The big screens
Old movie houses survive thanks to loyal volunteers
No one could have missed the searchlights outside Oroville’s State Theater. The quadruple beams of bright white light crossed back and forth over each other as they scanned the darkening sky of downtown Oroville. It was classic Hollywood movie-premiere excitement.
The red carpet was rolled out from the sidewalk to the theater entranceway as folks decked out in swishy flapper dresses and dapper suits exited their early 20th century automobiles as they gently jostled and chatted excitedly on their way inside for the evening’s big show.On the bill that night was a performance by an area barbershop quartet, a crooning emcee and two silent films featuring Vaudeville legend Buster Keaton— 1922’s The Paleface and the 1927 feature film The General, with a live “soundtrack” played by a very gregarious theater organist with red Coke-bottle-thick spectacles seated at his organ full of buttons, pull-knobs, pedals and keys.Fairly typical fare for “combination house” theater entertainment in 1928, the year Oroville’s State Theater first opened its doors.
Only this wasn’t 1928. It was April 5, 2008, and it was the birthday celebration of Oroville’s 80-year-old gem.
It was a monumental year for two North State theaters—aside from Oroville’s theater, the State Theatre in Red Bluff recently celebrated 100 years since its beginnings as the Red Bluff Opera House.
The theaters are experiencing a revival, thanks to the dedicated work of people who are passionate about restoring these buildings to something close to their former glory.
The old movie houses in Oroville and Red Bluff are among a number of classic theaters up and down California that have escaped the bulldozer (unlike Los Angeles’ Capitol Theater, which became a parking lot as early as 1952), or boarded up (as Redding’s stunning Cascade Theatre was in 1997 until it reopened four years ago).
In the case of Oroville’s State Theater, the city purchased the Spanish Renaissance-style building in 1983. It was designed by prominent Bay Area architect Timothy Pflueger, who also designed Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, San Francisco’s Castro Theatre and impressive Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. Building.
In the early days Oroville’s theater ran as a combination house with both film and Vaudeville acts. The popularity of Vaudeville began to wane in the early ‘30s, when performers like Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields began moving their acts to the more lucrative talking films. The Great Depression also forced theaters to economize and cut out live entertainment.
Oroville’s State ran as a single-screen until the ‘70s, when older theaters were split in two to compete with the growing number of multiplex cinemas.
Rachelle Parker, the cultural facilities marketer for the city of Oroville, waxed nostalgic about the old building.
“I attended movies at this theater as a child,” Parker said. “I saw Harold and Maude in 1971, and all the Dark Shadows movies there.”
The city has since removed the dividing wall that was installed by previous owner United Artists. Today the State is also used as a performing arts center, housing local symphony concerts and plays, as well being rented out for meetings and other private events.
Among Pflueger’s creations, the Oroville State Theater is the only one with the capability to show actual film (others have gone to DVD).
“If somebody wanted to do a real film festival in Northern California, we’re it,” Parker said. “An original film on real film—there’s nothing like it.”
Like Oroville“s historic movie house, Red Bluff’s 100-year-old State Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is owned by two Red Bluff businessmen, but is leased by a group of local residents who are dedicated to preserving the theater as a venue for live arts and entertainment, and classic movie screenings.
At the helm of the Red Bluff landmark is a tireless and lively woman named Venita Philbrick—a retired insurance agent and Bay Area transplant who became involved in the renovation of the 750-seat theater when it began in 1999.
“This is not a money-maker,” emphasized the 69-year-old Philbrick as she strolled through the empty theater on a recent Saturday morning. “It’s a community service. You don’t do it if you don’t have a passion for it.”
Philbrick proudly pointed out the original tile drinking fountain, art moderne light fixtures and elaborate painted murals. On the ceiling area above the concession stand, original painted scrollwork can be detected beneath a coat of chipping beige paint slapped on by earlier occupants. Restoring the ceiling will have to wait. It’s a process that takes time and money, says Philbrick, who puts in countless hours with the help of other volunteers.
The theater is still in the process of coming back from disrepair and a subdivision in the 1970s into a triplex. Sections of the ceiling are missing where the dividing walls were ripped out, and there are two white owls living in the theater’s marquee blade—or sign—out front, which is badly in need of repainting and repair.
“This theater is an icon that needs to be retained in the community,” Philbrick said. “In its day, this building was considered the center of amusement.”
In this day and age with massive multiplexes now the norm, it’s become impossible for classic theaters to continue on as movie houses. Chico’s 103-year-old El Rey Theatre held out until 2005, when Regal Entertainment sold the theater to local businessman Eric Hart. For the time being, Hart’s plan to turn the theater into office and retail space is on hold.
Like Oroville’s State, the El Rey and the 82-year-old Senator Theatre (also owned by Hart, and designed by Pflueger) are run as performing arts centers, bringing in vendors like Justin Maximov, who puts on concerts and other events.
However, the city of Oroville is hoping to again show films, though the cost of putting on such an event like the 80th birthday bash will keep them few and far between.
Matias Bombal, the event’s slick-haired crooner and emcee, spoke enthusiastically of the old combination houses, where people would sit for four hours to watch live acts, plus cartoons, newsreels and two feature films for only 35 cents.
“I was so fascinated by my childhood experience of going to the Paramount that I asked myself, ‘Why the hell are movies not like that anymore?’ explained Bombal, a few days after the Oroville show. “Going to the Paramount was fabulous, like going to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. And I really wanted to do something to keep that feeling alive.”