El Rey to become office/retail space
Chico’s 100-year-old Second Street building that has housed a movie theater, including the El Rey, for most of its existence is being purchased by Eric Hart, the man who has partially restored the Senator Theater on Main Street.
But the El Rey will not be restored. Instead, it will be completely renovated inside and out to create first-floor retail space, second- and third-floor office space and a partially underground 15-space parking lot.
Hart and project partner Tom van Overbeek of San Jose asked the Chico City Council this week to consider giving up three to four parking spaces in its public lot behind the theater to allow the project to go forward. Those spots would be needed to allow access to the underground lot. In turn the developers would give the city an equal number of spaces in the new lot.
Hart told the council he would save the theater if he could but that its run-down condition and the fact that single-screen movie theaters cannot compete with modern-day multiplexes made that option less than desirable.
Hart told the council he was trying to gauge its members’ feelings on the project, adding that he would name the building the Majestic, its original moniker.
Local architect David Griffith explained that the project would call for hollowing out the building and reconstructing it from the top down with steel reinforcement.
The theater was built in 1905, van Overbeek said earlier in the day during a tour for local media. It functioned initially as an Elks Lodge, offices and retail space and a vaudeville theater. A few months after opening, a silver screen was installed and motion pictures were offered, creating Chico’s first movie theater.
In 1925 it was renamed the National Theater, after the building’s owner, the National Theater Syndicate, and an illuminated sign was bolted to the front of the building. In 1939 it was closed for remodeling and opened a few months later under the name of the American. A new sign was installed.
In 1946 a party by members of the American Legion, who now occupied the third floor, sparked a fire that completely gutted the inside of the building. The theater was rebuilt and opened more than a year later as the El Rey, so named simply because the owners located and purchased an illuminated theater sign from a burned-down Oakland theater called the El Rey.
Hart had concerns about community protests over losing Chico’s first and now last downtown movie theater. But by the time he stood before council Tuesday night, the chambers were empty.