California Theatre – San Diego, CA

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in April 2021. You can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

Balcony of the California Theatre in San Diego

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

Once billed as “the cathedral of motion pictures” and “an enduring contribution to the artistic beauty of the entire Southland,” The California Theatre in San Diego, CA will be demolished. It could be said its destruction has been ongoing in the last 30 years due to inadequate maintenance. Southern California does not have harsh winters, but it gets rain, and when water comes into a building, it can do significant damage, especially if it’s full of ornamental plasterwork.

California Theatre Auditorium from the Stage

It was named the New California Theatre because there was already a California Theatre in San Diego in 1927. The original California changed its name to the Aztec in 1930, which allowed this one to drop the “new” from its name.

Architect John Paxton Perrine designed the 2,200-seat theater in Spanish Colonial Revival style. The building also housed several restaurants and a high-end department store, Bernard’s, which occupied the entire second floor. It began as a silent film and a Vaudeville theater, before turning to talkies in 1931. Eventually, ornate theater interiors went out of style, and the decorative plasterwork in California’s auditorium was covered by draperies during a remodel in 1963. The California stopped showing films in 1976, and became a performing arts center in 1978. Many famous bands performed at the theater during this time, including; A-HA, Poison, Pete Seeger, The Jerry Garcia Band, Donny Osmond, Jesus and Mary Chain, Melissa Etheridge, The Smithereens, Alice Cooper, Cowboy Junkies, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith.

The lobby of the California Theatre in San Diego

Joseph F Malloy, the theater’s original assistant manager, was shot and killed during a robbery on May 7, 1928.

Ariel Wharton (A.W.) Coggeshall, a San Diego-based businessman, bought the building in 1976. When he died in 1986, he left California to a group of non-profit organizations. The nonprofits formed a consortium called Fourth and C Corp. They were not interested in owning a 2,200-seat theater and planned to sell it to Hillman Properties, a Pittsburgh-based developer. Hillman planned to demolish the building and build a 34-story office complex. Fourth and C Corp gave the tenants of the office building, many of which were month-to-month, 30 days to leave in April 1990. Avalon Attractions, the company that managed the theater, was given until July 1990. The last performances were the Cowboy Junkies on June 20, 1990 and the Final Curtain Concert at the California Theatre, held by the Theatre Organ Society of San Diego on June 24, 1990.

The fire curtain and proscenium arch of the California Theatre in San Diego, CA

The feature presentation on opening night was “Venus of Venice,” a silent romantic comedy starring Constance Talmadge and Antonio Moreno. “Book Ideas,” a vaudeville show by Fanchon and Marco, and a performance by Al Lyons and his band rounded out the opening bill.

However, it wouldn’t be that easy to demolish the California, as it was a historic site grade three, which protected it from being demolished. Fourth and C Corp petitioned the San Diego City Council to change the designation to grade four, which would allow demolition as long as the historic features were recorded. They held a vote in February 1991 and voted 5-to-2 to change the listing. Hillman Properties abandoned the project in October 1991 due to the impact of the economic recession of 1990-1991. The building was bought and sold a few times in the 1990s and early 2000s, with plans for the theater ranging from a Christian performing arts center to a playhouse with occasional films.

Orchestra Level, California Theatre San Diego, CA

View of the auditorium from the orchestra level.

Sloan Capital Partners LLC purchased the California building in 2006. Sloan partnered with Caydon Property Group, an Australian company, to redevelop the property. Caydon’s plans called for the theater to be demolished and replaced by a 41-story condominium tower. Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), a San Diego based historic preservation nonprofit, filed a legal challenge to the demolition of the building on March 1, 2018. The court granted the legal petition because the environmental impact report did not analyze any adaptive reuse alternatives for the theater, required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Looby of the California Theatre in San Diego,CA.

The California was the first public venue in San Diego to have earthquake resistant framework built into the structure to protect the building.

