop, over movie posters laminated onto the floor. Through a door marked “Cine” was a salon-like lobby, with couches and free popcorn and coffee.
By 1967, the printed programs of coming attractions were lavishly illustrated by Darling’s new bride. The Unicorn was the first theater in the county to schedule midnight shows, the first to host animated film festivals, the first to stagger through 24-to 100-hour marathons. In the wee hours, incense helped mask the aroma of patrons whose love for art exceeded their regard for hygiene.
Within the narrow, 218-seat house, eyes were opened to Soviet cinema, the French New Wave, the images of Ozu, Pontecorvo, “The Thief of Baghdad,” Buster Keaton. Leigh, though, was usually unseen. He was shy and, according to friends and co-workers, gay.
Leigh was also, depending on who you asked, haunted or a bit of a hypochondriac. In the mid-1960s, he required months to recover from a serious car wreck. Later in life, he lost several friends to AIDS.
“He felt death knocking at the door,” Xian Yeagan said.
Was he depressed?
“Not at all. But he felt that death could come knocking at any time.”
He was an old hand at recognizing the fatal signs of decline. By 1980, the Unicorn had been wounded by the growing number of theaters showing foreign and independent works. UCSD and KPBS-TV also pulled away viewers. The theater eventually went to a weekends-only schedule, but its days were numbered.
So was the Leigh-Darling partnership. In 1972, they had founded Green Tiger Press. This boutique publishing house would be sold for a good profit, but the former partners’ disputes over money would land them in court in 1985 and 1987.
“Everybody felt that everybody could have been better about it,” Sandra Darling said.
To the end, Leigh guarded his privacy. His death notice did not mention his age, birth date or where he spent his last years. (Friends believe he had moved out of San Diego several years ago.) We are left with the one thing that, in other circumstances, Leigh would not have tolerated: an out-of-focus image.
Sandra Darling remembers when she, her husband and Leigh would travel through Europe and North America together. Those journeys inevitably included several hours in the local movie house, despite the fact that few theaters met Leigh’s standards.
“I’ve seen him step into projection booths in other parts of the world and tell them what to do,” she said.