Setting the stage

City Council votes to discuss ‘saving the El Rey Theatre’

A sold out night at the El Rey Theatre.

A sold out night at the El Rey Theatre.

CN&R file photo

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Given how the Chico City Council’s procedural vote on Tuesday (Sept. 20) drew enthusiastic applause from a nearly packed house, the audience must have expected an encore. They’ll have to wait. Following its unanimous decision, the council is set to discuss “saving the El Rey Theatre,” as Councilwoman Ann Schwab put it, during its next meeting.

The panel agendized the topic at Schwab’s request. “I’m sure the rest of the council has [also] gotten a number of emails, petitions and phone calls regarding the future of the El Rey,” she said, “and what options the council has in assuring that the interior of the building and the artwork there stays unaltered.”

The theater is up for sale. As the CN&R previously reported (see “Staging opposition,” Newslines, Sept. 8), the building’s owner, Eric Hart, has entertained a proposal from potential buyers based in San Luis Obisbo who would transform the theater into commercial and housing space. The El Rey Theater Alliance, a group working to preserve the building for use as a theater, attempted to raise $1.4 million by Sept. 9 to purchase the theater.

The nonprofit’s crowdfunding campaign fell well short, raising about $5,000, said organizer Lisa West. Now, the group has changed course, attempting to gather sponsorships for each of the theater’s 700 seats in the form of $2,000 pledges—which would total $1.4 million—though the alliance is unsure whether Hart is still willing to strike a deal. On a parallel track, the group’s organizers are petitioning the city to protect the El Rey as a historic landmark. As of Tuesday, volunteers had collected 627 written and 452 electronic signatures.

Sandra Quiring, volunteer coordinator for the El Rey Theater Alliance, said she hopes the City Council gets the message. “If we’ve gathered this many signatures in two weeks, we’ll have a lot more [by the next council meeting],” she said.

However, it’s unclear to what extent the City Council can intervene in plans for a private property. While changes to the façade would require review by the city’s Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board, there’s no city ordinance in place to protect the fairy murals inside the theater, which were painted in 1947 by German artist Martin Ravenstein with assistance from Chico State students.

“The artwork is so astounding,” Quiring said. “It’s a unique piece of history that won’t ever return if it’s destroyed.”

During the council’s brief discussion on the agenda item, Schwab floated the possibility of drafting an emergency ordinance to protect the theater’s interior. City Attorney Vince Ewing said he will report on the legality of such a move during the council’s next meeting on Oct. 4.

The El Rey was originally constructed in 1905 and has served as an entertainment venue ever since. Chico State student Carson Auld wants to keep it that way. He’s personally gathered nearly 500 written signatures for the El Rey Theater Alliance’s petition, he told the CN&R following the meeting.

“Venues like that are commodities that are getting more and more rare, especially on the West Coast,” he said. “I personally value that architecture, and it’s a great glimpse into the past.”

Among the people who filled the Chico City Council chambers were a good number of high school and college students, suggesting that Auld isn’t alone. He believes he speaks for young “culture creators” when he says that turning the theater into something generic would diminish what makes downtown Chico unique.

“Converting [the El Rey] into a chain restaurant and housing … wouldn’t make me want to stay here. I value places that have character and appreciate antiquity and the arts. That’s the kind of city I want to live in.”