The Mithras Bookstore and Unicorn Theatre

          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

Harold Leigh (center) ran the Unicorn theater with Elizabeth Ratisseau and Howard Darling. “The Unicorn was like the Cadillac,” said Welton Jones, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s retired critic-at-large.

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.

~ sidestreetsam


About sidestreetsam

Sam Hallmark ~ Graphic Designer ● Conceptual Design ● Animation ● Multi-Media ● Music ● Desert Wind Graphics was established in 1994 as an affordable graphic design solution for a wide range of clients. From conceptual media, storyboards, print collaterals, logo design, multi-media presentations, animation, engineering, technical, marketing , advertising and corporate image packages, Desert Wind Graphics will fulfill your design needs for projects both big and small. With over twenty-five years of design experience I can provide you with access to a unique skill set that will deliver your project on time, within budget and on target! Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have regarding your graphic design needs.
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23 comments on “The Mithras Bookstore and Unicorn Theatre

  1. WOW – interesting! Thanks, Sam. A friend’s ex-husband was a Merry Prankster and it sounds like a Ken Kesey action. :-) What a great experience. Sorry to have missed this theater!

    • ~ Hi, Cathy! I’m so glad you liked the post! Imagine being a Merry Prankster! The Bird Rock area in La Jolla during the early seventies was quite funky and full of interesting shops and hippie-like folks trying to live in harmony with the more well-to-do people living up on Mt. Soledad.

      • I ran the Record store, Records Etc., across the street from Mithras ’71 – 72. We stayed open until midnight Fridays & Saturdays just for the crowd emptying out of the Unicorn. Next door to me was “The Leather People” who as you might guess mad custom leather items. It remains one of the finest times of my life.

        • ~ Hi, Nick! Thanks for sharing your memories of the Mithras bookstore! I do remember the record store directly across the street and the leather shop. The old Bird Rock area had a funkier hippy vibe back then that I sorely miss!

  2. No one location and time had a greater influence on the person I became than this place. God bless the bus stops and intersections of our lives. Remember.

  3. Hi Sam: thank you for this. I remember Mithra’s so vividly. I can picture the exact couch which faced the Mythology selection. To this day I still use the bookmarks I bought there: colorful Saudi postage stamps in plastic. We must have been at the same showings at the Unicorn: I saw Bunuel, Dali, and Betty Boop there too! Cheers mate. –Mark Phillips.

    • ~ Hey, Mark! What a great thing to share! I was just thinking of walking into the Mithras and hearing Harry Smith’s recordings of “Kiowa Peyote Songs” playing on the sound system. Incense was burning and they were handing out herbal tea and fresh muffins… that was the Golden Age. Take care!

  4. What made me suddenly think of it was I was going through my book collection, categorizing everything and stumbled upon “A Commendatory Guidebook for the Use of Those Who Frequent The Mithras Bookstore – it’s very cool, featuring pen and ink, silhouette and wood-cut illustrations. No wonder I hung on to it. So I Googled it, hoping that magical place still lived, but of course, nothing lasts forever. The only other place I’ve known that was a little similar was The Bodhi Tree Book Store and it’s gone, too.

    I loved The Mithras Book Store – cool, handcrafted little items to drool over, incense always wafting about, the totally laid back atmosphere, and, of course, The Unicorn Theatre. I remember lugging our pillows to lie down on the slanted flooring for the midnight showings – I think I probably slept as much as I watched! Drinking (to me) innovative drinks made of soda water and fruit syrup. I still have this fantasy about having such a bookstore. It was part of a pretty cool era.

    • ~ Hi, Morgan! Thanks so much for sharing your memories of this very special place. I went to the Bodhi Tree bookstore occasionally, but I was more of a beach guy at the time and never strayed too far from the shore. One of my favorite circuits would be to hit the Licorice Pizza record store in Clairemont and then swing over to the Trip head shop before ending my journey at the Mithras. On the way back I would park at the end of Inyaha Street in La Jolla and take a little-known dirt trail to the cliffs overlooking the beach at Torrey Pines. Pretty inspirational!