SOHO and Caydon eventually agreed the lobby and much of the exterior facade would be reconstructed. They also agreed to work with SOHO to identify historic items in the building that could be repurposed. Caydon recently purchased the property from Sloan for $21.1M. It is currently scheduled to be demolished in 2021, with the construction of the new building beginning shortly afterwards.

Auditorium from the side of the stage - California Theatre San Diego, CA

The Wurlitzer organ was removed from the theater after it closed. It went to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Spring Valley, CA, but was destroyed by arson in March 1996.

Emery Theatre – Cincinnati, Ohio

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in Jan 2021. You can become a patron at: https://www.patreon.com/afterthefinalcurtain

View of the auditorium from the middle balcony.

Built as part of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, the Emery Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio opened on January 6, 1912 as the Emery Auditorium. It was funded by an endowment of $656,737 ($17.1 million with inflation) from Mary Emery, whose husband, Thomas J. Emery had planned on building a similar school in the city. Emery stipulated as part of the endowment that the auditorium must be open to the public and have at least 1,800 seats. The 2,200-seat theater was designed by Harvey Hannaford of the architectural firm of Samuel Hannaford & Sons. It was one of four “acoustically perfect” concert halls whose design was inspired by the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. The other three were the Orchestra Hall, also in Chicago, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Orchestra Hall in Detroit, MI.

View of the auditorium from the stage.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra held an inaugural concert at the theater on January 6, 1912. In 1924, George Gershwin performed his classic composition Rhapsody in Blue at the theater. On April 25, 1936, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra held its final concert at the Emery; it moved to the Cincinnati Music Hall, a space with more seats and more parking. Beginning in 1935 and ending in 1939, the Federal Theatre Project, a program established during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal to fund live entertainment programs, began to use the Emery. From 1938 to 1948, the theater was the home of The Boone County Jamboree, an American Country Radio Program. A 500,000-watt transmitter was used by station WLW so that millions of people around the country could listen to the program.

The Emery has a very small lobby when compared to many other theaters built around the same time.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Emery on June 16, 1959 while he was campaigning for Ted Berry during Berry’s run for Cincinnati City Council. The University of Cincinnati (UC) took ownership of the Emery building in 1969, when the Ohio Mechanics Institute was incorporated into the university. A Wurlitzer Opus 1680 organ moved to the Emery from the nearby Keith’s Theater the same year, but was not completely installed until 1977. That same year, the Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society began programming shows on the weekends. They held organ concerts, showed silent, talking, and 3D films, and reduced the seating by closing the upper balcony. The final organ concert was held on October 24, 1999, after which the Wurlitzer was removed to be restored. It would never return to the Emery, and was installed in the Cincinnati Music Hall’s ballroom in 2004.

Most of the seats on the upper balcony have been removed.

Beginning in November 2011, the Requiem Project, a non-profit group formed in late 2008 to restore the theater, held concerts, film festivals and recording sessions at the Emery. The National, Dirty Projectors, Carrie Rodriguez, Ralph Stanley and others performed at the theater during this time. The Requiem Project hired John Senhauser Architects and Westlake Reed Leskosky, two architecture firms, to create the restoration plans for the Emery. However, the Emery Center Corporation, who subleased the theater from Emery Center

Apartments Limited Partnership (ECALP), who in turn leased it from UC, shut down all programming in 2013. According to Kathy Schwab, head of the Emery Center Corp in 2013, programming was stopped due to the theater’s dilapidated state and because everything had to be approved by UC. The Requiem Project sued to try to continue their renovation efforts at the theater, but eventually settled in March 2016. On April 23, 2019, the UC board of trustees voted to sell the Emery; according to them, it is beyond repair. It was sold for $8.55 million to local developers who intend to restore the building. The restoration costs are estimated at around $30 million and will take about three years to complete.

The theater’s vertical sign is stored in one of the former offices in the building.

View of the auditorium from the orchestra level.

