Silver screen anniversary

The Pageant, Chico’s little art house theater, celebrates 25th birthday

THEN &amp; NOW <br>Pageant Theatre partners Roger Montalbano (left) and Tim Giusta, join themselves in the Pageant audience 20 years after their fifth anniversary celebration.

THEN & NOW
Pageant Theatre partners Roger Montalbano (left) and Tim Giusta, join themselves in the Pageant audience 20 years after their fifth anniversary celebration.

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Light up a 25th birthday candle as the Pageant Theatre celebrates its silver anniversary. With the recent demise of Chico stalwart El Rey, the funky little theater on the corner of Sixth and Flume streets now abides as Chico’s oldest operating movie house, offering up a colorful palette of culturally relevant offerings that one is not likely to find across town at the Movies-R-Us. Over the years, carpeted walls adorned with old-school movie posters have maintained, looking across 100 seats to face an entire wall dedicated to a Gregg Payne mural featuring Godzilla and the George Pal version of the Martian death machines from War of the Worlds spitting in the face of Hollywood.

With a welcome intermission offered halfway through each feature to afford one a chance to assuage the Jujube-jones, to relieve the overtaxed bladder from smuggled beer, or dart outside for the ever-popular nico-break, The Pageant has delivered over the past quarter century with quality cinematic fare in a cozy, Bohemian atmosphere, complete with front row couches for the die-hards who show up early to score the prime movie-going territory, especially early on Monday nights, when the long-held tradition of half-price tickets pretty much guarantees a packed house.

Flashback to 1980, when video was busy killing the radio star (and with the looming specter of VHS hovering over the theaters), and the then-recently shuttered Pageant Theatre waited for the right helmsmen to take over the wheel.

‘Al Mitchell ran the ‘original’ Pageant, running mainstream films, ending with a year-long (it seems) run of Saturday Night Fever,” current Pageant co-owner Tim Giusta recalls. At the time, Giusta and soon-to-be business partner Roger Montalbano were teammates on a CARD softball team sponsored by the theater. When Mitchell decided to close up to follow other pursuits, he mentioned to Montalbano that the venue was open for the right dynamic to step in. ‘After he was shut down for a while, Roger approached him about re-opening the theater (as an art house), and asked me if I’d be interested—so we did, but not as an art house immediately.”

So the two teammates formed a new team. After financial agreements were made and architectural restoration performed, the partners reopened the space. With little fanfare, the re-dubbed New Pageant Theatre opened its doors with a Jack Warden one-two punch, Used Cars and …And Justice for All. Following that with forgettable mainstream Hollywood offerings such as Wholly Moses and lame sequels to lame no-brainers (the more things change…), the big picture for the struggling theater was decidedly dim.

‘We were just dying, nobody was coming in. … The projector was bad, the sound system was bad, everything was bad,” Montalbano recalls. Fortunately in late 1981, the struggling theater finally nailed the schadenfreude silver lode. A dispute between the United Artists theater chain and Paramount Studios arose, resulting in the studio’s output not being carried for a time in Chico (The El Rey, Cinemas 3 and the Senator were all affiliated with UA). The Pageant stepped in to fill the void. ‘That’s when we got Ordinary People. We showed it from, I’d say, November to March, the year it won the Academy Awards. It was packed; everybody wanted to see that thing. People were forced to come into the Pageant … and contribute to our coffers.”

‘After Ordinary People we were financially able to stay open and switched to the art/foreign format we have today—films that one would have to travel to Sac or Ashland to see,” adds Giusta.

‘We discovered that we had a market that was untapped north of Sacramento. That in fact, there was a great need for the type of films that we were able to show that nobody else, including United Artists, would or wanted to show,” says Montalbano. ‘The Pageant started being successful and getting the reputation as an art house, a place where you could see something that was intellectually stimulating and not merely something involving car crashes and people blowing each other’s brains out.”

With only a few cosmetic changes applied over the interim, most of the changes have been diverted into the nuts ‘n’ bolts.

‘In 1984 we upgraded the Navy surplus projection system Al had leased us,” says Giusta. ‘Put in seat risers, and other improvements. Built stairs to the projection booth (that ladder was tough) and remodeled the lobby. We began printing and mailing schedules, delivering them around town from the beginning until about three years ago. Everything now we send through e-mail and Web page (www.pageantchico.com). Recently, we replaced our projector of 20 years … figure we’ve run some 2,000 or so films through it. We feel we are unique in so many ways—how we run a very niche business—our customers are very much regulars and the environment we try to keep is one of a big film family, [and] people feel that not only are the films something special and different, but so is the environment and folks sharing the experience.”

“It’s a family of old Chico people that have been around for years, and appreciate the same thing,” Montalbano says. ‘That’s what I’m proudest of, that we’ve provided that niche for people. Whenever we’ve been threatened economically to go under, or to get discouraged, the thing that would stop us from ever doing that is the people who come up to us and say, ‘You don’t know how much The Pageant means to me.’ I’m proud of that.”

To celebrate, Roger and Tim are throwing an anniversary bash this Sunday from 5-9 p.m. in the Pageant parking lot, featuring food, drinks and a live mariachi band.

‘We appreciate all their support all these years, and now we want to party with them for a night,” Giusta says. ‘We invite all those regulars to come down and share their favorite Pageant stories, mostly embarrassing, I’m sure. It seems like only yesterday two skinny fellas with full heads of hair (or was that hair-brained?) decided to open up a theater and show really cool movies. So this is our way to thank the folks that have been coming to the Pageant forever, not just from Chico but many who travel from places like Redding regularly to see film here.”

Just a quaint, little movie theater which shows oddball foreign and independent films that people can bike to or walk to from downtown, a communal venue that maintains the spirit of what makes a town like Chico special.

‘Whodathunkit?” Giusta muses. ‘I guess some people just don’t know when to quit. It’s a little mind-boggling thinking about the whole experience of essentially opening a movie theater on 2,000 borrowed dollars (thanks, Mom) on a lark and sit here 25 years later as Chico’s oldest operating theater. Jeez, a hippie success story.”