Community group seeks to save El Rey Theatre from potential repurposing
Sandra Quiring remembers her mother taking her to the El Rey Theatre to see her first movie, The Wizard of Oz, when she was a child. Decades later, when her own daughter was 3 years old, they went to the same theater to see her first film, a showing of the animated classic Fantasia.
Like many others, the family feels a deep connection to the iconic Chico theater. Sandra, her brother Gary Quiring and her now-grown daughter Lisa West are the primary organizers behind the El Rey Theater Alliance, an effort to preserve the building’s use as a theater. The El Rey is for sale and discussion has involved a plan to gut it to create commercial and residential space. The most direct route to accomplishing that goal is to raise $1.4 million by Friday (Sept. 9) for the nonprofit to purchase the theater itself.
Whether or not the group is able to raise those funds by that time, its members intend to keep fighting changes to the Chico landmark. However, Bob Summerville, senior planner with the city, said no plan for changes has been submitted, and the city has limited authority if the theater’s proprietors want to repurpose it.
“Owners have rights, too,” Summerville said. “It’s a public process, and arguments for nostalgia and pulling heartstrings might work to gain public support, but, unfortunately, not with planners. We can get sued for making decisions based on nostalgia and heartstrings.”
Heartstrings, the alliance has. Money, not so much.
“We’d need some angel donor to come along with the money, and I’m not holding my breath,” Gary said during an interview with the El Rey supporters last weekend. “But, even if we don’t get the purchase price, then [the buyers] have to file plans and it has to go through a process. The public can have strong input there, so we’re also organizing to raise awareness about that process.”
This is not the first time the theater has been threatened. In 2005, the building’s then-and-current owner, Eric Hart, planned to turn it into retail and office space with an underground parking garage. The project, which called for renaming the building the Majestic—its original name—was approved by the city but eventually fell through. Hart told the CN&R back in 2007 that the cost to renovate the place would outweigh potential revenue from rent. The El Rey Theater Alliance was formed that same year to buy the theater or find other ways to preserve it from future demolition.
Hart, best known for rehabbing the Senator Theatre, which he also owns, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
The latest effort to save the El Rey has been a whirlwind. Gary first posted news about the sale to Facebook Aug. 30, urging people to write or email Summerville their objections. The next day, the alliance announced the building’s current owner had offered to sell it to the group if it could come up with the $1.4 million by Friday. As of press time, an online crowdfunding campaign at generosity.com had raised more than $4,000 in pledges.
Gary said his group has a solid plan to repay the purchase price if a donor steps in. The organization will work with any buyer who protects the theater’s unique features, including the interior fairy murals, and uses the space as a community performance venue, he said.
The group is working on precedent. Many aging theaters nationwide have been restored in recent years, with a prime example found in Redding. From 1997 to 2004, Jefferson Public Radio raised $5.65 million to refurbish the 1935 Cascade Theatre. Today, it’s the centerpiece of that city’s downtown revival efforts.
According to the Historic Resources Inventory, construction of the El Rey building was finished in 1905 and it first housed an Elks Lodge and vaudeville theater named The Majestic; a projector and screen were added a few years later. The inside was redone—and the fairy murals installed—after a fire destroyed the original interior in 1946. During subsequent remodeling, up went a marquee from a burned down Oakland theater called the El Rey.
Summerville said that, a decade ago, an effort to qualify the building for the National Register of Historic Places determined it has been changed too much and lacks historical integrity. He also said that, even if it were placed on the register, the city of Chico’s Historic Preservation Ordinance only protects a building’s exterior. It does, however, offer incentives to owners who “participate in the historic preservation process.”
Several weeks ago, Summerville said, he met with Hart and a team from San Luis Obisbo, potential buyers with a plan to transform the theater into commercial and housing space. However, a few weeks later, he was told the plan had been put on hold.
Mark Wolfe, the city’s community development director, said the process is dependent on what is ultimately proposed. The building is already zoned for commercial and residential use. Changes to the facade would require review by the city’s Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board. Wolfe said the El Rey’s inclusion on the city’s Historic Resources Inventory—a list of historic buildings within the city—could lead to further scrutiny, but there is no ordinance protecting the building’s interior.
“We could write up an ordinance to protect the interiors as well if people voiced that they wanted one,” Summerville said. “I’d be all for it, if they decided to go that route. I’d be right there in the theater with them, waving a sign and wearing a T-shirt.”