  5. HI everyone I started out as a janitor at the Unicorn/Mithras cinema bookstore and after two weeks I became the Manager of the Cinema. Tim was the projectionist.I loved it. They were so good to me I was a sole parent and they let me keep a cot in the downstairs office and sell tickets with my son in a backpack when I needed to. We always served free popcorn and special imported syrups with soda water. I learned so much about the movies and trying to get everything Leigh wrote into the phone message was often a challenge. I loved helping in the bookstore and Leigh and Elizabeth suggested I read everything I could at the store so I could discuss novels while I worked. I actually got thru the entire science fiction section. I was a long haired surfy in orange and had a guru and Leigh I think loved that and accepted that,although he could also be quite strict.I think the attention to detail and decor and that no junk books were on the shelves and oh all those movie posters. Sadly it was so exclusive we often would only have around 10 people at a movie. We had the sold out nights as well especially with the foreign films .I was not their at the end and I m glad it would of been sad. Im now a writer myself and my son who I carried around is a political journalist on Australian TV and award winning writer on world politics. Im not sure now but for years after a luxury Car store was in the exact location. The place had tons of space below it. My girlfriend at that time ran The Strand Cinema in Ocean Beach where they showed Rocky Horror at midnight. Im in Australia now but the last time I went I ran into several old co-workers at The Pannikin in La Jolla which has a big bookstore next to it.

    • ~ Hey, Anonymous! What a fantastic and amazing journey you’ve had. The Mithras was my salvation during my formative early adult years. Discovered the works of Carlos Casteneda, Adolph Hungry Wolf, Gordon Wasson, Harry Smith, Harry Partch, Krishna, Black Elk, the list just goes on and on. Every single one a game changer. Thanks so much for sharing. I know for certain I saw you lurking about there.

  6. I will always have fond memories of the Mithras Bookstore and Unicorn Theater. This place planted a seed in my soul that sent me off on a path of discovery around the world that took many years and fostered the development of person that I am today.
    It was a real oasis in at true cultural wasteland at that time.
    I will be forever indebted to it.

    • ~ Howdy, Bill! Thanks for sharing your memories of the Mithras Bookstore and Unicorn Theatre. It’s amazing to me that everyone who visited this special place found it to be a life-changing experience, one that contributed in a huge way in transforming people forever.

  7. Are there any pictures of the Mithras Bookstore? I got into a conversation with someone at the La Jolla Historical Society the other day and they are looking for pictures of it.
    When I was a kid I lived in LA and would occasionally visit an aunt in La Jolla. I’d always take off for a couple of hours and visit the Mithras. Never got to see any movies at the Unicorn, though.

    • ~ Hi, Michael! So sorry for the late response! I’ve tried searching myself for any photos of the Mithras Bookstore / Unicorn Theatre to no avail. Very little is on the internet, although some local person probably has a mother-load of photos, posters, etc…

      • I donated my hoard of Unicorn posters/programs to the La Jolka Historical Society ten or so years ago. I hope they still have them. I still own “Hypatia” the Victorian dress firm that the bookstore sold jewelry that was pinned to it.

  8. Thank you for a glimpse into La Jolla in 1972 and the sketch that has linked several disjointed memories for me. I saw “A Hard Day’s Night” at the Unicorn and I remember walking through the Mithras Bookstore and noticing Classical music playing and smelling the incense. Until this moment, I did not realize the connection with Harold Darling, the owner of Green Tiger Press at the time and father of my brother’s friend in junior high.

  9. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and now Berkeley now for almost three decades and connot think of a place as compelling to the formation of my character and makeup as a person as the Mithras bookstore and Unicorn theater have.
    It inspired me to travel to many countries by land on an odyssey around the world living out of two shopping bags over many years. It was a real gem of an institution. I am so glad that I had access to it.

    • ~ Thanks, Ron… what a wonderful legacy you’ve experienced in your life inspired by a connection to this amazing place, the Mithras Bookstore. Everyone who knows of it has been changed forever.

  10. I grew up in La Jolla, after driving 9 months across country in the Chevy Sportsman van back in 1969, at the age of 4 with parents and brother. Our first shelter was a canvas roofed unit at Pueblo Ribera atop or friend’s pad. After that experience my father said this is where we will stay, we ended up on Olivetas Ave just a stone’s throw from Mithras/Unicorn. How was I to know that every other town did not have this type of a rare and precious gem. It certainly contributed to the formation of my aesthetic sense, from the preview less double slide projector image fade transitions of beautiful images, the wonderful film knowledge and comparisons gleaned from watching film for 72-100 hours straight, the gratis popcorn from the psychedelic paint job on the rickshaw like popcorn machine, the Grenadine and Italian Soda, nested within the cedar sheathed upper art gallery, the concrete floor, downstairs, with varnished images from various magazines, the custom wood book shelves and the various objects that filled the space warmly, and of course the vintage projectors in the storefront. I think many in La Jolla today could not conceive the rich bohemia that was. regards Gidon

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