Saving the Senator

The nonprofit Right Now foundation has big plans for restoring the Senator Theatre, but can the dream survive?

IF HE SAVES IT, WILL THEY COME? Local man about town DNA stands before the historic downtown landmark he is fighting to save as a local community arts center. The marquee reads <i>Zonepranos</i>, an original new play that DNA contributed to based on a zany combination of the ever-popular <i>The Sopranos</i> and <i>The Twilight Zone</i> television series.

IF HE SAVES IT, WILL THEY COME? Local man about town DNA stands before the historic downtown landmark he is fighting to save as a local community arts center. The marquee reads Zonepranos, an original new play that DNA contributed to based on a zany combination of the ever-popular The Sopranos and The Twilight Zone television series.

Historic Senators:

Chico does not have the only old and threatened theater named Senator. There are several around the country. The 900-seat Senator Theater of Baltimore, Md., for example, has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1939. In 1991, USA Today ranked it as one of the four best movie theaters in the nation. It has been on the verge of closure for the past year due to competition.

For more on Chico’s Senator, including a gallery of historic photos, visit

With the prospect of help from the city, DNA finally sees light at the end of the tunnel in his effort to save the Senator.byphoto byLocal arts impresario DNA hopes the light he sees at the end of the tunnel is for real this time.

Chico’s own reincarnation of Bill Graham has worked tirelessly over the last 20 months promoting a do-it-yourself community arts center, spending close to 5,000 hours of volunteer time with his nonprofit organization, the Right Now Foundation, to help renovate and run the historic downtown Senator Theatre.

Next week, he hopes, a committee of the Chico City Council will make a critical decision that eventually could enable the group to purchase the theater outright. But it’s anything but certain, and the concept has a history of divided support.

The controversy revolves around whether the Senator building itself could become a “money pit,” in the words of former Chico Councilmember Dave Guzzetti. A $25,000 feasibility study commissioned in 2000 determined that the art deco building dating from 1927—designed by the same architects who designed the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the Castro in San Francisco—needs $4.3 million for renovations, not including the purchase price of the theater itself, currently set at $750,000 by owner Erik Hart, DNA says. It’s been made abundantly clear that the city does not want to jump into a situation where it will have to fund theater operations on an ongoing basis. As a result, DNA and others have had to come up with a different approach.

While previous groups had talked endlessly about saving the theater but given up when the cost became clear, DNA decided to act first and hope the money would follow. So he worked out a rental deal with Hart, opened the theater as it was and started scheduling events.

Along with co-founder Kirk Johnson, he called on volunteers to help maintain the theater and stage a year’s worth of events—mostly musical concerts by artists ranging from blues and roots master Taj Mahal to popular MTV teen favorites Alien Ant Farm, but also local plays, dance performances, opera, church meetings, visiting speakers, films, you name it.

On Sept. 12 DNA will go before the city’s Economic Development Committee and ask for $400,000 in grant or loan money to put $200,000 toward the purchase of the theater. As a condition of the sale, Hart has agreed to provide a new roof, new air conditioner (the theater has been closed for the summer because it’s too hot inside) and marquee repair. (Hart could not be reached for comment.)

The remaining $200,000 would go toward replacing seats, curtains, lighting and whatever else is needed to make the theater workable, if not exactly fully restored.

But what about the rest of the $4.3 million initially projected as needed? DNA has two answers to that question.

“The plan all along has been to get some sort of situation where we can buy the building, because then more grants are available,” DNA says from inside the hangar-like hollow of the theater’s main floor. Without an actual claim on the theater, he explains, it’s impossible to raise money to restore it.

The second answer is that the figure given in the financial analysis is based on hiring professional construction crews to do all of the work. But he and his group have shown that they can get much of the work done by volunteers.

“We in essence did our own feasibility study and learned a lot of things that work and don’t work,” DNA says. “We also found that certain estimates from the $25,000 business report did not need to be as much as quoted. We replaced some middle walls they said would cost $60,000, but we did it for $4,000 that I borrowed [along with Johnson].”

His plan is to continue using such volunteer labor, aided by the $200,000 from the city, to refurbish the theater.

For instance, the group desperately wants to remove the upstairs movie screen additions (dating from 1979) and reopen the balcony to recreate the original theater’s look, which DNA says was built to be acoustically perfect. He explains that he has already had five different architects come in and estimate they could do the work, with volunteer help, for $5,000 as opposed to the $80,000 in the financial analysis.

“We want it to be a true community center,” DNA explains, “the type of place you can bring your kids to years down the line and say, ‘I helped build that over there.'”

One person on the Economic Development Committee who will soon hear DNA’s case is Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan.

“If the Right Now Foundation can demonstrate a solid operational business plan and generate significant private contributions from the community, I think the city should be a financial partner with a matching grant—perhaps match community contributions dollar for dollar up to a certain amount,” Nguyen-Tan said. Those contributions could include in-kind sweat equity, such as fixing the plumbing or electrical system, he added.

“I need to see an operational business plan, but my guess is that if the Right Now Foundation did not need to pay the rent it does now, I’m optimistic that the doors can remain open.” For that reason he favors a direct grant rather than a loan, he added.

It remains to be seen whether the other councilmembers on the Economic Development Committee, Rick Keene and Dan Herbert, will agree to submit an approval recommendation to the City Council, where the final funding decision lies.

Community Development Director Tony Baptiste agrees that DNA is on the right track, as long as he frames his request as a one-time cost for the city.

“His best shot is if the group can show that it will function independently and not need the city to maintain operational costs,” Baptiste says. “I think they would take his request concerning the ability to do repairs cheaper at face value.”

Skeptics of the project point to the sheer size of the Senator, some 30,000 square feet with the capacity to hold over a thousand people. Some wonder whether Chico is the type of town that can support a venue like those in larger city theaters such as San Francisco’s Warfield or Sacramento’s Crest Theatre.

When it was built, the Senator was designed to be Chico’s foremost vaudeville temple, music theater and movie house, complete with a stand-alone organ that rose from the floor. But few such classic movie houses remain today, and those that do serve well-populated cities.

The theater’s size can present problems that require not only a lot of grunt work, but also a creative approach and an ability to work economically with the surroundings—something the Right Now Foundation learned about over the last year. Organizers say they plan to continue arranging a whole host of different arts events in the building, using creative staging. Last year, for example, at some musical concerts the theater was sectioned off for smaller crowds. One metal band, High on Fire, had the entire audience on stage with it.

Today, looking around the room, DNA says he wants to restore the classic feel of the older architecture, right down to restoring the original silver paint and “trippy” designs on the walls, a small portion of which is still visible behind a fire extinguisher cabinet. He mentions a number of other historic theaters being restored in towns across California, including Red Bluff, Oroville, and even tiny Point Arena, on the coast south of Mendocino, which restored a theater using bond measures and tax dollars from the community.

“I’ve worked as hard as I possibly can, and the community support has been phenomenal. … I would just ask that any people interested in saving and restoring the Senator contact us or just write us a letter right away saying they support the project and our organization—[these] will be part of our presentation to the city.”

One thing’s for sure: The dedication remains in the hearts and minds of the motivated dreamers behind the Senator project. And this is personified by DNA, a guy who can sometimes be seen in the theater late at night sweeping up after a crowd. He’s always been vocal about his support for the local arts scene, sometimes pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion to entertain Chico audiences, but never abandoning his conviction that, when the time comes, people will respond.