Long live the king?
In the shadow of the Senator, the El Rey retains its throne
The El Rey should be forgiven if it has a bit of an inferiority complex. Despite the fact that the theater boasts the largest screen in California north of Sacramento and has a rich history dating back nearly a century, it has long been overshadowed by the Senator, whose famous tower lorded mightily over Main Street from the day it opened in 1928.
Inside the quirky, spacious El Rey, pixies gallivant along the walls and ceilings, some in various stages of quaint undress. They were hand-traced by the artist Martin Ravenstein and restored in 1974, but water damage has marred some of the creatures that the daily Enterprise-Record called at the time “a theme in fantasy of fairies and elves gaily flitting through the air about toadstools.”
The theater stood in contrast to the Senator and boasted more than 900 cushioned seats. Movies would have their first run at the Senator Sunday through Tuesday and then show at the El Rey Wednesday and Thursday.
Myron “Buzz” Buzzini, who in 1978 wrote his master’s thesis on Chico movie theater history, said the El Rey is a prominent player in local history.
“The El Rey was the first large theater—a major motion picture theater for Chico,” he said. “The El Rey and the Senator were always fighting for the top theater, but the El Rey won out when the Senator went to four screens.
“The Senator was the great theater, but it’s not anymore,” Buzzini said, referring to its sale and conversion to a music and performance venue. In 1999, then-owner United Artists removed the tower rather than restoring it, and it has since languished in a city storage yard while local history buffs raise money to replace it.
The city had once considered both the Senator and El Rey as potential investments.
“We had some pretty extensive conversations with United Artists a number of years ago,” City Manager Tom Lando said. “Both held quite a bit of interest for us.”
The city wouldn’t have bought the El Rey outright, Lando said, but rather partnered with a private owner or Chico State University in a renovation effort.
Lando is among those who worry that the El Rey could one day close, never to be used again. “I think it’s a concern for the downtown,” he said, even though “it’s not the key piece in the downtown.”
But the El Rey keeps hanging on. And if its walls could talk, they’d tell plenty about painted pixies, late-night kisses and a huge span of cinema from Abbott and Costello to live performances by Al Jolson and John Philip Souza.
In the Chico of the first third of the 20th century, theaters proliferated. In summer, Chicoans fled their hot homes for the air-conditioned splendor of affordable movies and vaudevillian acts. “There was nothing else to do—it was entertainment. They didn’t have TV. They didn’t stay at home,” Buzzini said.
The El Rey’s previous incarnation was as The Majestic, built by the Elks Club in 1905 on West Second Street. In March 1906, opening night seats were auctioned off, and the next month residents turned out to see the comic opera Two Vagabonds. In his thesis, Buzzini reconstructed the progression based on newspaper articles and ads, along with personal interviews.
In August 1925, the Majestic became the National Theatre, which closed in 1939. The owners, T & D Jr. Enterprises (which later became United Artists Theatre Circuit), reopened the theater as The American.
In 1946, the American caught on fire—a fate common to theaters of the time. When it reopened in 1948, it was as the El Rey (Spanish for “the king") because, as legend goes, the company had a sign that was the only feature to survive a fire at its El Rey theater in the Bay Area.
In 1928, the Senator, also owned by T & D Jr. Enterprises, opened, its 1,700 seats dwarfing the El Rey.
Even as recently as the 1940s and ‘50s, the El Rey played second fiddle to the Senator. “We used to go to the Senator, not the El Rey so much,” remembers second-generation Chicoan Ernest Carpenter, who works with Buzzini in Chico State’s Instructional Media Center. The Senator had matinees and serials, while the El Rey was more geared toward older folks, who wanted to see first- and second-run movies.
United Artists, as a company, is neither open nor accessible. Even the city has had a hard time in its dealings with company representatives.
