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Preservationists Trying to Save Scottsdale's Harkins Camelview 5 Theater from Possible Demolition

The Harkins Camelview 5 theater in Scottsdale.
The Harkins Camelview 5 theater in Scottsdale.
Benjamin Leatherman

Scottsdale's Harkins Camelview 5, one of the longest-running movie theaters in Arizona, has been screening indie and art house flicks for a few decades now. And if a group of local historic preservationists, architecture aficionados, and longtime patrons have their way, it will keep doing so for years to come.

News broke earlier this month that the historic cinema, which first opened in 1973 and is situated next door to Scottsdale Fashion Square, might possibly be closed and demolished next year as a part of a proposed expansion of the upscale Camelback Road mall. It's a fate, however, that Valley architecture expert and author Walt Lockley and others are working to prevent.

See also: Endangered Wright House Is Phoenix Architecture Worth Preserving

Lockley's one of thousands of locals and Camelview 5 fans who are attempting to save the iconic art house cinema, which is a part of the Arizona-based Harkins Theatre chain, from possibly getting torn down.

An online petition aimed at preventing its demolition has been launched and currently has more than 2,000 signatures, and a Facebook group called "Save Camelview!" was launched recently by former Valley architect Taz Loomans. Camelview supporters, including the folks behind Modern Phoenix, are also planning to spread awareness of the issue and possibly be in attendance at upcoming meetings of the City of Scottsdale's Development Review Board when the matter comes up for public discussion.

Saving the Camelview theater is worth taking these steps, Lockley says, because it's an important piece of Valley lore that not only has historic status and a great deal of cultural significance, but also unique mid-century architectural elements (like the distinctive mushroom-like canopies out front and Art Deco touches inside) that set it apart from other local theaters.

"It's one of the only theaters of its kind in the entire state of Arizona because of its architecture," Lockley says. "But it's not only an architectural argument that is why Camelview is significant. It's a well-loved, well-used, and very popular theater with a strong identity of its own and one of the [few] theatres in the Arizona that shows exactly its kind of limited release foreign and independent films."  

Dan Harkins, owner of the Arizona-based Harkins theatre chain.
Dan Harkins, owner of the Arizona-based Harkins theatre chain.
Courtesy of Harkins Theatres.

But for all of its uniqueness, the Camelview could wind up on the scrap pile sometime next year after getting the wrecking ball treatment. A recent story by local NPR radio station KJZZ that focuses on theatre magnate Dan Harkins and his long-running chain of movie houses states that "Camelview may be on the chopping block" and might be shuttered due to a 142,000-square-foot expansion of Fashion Square.

According to Maricopa County records, the theatre is located on property that's owned by shopping mall corporation Westcor, who operates the upscale Scottsdale mall and is a subsidiary of multimillion-dollar real estate company Macerich. The Harkins Theater chain has leased the building housing Camelview 5, which was opened by the family's late patriarch Red Harkins in the early '70s as a twinplex, for decades.

Kimberly Hastings, a senior manager of corporate communications for Macerich, says that the company is "in the very early stages of the plans" and couldn't provide any further details regarding the proposed expansion.

A recent article on local real estate development site Arizona Builder's Exchange, however, mentions possible plans to demolish both Camelview and the chain's seven-screen theater inside Fashion Square as a part of the mall's expansion. A new 12-screen theater would potentially be constructed on Fashion Square's second level and the addition might include a "mid-century architectural design motif." (Meanwhile, the space currently occupied by Camelview would reportedly become landscaping and parking to satisfy regulations regarding a proportionate amount of parking spaces for businesses.)

Harkins, in the KJZZ piece, also hints at the possibility of featuring indie and foreign fare in the proposed Fashion Square theater to fill the void left by Camelview.

"My vision is that someday, we could combine Fashion Square with Camelview and make a nice 12- or 14-plex, giving us some much more latitude to book the theater correctly, and book the art and foreign films, too," Harkins stated.

Anne Silsby, Harkins Theaters marketing director, told Jackalope Ranch in an e-mail that the chain is "absolutely committed to art, independent and foreign film."

"It is part of our DNA," she writes. "While we do not own the Camelview building or land, we have had a very successful and longstanding partnership with Macerich and Scottsdale Fashion Square and fully expect to continue this success."  

The Harkins Camelview 5 theater in Scottsdale.
The Harkins Camelview 5 theater in Scottsdale.
Courtesy of Modern Phoenix

While local film buffs would still be able to catch the art house and foreign flicks in that corner of Scottsdale after Fashion Square's expansion takes place, Lockley says that the demolition of the Camelview theatre would be a significant loss, and not just because of its historic architecture.

"To my mind that's only just a portion of the argument. Unlike a lot of other preservation tear-down targets -- which have been abandoned or are in bad shape or they're white elephants that we think ought to be kept around -- Camelview isn't like that at all," Lockley says.

"It's a healthy business. It's an ongoing and successful operation and there's no reason to tear it down. And there are a lot of people who are coming to its defense who aren't necessarily concerned with how it's a mid-century marvel but care because they use that theater and its very important to them. People know it and people love it. So the question is, would we rather have Camelview or 90 parking spaces?"

Valley historian Marshall Shore, who's a longtime fan of the Camelview for both its historic status and cinematic repast, is one person that would rather have the theater. Despite the fact that many indie and foreign films can be seen via Netflix or at local theatres like FilmBar and the Valley Art, which is also part of the Harkins chain, he feels that Camelview should remain open.

"As this cultural icon, it should stay around because it's been important for so many people and so many different communities," Shore says. "It's a place where you'd could go and see the gay and lesbian film, you'd go and see the movies that wouldn't survive in suburbia but would wind up there."

Losing the Camelview, he adds, would take away another bit of Valley history, like when the renowned Cine Capri theatre closed in 1998.

"The style of it just so is unique as well. Nowadays, most cinemas don't necessarily have that look," Shore says. "And when you're looking back at iconic theatres like the Cine Capri that are now gone, they were a little bit more individual, whereas with most of the theaters nowadays you don't have that individual [feel]. It's just part of a chain and they all look alike, just big stucco boxes."

Taz Loomans echoed Shore's feelings in an online essay she penned last week in support of saving the theater.

The problem is that you can't reproduce "a theater like Camelview" because it is unique and historic, offering a one-of-a-kind movie-going experience. Once it's torn down, it'll be gone forever. It's great that Phoenix residents will still have a place to catch independent movies, but it's terrible that it will have to be in a vanilla, mass-produced, characterless megaplex which you will find anywhere from from Sierra Vista, Arizona to the Ahwatukee neighborhood in Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Lockley believes that the fight to save Camelview is a winnable one because of the theater is still popular and doing a "good deal of business."

"In my eyes, this might be a bit more doable than a lot of other preservation battles where it's insurmountable. This one's different. This is a healthy little theater. If we're trading it off merely to get code requirements with parking, then it might be a lot easier than other fights."

He's also hoping that they can work with Dan Harkins and Fashion Square's owners to find a solution that would be acceptable to everyone and keep Camelview alive.

"I don't know Dan Harkins but I get the idea that he cares about this stuff. He really went out of his way a few years ago to keep the Valley Art going. He seems committed, based on what I can tell, to really earn customer loyalty and cares about having a place to show these kinds of films, so I'm not down on Dan Harkins at all," Lockley says. "I'm not really down on Westcor at all either...yet. I regard them both as potential partners in this matter."

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