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MODESTO — A visit to the northern San Joaquin Valley’s old theaters is like taking a trip back in time. Thanks to determined local communities and private groups, restoration projects brought these early 20th century architectural treasures back to life.
“Prior to the renovation, the murals were in terrible shape, the ceiling looked like it was going to come down on patrons’ heads, the seats were in bad shape. The theater was suffering from neglect, but even more important was the fact that to bring it up to the level it is today required millions of dollars,” said Modesto’s State Theatre Executive Director Sue Richardson.
The 579-seat State Theatre was built in 1934, but it closed in 2005 for a year-long renewal project. Originally estimated to be a $1 million undertaking, the scope of the work stretched into a multimillion-dollar effort.
“The Building Industry Association of Central California’s in-kind donations, plus the monetary donations of many people in our community, turned what was going to be a nice theater into a beautiful one,” Richardson said.
The theater’s concession space, which is known for serving monthly themed “State-tini” cocktails, along with beer, wine and other drinks, is undergoing improvements this summer.
“The area, which we outgrew years ago, is going to double in size and include two professional bartender stations,” said Richardson. “We’ll serve small, prepackaged appetizers and desserts, and we’ll also have an espresso bar and pastries for the morning films we hope to start showing once the area increases in size, storage capacity and efficiency.”
Tracy’s Grand Theatre, built in 1923, was in terrible shape after long periods of abandonment.
“In the theater itself, it was piled almost to the ceiling with garbage and trash that had been there for years and years,” said Kim Scarlata, who manages the theater as an employee with the city of Tracy.
The original structure has been transformed when apartment units were constructed on the front portion of the building. In 2001, the city of Tracy purchased the theater and several adjoining properties, and demolished the apartments after residents were relocated.
Situated within Tracy’s downtown redevelopment district, the Grand Theatre project was eligible for $18 million in state funding. The Grand Theatre Foundation raised an additional $1 million.
Completed in 2007, the two-year project yielded the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts, a 37,000-square-foot facility consisting of the original theater (the Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Theatre), three art galleries, a smaller studio theater and the Grand Lobby.
“Some of the other buildings we were able to save, for instance the old jail, we purchased that too so it is part of the theatre too,” Scarlata said.
Along with offering arts education classes, showing films and booking gallery exhibitions and live performances, the Center is rented for weddings, reunions, galas, mixers and fundraisers. It is also the venue for the mayor’s annual State of the City address.
The Merced Theatre was built in 1931. Converted to a four-plex movie theater in 1979 and later abandoned, the 1,185-seat historic theater was neglected for years. The city of Merced stepped in and purchased the property in 2002.
“From 2002 all through the way through 2011, volunteers spent every other Saturday in here demo-ing a piece of the building getting it ready for the renovation,” said Merced Theatre’s Managing Director Adam Miller.
The city, in cooperation with the Merced Theatre Foundation, began restoration in January 2011. Being on the National Register of Historic Places, the theater’s renovation was guided by the historic requirements of the registry.
“It was a complete gut and renovation. They took it down to the bare studs and re-did everything,” Miller said.
Supported through redevelopment agency funding and private donations, the theater’s restoration cost $12 million and was part of a three-phase project completed in April 2012.
The three phases included renovation of the theater itself, as well as space in front of the structure that now incorporates a coffee shop, retail spaces and apartment units upstairs.
During the early 1970s, the city of Stockton nearly lost its old theater. The historic Bob Hope Theatre once was slotted for demolition.
“The theater wasn’t in use. There was a hole in the ceiling and you could walk in there and see the stars, so they decided to turn it into a parking lot,” said Chris Kay, director of marketing for SMG, the management company that operates the theater along with the Stockton Arena, Stockton Ballpark and Oak Park Ice-Arena.
Thanks to involvement from the community, the building was saved and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Built in 1930, the 2,046-seat theater underwent its first renovation in the late 1990s. The project was funded primarily through the city of Stockton’s redevelopment agency.
A second major $8.5 million restoration further updated the theater and brought it up to code. It was completed in 2004.
“It included restoring some of the plaster art, new seating, cleaning and restoring murals, the sound, lights, granite sidewalk, and the marble mosaic in the rotunda,” Kay said.
Today the Bob Hope Theatre is a popular performance venue.
“We do a lot of concerts. We do a lot of comedy. Comedy is very popular,” said Kay.
Also popular is the Friends of the Fox classic movie series. The non-profit organization shows a classic film one Friday a month and patrons commonly dress in accordance with the movie’s theme.
While maintaining historic attributes, these restored theaters also feature modern digital projection and sound systems, lighting and concession stands that make them highly sought-after venues.
“We did our multi-tasking digital install just over a year ago,” said Talia Kopecki, head projectionist for Modesto’s State Theatre. “Digital is necessary because 35 millimeter prints are expensive and they’re not being struck anymore. So the ones that we do get are out of an archive, and it costs a lot of money to be shipped out the door.”
The State Theatre maintains the capacity to run reel-to-reel films, and one of its most popular events is the showing of “American Graffiti” on 35 millimeter film donated by director George Lucas himself.
The area’s restored theaters, now complete with modern amenities alongside their historic charm, also are highly attractive as performance venues for artists.
“Kenny Rogers himself said that he had been in countless theaters, that this is one of the best theaters that he had seen,” said Merced Theatre’s Miller. “We hear that from almost all of our artists: that they would never have thought that a theater as beautiful as what we are would be here in the Central Valley.”