The king is dead

The announcement this week that downtown Chico’s venerable El Rey Theatre would show its last movie this week, on Thursday, and then close its doors forever no doubt makes many people sad, especially those Chico old-timers who enjoyed the theater during its heyday, right after World War II and before the advent of television.

In this age of cineplexes and DVDs, the theater has long been a reminder of the golden age of movies, that era when big, handsome downtown theaters were at the center of a town’s entertainment life. Back then, far more people went to the movies than go today. Saturday afternoons, the El Rey was packed with kids there to see a double feature, complete with cartoons and newsreel. Weekend nights, teenagers turned out in droves and, for the right movies, so did their parents.

Going to the movies is no longer the communal experience it once was. The closure of the El Rey reminds us of that. In practical terms, the theater has outlived its usefulness. It’s operating in the black, current management says, but surely the investment represented by the building itself is not paying off. It will be worth much more when converted to office and retail space.

We can be grateful that the building’s new owners also own the Senator Theatre and are committed to maintaining it. With its large stage and below-stage quarters, the Senator, unlike the El Rey, is viable as a performance venue. We hope it succeeds. Losing one of our two great downtown theaters is bearable; losing both would be intolerable.