The Other Hollywood Dynasty

By Jeff Wing   |   June 11, 2024
MTC’s old Cinema Theater off Hollister (courtesy photo)

If you’ve ever watched David Lean’s legendary Lawrence of Arabia on a “hand-held device” (a noun-hyphenate that describes lots of swell gadgets these days) you will have noticed that the film’s breathtaking Battle of Aqaba looks like a bunch of ants streaming across a baloney sandwich. Is cinematic splendor about scale? Yeah, partly. It’s also about our anthropological need for a shared emotional cohesion, and an outsized tub of popcorn bathed in golden motor oil. The presentational milieu of a movie is no accident. Oh, here comes David now. 

“I think we can all appreciate being with a group – that collective laughter, or fear, or empathy,” he says. “I mean, this is a space people are familiar with. They know to go there. We take our stewardship of that experience very, very seriously.” 

Who is this guy? And what on Earth is he going on about? 

It Came from Iowa

David Corwin, President of Metropolitan Theatres Corporation (courtesy photo)

The previews have wrapped, and a moment of beguiling digital silence lulls you into a brief and ill-advised respite. Suddenly hidden speakers belt out a piercing synthesizer fugue and you flinch like a marionette. A golden film reel spins onto the screen and a few seconds later the Metropolitan Theatres Corporation (MTC) trademark lies on its side to reveal the words Feature Presentation and blasts off like the Millenium Falcon. Whew! What is this moviegoing “MTC” watermark as familiar to some as MGM’s perpetually yelling lion? What does it mean? It means a family, if you can believe it – with names like Joseph, Lawrence, Sherrill, Bruce, and David. Meet the Corwins.

“We’ve been a part of the community for nearly 75 years now,” says David. He’s President of the Metropolitan theatre chain; the fourth gen Corwin to lead the privately held company, and the first to be pummeled by the changing movie theater landscape. At this writing, MTC is engaged in a Chapter 11 reorganization. “We’re working through the process and optimistic we will get it done and be in a much better place in short order,” David says, and means it. 

Though he’s speaking to me from his late father’s memento-cluttered MTC office in L.A., David’s ref to 75 years of community love (I’m paraphrasing) is about the community of Santa Barbara, where MTC planted its flag in 1950. The official Corwin launch had begun some years earlier, in 1923 Los Angeles – coincidentally the same year the HOLLYWOODLAND housing development stuck a sign up on Mt. Lee. Parts of that sign still remain, it’s said. 

To insiders, the Corwin name has long been synonymous with two things: the fine art of presenting movies, and decades of lavish, community-nourishing philanthropy; a family theme that is only growing stronger. “My brother and I do our best, and we cultivate it in our kids,” David says avidly. Giving to community (and that word encompasses many things) is as central to the Corwin family heraldry as a coat of arms. 

Metropolitan currently operates 15 theaters, 85 screens, and two IMAX auditoriums in California, Colorado, and Utah, both historic movie house properties and state-of-the-art multiplexes. Not to pry, but how did the Corwins get into the movie theater business in the first place? Like most Tinseltown tales, this glitter bomb begins in Sioux City. Yeah, the one in Iowa. 

Stumbling into the Movies

My great grand-father was an accountant,” David says. “One of his clients ran a theater, and at the end of a meeting he would leave his receipts behind. My great grand-father would sort of idly look through these things and be like, ‘Wow, this guy’s doing pretty well! Maybe this is a business we want to get into.’” Not the dawdling type, in 1919 Joseph Corwin made an offer and purchased the guy’s movie theater in Sioux City. It was a good investment. How good? By 1923 the family headed west to nascent movie capital Los Angeles, and an empire was born.

“At one point we had eight to 10 theaters on Broadway alone,” David says. “And some of those were beautiful movie palaces.” 

The family had been visiting Santa Barbara and liked what they saw, as can happen. The Santa Barbara area was also a comparative terra incognita for movie theaters. In 1950 the Corwins began building here; and falling in love with the place. 

Bruce Almighty

MTC’s Bruce Corwin was a legendary philanthropist (though he preferred “connector”) whose almost otherworldly sense of service – and the genuine joy he took in people – has been documented in the MJ’s pages. Presiding over the successful theater chain fueled his own impulse for reaching out. What sounds like a saccharine bromide – “… Aw, this dear man just had a heart for giving!” misses the point. Bruce was a restlessly productive soul with a roving eye for what needed doing. He seemed to take particular pleasure if the way forward was uphill. 

“My dad was always about the underdog,” David says. “Whether that was helping get Tom Bradley elected, turning a Watts junior high auditorium into a movie theater, or being arrested trying to integrate a Maryland lunch counter.” A pugilist with angel’s wings, Bruce’s sunny disposition, deep connections, and ability to walk through walls drew people to him. “He wouldn’t just try and do something and walk away. He would continue to be involved to the point where, yeah, he’s marching for civil rights and getting involved in sit-ins.” 

The Corwins own the beloved Arlington Theatre lock, stock, and puebla (courtesy photo)

He had MS (multiple sclerosis) since he was 28, and people would come in here and he would talk about that, try to ease their concerns, give them resources to help, or just talk about his experiences. I mean, it was just constant.” 

In Bruce Corwin’s quietly meteoric time on Earth he financially supported and organized the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and a score of causes and projects in Los Angeles, including the Variety Boys and Girls Club; J Street; the Pico-Union Project; Hebrew Union College; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital. He was Mayor Tom Bradley’s confidant and Treasurer. In his adoptive Santa Barbara, Bruce provided seed money and free use of MTC’s theaters when Phyllis de Picciotto founded the Santa Barbara film festival in 1984. He was instrumental in helping secure the MOXI property (Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation), and the Corwin Family Foundation has long supported UCSB’s Dorothy and Sherrill C. Corwin Awards which recognize excellence in Music Composition. 

“He’s hard to encompass,” David says of his father. “I miss him so much.”

Box Office

MTC’s current struggles, and they are not insignificant, signal either a sea change in the way we choose to consume movies, or a temporary hiccup. There is some precedent, says Ross Melnick, Professor at UC Santa Barbara and Film and Media Industry Historian. “The extinction of movie theaters has been predicted almost from the moment they were built,” he says. “During the Depression, they said, well, everyone’s broke. When TV came around in the fifties and sixties, they said, that’s it, people will stay home. We went through this with cable TV and VCRs and DVD, we went through this with streaming last year…” Melnick will be joining Jason Reitman and several other industry insiders at UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center on June 6 to panel-discuss the fate of moviegoing. A timely topic for the Corwins, and for all of us.

David Corwin is confident, if not exactly sanguine. The movies have been good to his family, and vice-versa. “There’s certainly an understanding of all the different factors that are impacting not just us, but the industry as a whole. So we’re optimistic. And there’s no market more important to us than the Santa Barbara market.”  


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