Capitol Theatre – New London, CT

Auditorium of the Capitol Theatre in New London, CT

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

George Burns and Gracie Allen are one of the most well-known comedy duos of the 20th century, and legend has it that they met at the Capitol Theatre in New London, CT. This isn’t true, but they were introduced by Allen’s roommate at the time, Rena Arnold, who went on to marry Walter T. Murphy, the owner of the Capitol Theatre. 

Stage, Capitol Theatre New London, CT

View of the auditorium from the stage.

The Capitol Theatre opened on November 21, 1921. Tickets for the opening day celebration went on sale three days earlier, and sold out in just a few hours. According to an article in The New London Day, “In beauty, comfort, equipment, construction, and other ways, it equals, if it does not surpass any theater of its size in the country.” Architect W. H. Lowe designed the interior, which featured a mural of cherubs above the proscenium arch. Like many other theaters of the time, the Capitol had an orchestra pit, and an organ. 

Lobby mezzanine, Capitol Theatre New London, CT

The opening act was Billy Sharpe and the 20th Century Revue.

Murphy sold the theater to the Connecticut Theatres Operating Company in 1942. Ownership and management of the Capitol between the mid-1940s and early-1970s is unclear, but we do know that the Capitol was closed on April 22, 1974 after a visit by the New London building inspector found multiple violations, including an unsafe marquee, eight feet of water in the basement, and a broken toilet in the projection booth. Its closing was made permanent after the projectionists union complained of unsafe working conditions. It was purchased by the City of New London for $55,000 in 1978 so that they could provide fire exits on the adjoining buildings — a tunnel was built under the theater’s stage that connected the buildings on either side of the theater to serve as their fire exit.

The ticket booth pictured here was not original to the theater.

Beyond housing this fire exit, the theater has been unused since 1978. Proposals for revitalizing the building have included a performing arts center, a disco, a mini-mall, a twin-screen theater, a flea market, a visitors center for a maritime heritage park, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting hall. Every plan has fallen through — one developer said “Physically, it’s just too big. There just isn’t the population in the area to fill that theater every night.” The City executed some general maintenance on the theater in 1995, including replacing the roof, removing the seats, and cleaning up the interior of the building, but no additional work has been done on the theater space since then. 

The South Eastern New England Theatre Organ Society (SENTOS) purchased the Marr & Colton Organ in 1977 and placed it in storage. The last time it had been played was in 1936.

Maxim Development Group (MDG) purchased the theater in 2006 for $1 in exchange for modest tax breaks, provided that MDG renovate and develop the theater into a live music venue within an agreed upon time frame. Before the deal was executed, local newspaper The Day revealed that the head of the company had defrauded investors of millions, and had been convicted of attempted armed robbery. The City of New London went through with the deal regardless, and within the year the company had broken its agreement with the City. It was seized by the City for non-payment of taxes, and auctioned to two contractors from New York for $20,000, who later sold the property for $68,000 to a local developer.  The theater is currently for sale.

In my opinion the Capitol is worth reusing, but it should become something other than a performing arts center. New London has a movie palace-turned-performing arts center, the Garde Arts Center, located less than a mile from the Capitol. A return to movies in the style of a place like the Nitehawk Cinemas, a New York City movie theater chain that offers food and drinks that can be ordered and consumed while watching a film, might be something that would work. 

An Acre of Seats in a Palace of Decay

Auditorium, California Theatre – San Diego, CA.

Hi Everyone!

I’ll be exhibiting some of my work at the Wall Gallery at Percival Brewing Company. It’s located at 83 Morse Street, Norwood, MA starting on December 14 and running to January 24, 2020.  There’s going to be an opening reception on Dec 14 from 2-4 PM. Hope to see some of you there!

Almost all of the work I’m exhibiting will be on metal. Metal Prints are created by infusing a digital photograph onto raw aluminum, and the result is an image that almost jumps out at you. I’m not going to share them here because the screen and my iPhone shot doesn’t do them justice.

Ok, maybe just one.

