Stunning Senator

Historic theater’s owner continues restoration

HAPPY RETURNS The Senator’s sign was recently repainted and returned to its home.

HAPPY RETURNS The Senator’s sign was recently repainted and returned to its home.

Photo By Tom Angel

The Senator Theatre stands in the heart of Chico on Main Street and, even without its signature tower, the historic building, with its lighted marquee, remains a classic Chico landmark.During the last 76 years the theater has seen many changes. It’s gone from a house for traveling shows in the 1920s to a movie theater in the latter part of the 20th century. Now, it is a performance venue for all kinds of musical acts touring Chico.

The art deco theater was built in 1927 and is home to murals of Syrian running deer and Chico’s Hooker Oak tree. In a blow to its original incarnation as a magnificent art deco theater with high vaulted ceilings and gold pillars, then-owner United Artists in the 1970s split the theater into four separate rooms for screening movies.

Ultimately, UA decided to close the historic building in April 2000, saying it could not compete with the newer multiplex theaters. Locals accused UA of letting the historic theater fall apart in the years before it closed.

Many developers in Chico had their eye on the building and wanted to see it turned into a community arts center. On July 18, 2000, Eric Hart bought the building from United Artists.

Hart comes across as all business but has a soft spot for historical buildings.

“I grew up doing construction and started restoring smaller buildings and apartments and eventually worked my way up to larger commercial buildings,” he said.

Recognizing the history of the theater and its importance as a Chico landmark, Hart decided to restore it to how it appeared during its heyday in the 1940s. (There was more of a historical record of the ‘40s Senator than the way it was in the ‘20s.)

“It’s not just the investment,” Hart said. “People are real emotional about the theater because it’s a landmark. That’s why I’m not turning it into a 24-hour gym.”

The theater’s history is evident the moment its doors are opened. The historic lobby is still intact, with the original chandelier hanging gracefully from above. The walls are painted red and reach high up to its vaulted ceilings with large gold, carved pillars. The ceilings are covered with murals that date back to the 1940s. Years of neglect have faded the murals, but Hart plans on restoring them, which he said will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000.

Hart grew up in Chico and has seen the theater change over the decades.

AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING The Senator was recently returned to a one-room venue. In the ’70s, United Artists divided it into four smaller movie viewing areas.

Photo By Tom Angel

“I remember watching movies here the way it is now and when it was a four-plex,” he said. “It’s nice owning it now and being able to change it back to its original state.”

When he bought The Senator it was a four-plex with an artificial wall going down the middle of the theater. Hart leased the building to a group that hoped to fully restore it, and the artificial wall was removed. That opened up original rooms inside that were boarded up as well as the large stage. With railings separating the ground-floor seating from the balcony, the inside of the theater is quite impressive.

Outside, Hart had the original windows re-exposed and the façade painted.

The only missing piece is the Senator’s tower, which cast its long shadow over Chico until it was removed several years ago due to earthquake safety concerns. The dismantled tower sits in a city yard awaiting return to its former home.

Hart has big plans for The Senator, including the construction of a five-story building with a restaurant in the theater’s parking lot. The buildings would be connected, allowing patrons to move freely from one to the other on the second-floor level.

“People who go see live entertainment like to have somewhere to get a drink and have something to eat,” he said.

Hart plans to do the complete renovation of the theater after the five-story building is built. When the project is complete Hart said he hopes the theater will get into the national registry.

“There is a whole society that restores these [theaters],” Hart said. “When I actually have the time to get in and do the actual restoration of the theater, it’s going to be done right, with the original grandeur of the 1940s.”

Hart recently purchased another Chico landmark, the El Rey Theatre, which is slated to become office and retail space with underground parking.

He said he plans on recycling furnishings from the El Rey and putting them into the Senator. Seats from the El Rey will replace old and deteriorating ones in The Senator. The El Rey’s movie screen, along with the vibrant red curtain and projector booth, will be installed in the Senator, giving it the capability of showing movies.

Even as some of the plans have yet to be set in motion, there is still plenty going on at the Senator.

In July 2004, the theater reopened as a viable live venue when Modest Mouse performed a sold-out show. The theater, which is one of the largest venues north of Sacramento, has also drawn in diverse acts such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Grammy Award winner Patty Loveless.

The Senator Theatre has a heart and a soul that is different than any modern day multi-plex. It’s hard to walk inside and not feel the history of the past, to embrace its glory and envision what it once looked liked. It’s easy to imagine the different eras of people that once filled the theater seats. It is a beautiful place for people to view live entertainment and visit some of Chico’s former living history.