Buzzini recounted UA’s once “powerful presence” in the state. It was UA that in 1972 opened the first multiplex theater in Chico, the then-modern UA Cinemas III on Pillsbury Road. That closed in 1998, and Cinemark opened first Movies 10 (since shuttered) and later Tinseltown 14 with stadium seating and frequent cleanings to appeal to today’s mall-going crowds. The multiplexes have smaller screens, but today’s movie-going audience might not even know the difference.
UA missed the boat.
“UA was a very big company, but they’re nothing now,” Buzzini said, praising local management’s tenacity but blaming the corporate ownership for not nurturing the theater, physically or financially.
“They don’t care about the small towns anymore,” said Buzzini, adding that character-filled historic theaters are closing and becoming eyesores all over the nation, an exception being the to-be-restored Cascade Theater in Redding. “It’s those old, big theaters. It’s hard for them to make money,” he said. “The original, glamorous theaters in the town are just sitting there.”
To its credit, United Artists is in the midst of upgrading the El Rey’s electrical wiring, after a July 2002 incident in which a wire overheated and smoke damaged the marquee, which has been out of sight at a Chico sign shop awaiting its return.
El Rey Manager Rick Gorman, who first worked for UA in 1971 (as an usher at the Senator), did speak about the theater—which took some coaxing, because he’s tired of rumors that the El Rey isn’t doing that well financially.
“We’re still open. We’re going to continue to be open,” Gorman said. “We’re doing great financially. … If we weren’t profitable, we wouldn’t be here.”
“It’s the most popular theater in Chico,” he added.
Gorman discounts as “totally untrue” an account related by Eric Hart to the News & Review that, when the Chico developer bought the Senator, UA tried to get him to buy the El Rey as well. If someone came to Regal Entertainment Group (with which UA has merged) with $1.8 million in cash, Gorman said, “they would probably sell it.” But only because everyone has his price, not because the company is actively looking to unload the El Rey.
Lando said, “United Artists in my opinion is not attached to any of its real estate.” A few years ago, he said, “We were told that it was a package deal with the Senator [and perhaps a theater in] Grass Valley.”
Theater attendance nationwide had been down in recent years, Gorman said, and a few years ago hundreds of theaters were for sale. “We rode it out. The environment now is totally different,” he said.
“There’s no mystery here,” he said. “I know you don’t want to hear that.”
Indeed, the El Rey still has loyal following. Many welcome the return of midnight movies that are smartly chosen—from the cult holiday favorite A Christmas Story to the 1970s retrospective Dazed and Confused. And the theater is downtown and within walking distance of student neighborhoods.
Gorman said the El Rey’s screen is the biggest north of Sacramento, a feature appreciated by theater buffs who eschew the cramped multiplexes. He added that United Artists, besides improving the front of the theater, is putting in new, black stadium seats. The marquee will return and be complemented by florescent tubing, making for a brighter theater front.
Buzzini said it would take a lot of money for a new owner to remodel the El Rey. It needs paint, along with plumbing and heating upgrades and more.
It’s also not as flexible an entertainment venue as the Senator, lacking a large stage and a dressing room.
“It could be turned into a lot of things,” Buzzini said, but he doubts the city, university or any other potential buyer would be willing to pay the price. “Who’d want to buy it?”
Buzzini feels a twinge of disappointment when he talks about the El Rey. In the 1980s, he enjoyed catching a late-night flick. “I went there all the time. I thought it was a great theater. I always liked to sit in the second or third row where the screen was huge up in front of me.” He shakes his head in disbelief remembering how students would stumble out of the theater and see the clock at the old bank across the street reading 4:30 a.m.
Those were the days when the El Rey would present three films at a pop: three Woody Allen movies, say, or a triplet starring Clint Eastwood or the Beatles.
“Its role now is nothing,” Buzzini said. “The company that owns it doesn’t seem to care about it.
“I would hate to see it close," Buzzini continued. "If it closes it will never open again. It will just be a blight sitting on the corner over there."