Also, if you’re looking to order a copy of my new book, After the Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theatresfrom me directly in time for Christmas please place your order by December 15th.

Happy Holidays! – Matt

Queens Theatre – Queens Village, NY

View of the auditorium from the balcony.

The Queens Theatre opened on December 29, 1927 opened in the Queens Village neighborhood of Queens, NY. It was designed by architect R. Thomas Short, who also designed the nearby Prospect Theatre in Flushing, for the Century Theatre Circuit. Morris Rosenthal, who managed the Majestic Theatre in Bridgeport, CT, was brought on as the theater’s manager. The 2,500 seat theater opened with a performance by The Happiness Boys, a popular radio act, and for the first year showed a combination of vaudeville and silent pictures. 

View of the auditorium ceiling from the stage.

In January 1929 Vitaphone, an early form of talking movies, was installed. The switch from vaudeville and silent films did not go over well with the regular patrons, and they threatened to go to another theater. Rosenthal, the manager of the Queens, got a permit to hang a banner in front of the theater that said “Sound Talkies – See and hear!” along with a catchy phrase about the upcoming film to help drive traffic into the theater. On September 13, 1938 projectionist Solomon Schulman killed Nat Klein in the Queen’s projection booth during a screening of “The Devil’s Party.” Klein was a former projectionist’s assistant. Schulman claimed that Klein failed to get a job at a different theater, blamed Schulman, and attacked him with a fire extinguisher. Schulman was convicted of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to 5-10 years at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY.

The main floor of the lobby was almost completely gutted during the late 2000s.

The Queens closed on March 1, 1974 after a showing of “Last Tango in Paris” starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. According to Joseph Wickman of Century Theatres, the Queens had been losing money for years, and only filled 150 of the 2000 seats during the final showing.  Later that year, Louis Diaz reopened the theater as an independent house. He started showing first run films, then switched to Spanish language films, then Spanish language XXX films, and by 1976 English language XXX films. A Queens based group called the “Coalition for Decency” began to picket the theater, and eventually sat down with Diaz and asked him to stop showing XXX films. He declined, but did stop putting up posters for films outside the theater. In July 1976 Diaz was charged with promoting obscenity for showing the pornographic films “The Taking of Christina” and “Little Sisters.” He plead guilty and was fined $1,500. He was charged again the following year, and this time the films and the projector’s lenses were seized. The case was eventually dismissed, and the theater continued showing XXX films until it closed February 1989. 

The interior of the theater was very similar to the now demolished Prospect Theatre in Flushing, NY.

In July 1990, the Queens was renovated and reopened as a performing arts center. Marty Oser, who was behind the renovation, hoped that the lack of venues between Manhattan and Long Island would give the Queens a chance. Kool and the Gang, The Marshall Tucker Band, David Brenner, Waylon Jennings, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Ace Frehley, and Jerry Lee Lewis all performed at the theater during this time. However, it wasn’t very successful and it closed again in late December 1990.

A 3 manual 11 rank Opus 1569 Austin Theatre Organ was installed in the theater when it opened. It was later moved to Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY.

On October 2, 1993, the New York Deliverance Gospel Temple began holding services at the theater before purchasing it in January 1995. They sold it to the All Nations Apostolic Tabernacle (ANAT) in September 2006. ANAT closed the building and began to renovate it into a 2,500 seat second location for their rapidly growing congregation . They completed work on the building’s facade, but the interior work stalled out. Despite a few attempts to complete construction, the building was put on the market in early 2019. 

 

State Theatre – South Bend, Indiana

Auditorium, State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

The seats were removed from the auditorium when it was converted into a nightclub.

