A wing and a prayer
Local promoter DNA aims to save the Senator Theater
DNA is upbeat. Convinced his quick-fix renovation of the stately Senator Theater is right on track, he unlocks a side door into the old building. As I step from the bright sunshine on Fifth Street, it takes a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“It’s dusty,” he warns.
Indeed. Once my pupils properly dilate, I notice the gray particle-cloud of broken drywall powder, exposed insulation and the dust kicked up by two workers laboring to get the 76-year-old building ready for DNA’s third annual Nowhere X Nowhere festivities, which, at the time, was set to kick off in exactly one week.
DNA is a local music and events promoter (and columnist in this paper) who by his own admission often dives in headfirst without checking to see if there’s water in the pool. He reminds me of the guy on The Ed Sullivan Show who used to spin a dozen plates on poles, giving each just enough attention to keep it going. You get the feeling he’s undertaken more than he can handle. But somehow he keeps those plates from losing their momentum and crashing to the floor.
But on this day, looking at this undertaking, I tell myself that there is no way he will have this massive renovation ready in a week. But DNA keeps spinning, and against the clamor of heavy labor he lays out his plans beyond the NXN music marathon. To me, he appears oblivious to the reality swirling around him.
He’s made some progress. The wall that was erected in 1979 when United Artists decided to carve the grand old theater into a four-screen complex has been half-removed, revealing the original floor design of the Senator. The balcony remains sealed off, converted as it was into the two upstairs screens.
DNA takes me down to the catacomb-like basement, where it’s damp, dark and musty. Ancient Square D electrical service boxes are bolted to the wall; the air-conditioning system has a squirrel cage fan with a greater circumference than a John Deere tractor tire. You can hear water drip, drip, dripping into some underground drainage canal and the rhythmic, heart-like murmur of a pump that may or may not be sucking wastewater out of the building to the city sewer line.
“I don’t know what it does,” DNA tells me. “But if we turn it off, the toilets back up.”
Three weeks later, DNA’s Nowhere X Nowhere is history and, by DNA-logic, a success. “We didn’t lose as much money as we did last year,” he exclaims.
We’re sitting in the Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Works, and he wants to talk about the future of the Senator, to tell me that he expects to pull off what others before him have only talked about or drawn up in plans and spreadsheets.
I have to admit, somehow he’s pulled it off—at least to this point.
It hasn’t been easy. The day before the NXN festivities, he discovered the dance floor in front of the stage was a bit unstable, sort of spongy. Further investigation revealed that the underpinnings had rotted away. There was a good chance bouncing revelers could break through the floor and fall into that dank basement. Think of the lawsuits.
So DNA recruited friends in the construction trade and, for a few beers, a half-dozen men worked through the night to shore up the floor. They finished just before the music festival began. DNA had kept those plates a-spinnin'.
These days, the fire marshal says no shows on a regular basis in the main theater until a sprinkler system is installed. And that, says DNA, will cost about $30,000.
“I’m hoping to be allowed to do a few fund-raisers to help pay for the system. We’ll see.”
Despite outward appearances, DNA is not running a one-man show. With his two partners—Gary Seals, owner of High Sierra Sounds, and a silent partner who wishes to remain anonymous—DNA has created a nonprofit organization to run the theater, which is owned by Eric Hart, who bought it a year ago from United Artists with vague hopes of to turning it into a performing arts center.
The nonprofit, DNA explained, is called The Right Now Foundation—"As in, ‘When do you need that grant?’ ‘Right now.'”
During the last week of April, DNA signed a long-term lease to rent the theater. The two attorneys he showed the lease to both cautioned him it was not the best of commercial leases. “We made some small changes,” he says. “But, hey, we have great rent.”
He won’t say how long the lease runs, other than: “I’ll have a few kids by the time it’s up.”
DNA serves as artistic director and says he wants a diversity of acts, entertainment and uses to come to the theater, from Butte College plays to solar symposiums (one of which is actually scheduled). So far the theater has hosted the NXN festival and Rastafarian reggae musician Andrew Tosh and is currently showing an elementary school art display in the upstairs lobby.
The two upstairs movie theaters remain intact and could be used for screening films or hosting debates and lectures. “I have no desire to compete with the Pageant Theater,” he says. “I like that place; I go there to see films.”
He explains he is more interested in showcasing film festivals than offering the type of fare the well-established Pageant shows.
The official name of the new theater is The Chico Community and Performing Arts Center, and it is currently putting together its board of directors. “Much as Dr. X assembled the X-Men,” says the ever-wise-cracking promoter.
("I always seem to push it too far, to say one thing more than I should have,” he admits, realizing that tendency turns some people off to his efforts, which are generally carried out in good faith.)
“The overall vision,” he explains, “is a facility that can bring the best in every area of entertainment to the Northstate, as well as be available for gatherings, conferences, nonprofits and new ideas. We are also dedicated to the pursuit of art in all its highest and sometimes lowest forms. We will rotate art all year long, with display hours to be established.”
So it would seem, for now at least, Chico has its long-desired community performing arts center. It’s still a bit rough, the seams held together with baling wire and duct tape, but it is a start. DNA, visionary that he is, sees the day when it’s all properly cobbled together, even to the point where the old tower is erected again.
DNA shrugs off doubters.
“Nothing," he pronounces between bites of a bagel, "is as powerful as an idea whose time has come."