Billed in early newspaper advertisements as “The Pride of South Bend,” the 2,500 seat State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana opened on January 29, 1921 as the Blackstone Theatre. Construction lasted for 16 months and cost $500,000 ($6.7 million when adjusted for inflation). Henry L. Newhouse — an architect known for many theaters in the Chicago area — designed the building with a neoclassical exterior and a beaux-arts interior. Unlike many other theaters built during this time, the State did not have one traditional balcony; instead, it had tiered seating in the rear of the auditorium, and two small balconies on either side, beginning at the organ chamber and ending over the third tier seating section. Designed for silent motion pictures and vaudeville shows, the opening day feature was the silent film “Once to Every Woman,” starring Dorothy Phillips and a then-unknown Rudolph Valentino.

Auditorium as seen from the stage of the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

View of the auditorium from the stage.

The Blackstone began to fall behind the times after the Colfax and Granda Theatres opened in 1927 and 1928, which both offered talking pictures. Rather than also show talking pictures and compete with the new theaters, the Blackstone Theatre stopped showing films and changed to burlesque. This was likely due to the cost of purchasing and installing the equipment required to show talking pictures. However, the City Government didn’t approve of burlesque shows, and Chester P. Montgomery, the Mayor of South Bend at the time, ordered the theater closed in early October 1929. It was taken over by the Publix (Paramount) chain who repainted the interior, reupholstered the seats, and reopened it on Christmas Day 1929 as the State Theatre. 

Exterior of the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

The exterior of the State was designed in the neoclassical architecture style. A shootout between the police and John Dillinger in 1934 allegedly left bullet holes on the theater’s marquee and terra cotta facade.

Like many other theaters, the State was used for a range of events other than showing films including; school graduations, closed circuit telecasts and beauty pageants. The State closed again on November 3, 1977 due to declining attendance. In 1980, a crew from the Victorian Supply Company of Little Rock, Arkansas removed the 17-panel stained glass dome from the auditorium. The stained glass was taken back to Arkansas and refurbished for a prospective buyer — a restaurant owner from Dallas, Texas.

Auditorium as seen from one of the small balconies.

View of the auditorium from one of the small balconies.

The building passed through a number of owners in the 1980s and 1990s before it was purchased for $20,000 by the Watseka Theatre Corp. Watseka made $500,000 in repairs to the building, and reopened it as a second run movie theater on March 25, 1993. However, it couldn’t compete with local multiplexes and in October 1996, it changed formats and became a live music venue and nightclub. It closed again in 2005. The State was purchased by Banko Capitol, a real estate investment firm, and reopened as a performing arts center and cultural center in the Spring of 2013. After operating infrequently it closed again in September 2016 after the theater was sold at a county auction due to unpaid taxes. A grassroots organization called “Save the State Theatre SB” was formed by an Indiana University South Bend student in early 2019 to try and raise the funds to purchase and reopen the theater.

The Projection room of the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

The projection room is full of equipment that was likely installed during the theaters stint as a second run movie theater in the 1990s. The film on the platform was 1997’s Starship Troopers.

The lobby of the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

Like many large theaters of the era, the State had its own orchestra, the 17-piece Blackstone Symphony Orchestra, which was led by 21-year-old Angelo Vitale, one of the youngest band leaders in America at the time.

Organ Chamber in the auditorium of the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana

The organ chamber, which once held pipes for the theater’s Kimball organ, is now filled with a large speaker.

Arcade Theatre

The balcony of the Arcade Theatre in Los Angeles, California

View from the side of the balcony.

The Arcade Theatre in Los Angeles, California originally opened on September 26, 1910 as the Pantages Theatre. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by the Morgan & Walls architecture firm and was a part of the Pantages Vaudeville Circuit. Morgan & Walls are also known for designing the Mayan and El Capitan Theaters in Los Angeles. The location of the 1,400 seat theater helped to make downtown Los Angeles an entertainment destination, and 11 more theaters opened in the area between 1910 and 1931.

The Arcade was the first theater on the Pantages Vaudeville circuit in southern California.

Vaudeville singer and comedian Sophie Tucker appeared at the Arcade’s opening day celebration as part of her first West Coast tour. Other opening day acts included a one act pantomime called “A Hot Time in Dogville,” singer Maurice Burkhart, a musical comedy sketch by the Lelliott Brothers, and the Yalto Duo dancers. On Christmas Day 1913, an unusual wedding took place on the theater’s stage — Napoleon, a vaudeville-performing and silent film starring chimpanzee “married” Sally, another chimpanzee from the E&R Jungle Zoo. The theater closed in December of 1921 so that a photoplayer, an automatic mechanical orchestra to accompany silent films, could be installed.

Souvenir programs from the theater’s opening day were printed on silk.

Pantages sold the building in 1925 to the Dalton Brothers, who owned the nearby Folles Theater. It was renamed Dalton’s Theatre (or Dalton’s Broadway) until 1928 when the name was changed to the Arcade Theatre, after the Broadway Spring Arcade Building, which is located directly next to the theater. The Dalton Brothers renovated the Arcade in 1932, and reopened it as a burlesque house on July 30, 1932. Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello) was one of the comedians who performed at the theater during this time.

All of the seats were removed after the theater closed in 1992.

In 1938, famed theater architect S. Charles Lee remodeled the interior of the theater, which reduced the seating to 800, changed the foyer to the Moderne style, and updated the building’s facade. On August 22, 1941 the Arcade became a Telenews Theatre, which ran newsreels from 8AM to 3AM the next day. The opening newsreel was called “This World Besieged,” and was about World War II. This change lasted only four months, and by mid-November 1941 the Arcade was back to showing feature films.

The mural in the center of the proscenium has long been painted over.

The Arcade was an independent theater in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1970s, keno was played at the theater every night at 8PM. Metropolitan Theatres ran the Arcade as a grindhouse (a theater that ran three or four different films on repeat) until it closed in 1992. The following year the lobby was converted into a retail space. It is currently an electronics store, and the stage is used as a storage space for the store’s inventory. There have been a few proposals to restore the theater, including one that would have it and two other theaters turned into a restaurant and multiplex complex, but none have come to pass.

Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy) performed at the Arcade in 1919.

During the first burlesque show someone threw a stink bomb on stage and injured one of the dancers.

For more on the Arcade and many other Los Angeles Theatres be sure to visit: https://losangelestheatres.blogspot.com/

 

Strand and Capitol

Strand New Bedford

Strand Theatre, New Bedford, MA

Yesterday I attended a photography workshop at the Strand Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts hosted by Bryan Buckley of Vanishing New England. I love hosting workshops, but it was very nice to be on the other side of one this time. The Strand Theatre originally opened as the Vien Theatre in 1905, and is going to be turned into a community center in the near future.

Capitol Theatre, Fall River, MA.

While I was in the area I also visited the former Capitol Theatre in Fall River, MA. The Capitol originally opened on February 2, 1926. I believe it closed in the 1960s, but haven’t been able to verify that yet. Part of the orchestra level was converted into a bowling alley sometime after it closed.  The proscenium and organ chambers were removed so that a large steel support beam could be installed as part of the conversion.

I’ll be posting full write ups on both of these theaters very soon.

Back in the States

Royalty Cinema, Birmingham, England.

I had a fantastic time in England with the Cinema Theatre Association and wanted to share a few of the theaters I visited while I was over there. First, the Royalty Cinema in Birmingham. It opened on October 20, 1930 and closed in 1963. The cinema was then converted into a bingo hall, which closed in 2012.

Granada Cinema – Tooting, South London, England.

The Granada originally opened on September 7, 1931. It was converted into a bingo hall in 1967, and remains one today. This is one of the more impressive theaters I’ve ever visited.

Finally, we have the ABC Stoke Newington. It opened as the Savoy Cinema on October 26, 1936. It closed in 1984, and the orchestra level was converted into a snooker hall. The snooker hall closed in 2014. Current plans call for the theater to undergo an estimated  £3 million restoration and reopen as the Hackney Arts Centre in 2018.

I’ll be posting in-depth write ups of these cinemas (and more) very soon.

Fitchburg Theatre – Fitchburg, MA

Fitchburg_Theatre_002

During the late 1930’s tickets cost .25 cents, except on Wednesdays when admission only cost .10 cents.

The Fitchburg Theatre in Fitchburg, Massachusetts originally opened on February 7, 1929. It was designed by architects Louis Chiaramonte and George W. Jacobs for the Maine and New Hampshire Theater Corporation (MNHTC). The construction of the theater displaced two buildings, one of which is now the Masciarelli Funeral Home, a Fitchburg Historic Landmark. MNHTC spared no expense in construction, which included a $15,000 Wurlitzer Style 190 pipe organ, large decorative tapestries for the auditorium, and a Photophone system. The 1,751-seat theater was the second theater in New England to have Photophone, a system of syncing recorded audio with motion picture.

Fitchburg_Theatre_004

The Wurlitzer organ is long gone. It was removed in the 1960s.

Like many of its contemporaries, the Fitchburg Theatre had a mix of motion pictures and live (often vaudeville) performances. Its opening day program consisted of “In Old Arizona,” starring Warner Baxter, Dorothy Burgess and Edmund Lowe, five vaudeville acts (Miss Raffin’s Marvelous Troupe of Monkeys, Marie DeComa and Company, Don Romaine & Will Castle, Will Ward & Co.). Harry Rodgers played the Wurlitzer organ during the festivities. Tickets to the opening were reserved in advance and the same show was performed on February 8 and 9. Vaudeville performances continued at the theater until 1948, much longer than usual. In 1954, the theater closed for renovations. A concession stand, new marquee and updated seating were added.

Fitchburg_Theatre_007

The Lobby is currently full of construction debris.

The Fitchburg Theatre closed in 1970 and reopened the following year as an adult theater. Fitchburg police raided the theater on December 31, 1973 and seized copies of “Deep Throat,” and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” More adult films were seized in subsequent raids on February 11, 1974 and July 5, 1974. The owners were fined $10,000 in August 1974 for violating Massachusetts obscenity laws.

 

Fitchburg_Theatre_010

Frank Hollis, of the vaudeville team Kenney and Hollis was the first manager of the theater.

In 1975 the theater was forced to close when the city of Fitchburg refused to renew the theater’s license to show films. It was rumored that it was due to the obscenity law violations, but that was denied by Hedley Brey, the Mayor of Fitchburg at the time. Brey said it was because the owners had not complied with a city ordinance requiring the approval of the Health, Building, Fire and Police departments’ approval to show films to the public. Ben Sack Theatres, Inc. leased the theater later that year, and it reopened as the Family Theatre on July 30, 1975 with a showing of “Doc Savage: Man of Bronze.”

Fitchburg_Theatre_006

Some of the original plasterwork can be seen again due to the drapes that were put up during the 1980 remodel falling down.

Live performances began again soon after it reopened, and many famous bands performed at the theater during this time, including; Rush, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Hank Snow and Freddy Fender. In 1980, the theater closed for renovations once again. This time it was triplexed with the orchestra level becoming one, and the balcony being divided into two smaller auditoriums. At the same time most of the ornate plasterwork was covered with drapes. Upon reopening the theater was renamed the Cinema-1-2-3. It closed for permanently in 1987 with a showing of “Crocodile Dundee.”

Fitchburg_Theatre_008

One of the two smaller auditoriums created from the former balcony space.

A few plans to reopen the theater were proposed over the next two decades, including reopening it as a movie theater, becoming a “draft house” theater that served alcohol, and gutting the theater and turning it into a rock climbing gym. In November 2016, the main street theater block was purchased by Fitchburg State University (FSU) for $350,000. FSU have a three-phase plan to renovate and reopen the block culminating in the theater becoming a 1,600-seat performing arts space for use by the University’s theater program and community organizations.

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The second of the two balcony auditoriums.

My two books, After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater, and Kings Theatre; The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theatre are available on Amazon and bookstores worldwide. Signed copies can be purchased at my site.