Theater marquees are fascinating, many with neon lights that pulsate and stream up and down their vertical blade. A few theaters have marquees with towers, such as the Tower Theaters in Fresno and Sacramento California. Others are simpler as the Minor in Arcata California with just white lights.
I started this project with the Fortuna Theater in Fortuna, California. It is an art deco style theater built in 1938. Fortunately, the night I was shooting the Fortuna the ocean fog waited to come in until I was completing the shoot. Since Fortuna I’ve done 25 theater marquees from as far north as Ashland with all the others being in Northern California.
More will be photographed. However it is getting more difficult as many of the really stunning theaters are shutting down. Some are being restored for community theaters and performing arts venues. Those theaters dedicated to performance rather than showing movies have limited schedules. Getting to these theaters on the right nights can be challenging. Also the theaters that are near by have been photographed. Even so I’m planning trips to theaters that have the marquees lit.
Finding operating theaters has been a challenge. cinema TREASURES http://cinematreasures.org/ is an invaluable resource for fining theaters. Too many are going dark and for me lose their fascination. Documenting the theaters using their marquees at least keeps them lit if only digitally.
I’ve quoted cinema TREASURES for the information on the theater unless noted. I welcome views thoughts and comments.
These images are available for purchase. Contact me regarding price and shipping.
Fortuna Theater, Fortuna, California
The New Fortuna Theatre was built for Redwood Theatres in 1938.
Recently restored, the theater reopened in November, 2000. The main theater features original wall sconces and chandeliers, which have all been completely restored. It also has a 46 foot screen and newly installed stadium seating. The other two theaters are located in the reconstructed balcony. The Fortuna Theater is adding a 3-screen addition that will bring the complex to a total of 6 screens.
As part of the restoration, over 500 feet of new neon tubing was installed on the tower. It was lit for the public for the first time in over 35 years, in October 2000.
Contributed by Ross Melnick
Varsity Theater, Ashland, Oregon
The Varsity Theater opened in 1937 with around 666 seats. Today the Varsity is a multiplex theater that shows first run, art and independent films. It is operated by Coming Attractions Theatres.
Contributed by Lost Memory
Cinelux Chabot Castro Valley, CA
Originally opened in 1948, the Chabot Cinema is currently operated by the independent CineLux Theatre chain. It offers state of art luxury with a nostalgic cinema charm. Seating in the balcony has high backed seats.
Contributed by Paul
Alameda Theater, Alameda, CA
The Alameda Theatre is an Art Deco movie theatre built in 1932 in Alameda, California. It opened with a seating capacity of 2,168. It was designed by architect Timothy L. Pflueger and was the last grand movie palace built in the San Francisco Bay Area. It closed in the 1980s as a triplex theatre and was later used as a gymnastics studio. A restoration and expansion project was completed in 2008, making the historic theater the primary anchor of an eight-screen multiplex. from CinemaTreasures
The Metro Theater, San Francisco, CA
The Metro Theater opened as the Metropolitan Theater on April 23, 1924 with “The Fighting Coward”, a second-run attraction. It was built by Samuel H. Levin, and, from the beginning, was a key link in his San Francisco Theatres Inc. chain, which originally consisted of the Alexandria, Coliseum, Metro, Harding, Balboa and Vogue (in 1949, the Coronet was added to the group.)
In 1941, the Metropolitan Theater was extensively remodelled, both inside and out, and it re-opened on June 7, 1941, its name now shortened to Metro Theater.
In the mid-1950’s the Metro Theater was home to the just emerging San Francisco Film Festival, and eventually upgraded to a first run venue, with bookings usually carefully chosen so as to maintain its image as one of quality and prestige, and far better maintained than most of its siblings elsewhere in San Francisco.
The Metro Theater continued to operate as a single screen theater until its closure in October 2006. In June 2009, the developer extended a commitment to preserve some of the historic features inside, including a series of murals by interior designer Anthony Heinsbergen, Ioinic columns, grilles and urns on the stage.
Contributed by Tillmany, Ian Grundy
Equinox Corporation has beautifully restored the marquee of the theater while creating a first class health club and gym.
Colonial Theater, Sacramento, CA
Originally opened as a movie theatre in June 1940. Recent attempts have been made to redevelop the neighborhood around the Colonial Theatre, which has been in somewhat of a decline, but there has been little success.
Today, it remains open and is used as a venue for live performances.
Contributed by Jeremy Sanford
The State Theater, Auburn, CA
The State Theatre opened December 26, 1930 with Marilyn Miller in “Sunny”. It was a T & D Jr. Enterprises theatre with an Art Deco motif and a seating capacity of 1,325. It was converted from a single screen theatre to a duplex in 1972 at which time the balcony was converted into offices.
In March, 2006 the State Theatre was purchased by The Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center, Inc., a local non-profit group. APPAC plans to reconstruct the State Theatre as a local performing arts and cultural center that will be home to the Auburn Symphony and feature a variety of entertainment types. The intent is to stay as closely as possible to the historic layout, including a reconstruction of the balcony.
In June 2008 the facade was restored to its 1937 likeness and a marquee and vertical blade sign installed. It reopened in October 2014.
Contributed by Paul Ogden
Rialto Cinemas Cerrito Theater, El Cerrito, CA
The historic Cerrito Theater in El Cerrito, California, with its incredible Art Deco style murals and decorative interior, is one of the city’s hidden treasures.
Opened in 1937 with 644 seats, and closed since the 1950’s, the Cerrito Theater used recently by Kiefer’s Furniture as storage.
Fortunately, the City of El Cerrito Redevelopment District working with Friends of the Cerrito Theater, brought this old movie house back to life.
It re-opened on November 1, 2006, as the Cerrito Speakeasy closing in May 2009. On July 15, 2009 it reopened as Rialto Cinemas Cerrito with 287 seats.
Contributed by Lori Dair, Melissa Hatheway
Sebastiani Theater, Sonoma, CA
Located on the east side of the plaza in the town of Sonoma, this theater was built by August Sebastiani of the Sebastiani wine growing family in 1933. It serves a multiple use of showing blockbuster movies, foreign films and live theatrical events.
Contributed by Reid Sondrup
The architects were James and Merrit Reid. This was the last of many Bay Area theatres to be designed by them. Merrit died while the theatre was in the works, and James closed their office, though he lived on into the 1940s.
To my knowledge, this is the only one of their theatres which still has its original marquee.
The soft polychromatic paint finishes on the textured wall surfaces in the auditorium are original.
Contributed by Gary Parks
Uptown Theater, Napa, CA
The Uptown Theatre opened on August 13, 1937. It was quadded in the 1970’s and was closed in the late-1980’s.
Work began in 2005 on a restoration/renovation project, and the auditorium was returned to a single space. In late-2009, restoration and renovation continued and it reopened in early-2010.
Contributed by Ross Manlike
Orinda Theater, Orinda, CA
Orinda Theater, Orinda, California
The Orinda Theatre was opened in 1941 and was built by Donald Rheem, with architect Alexander Aimwell Cantin. Slated for demolition in 1984, it was saved through the efforts of preservationists and reopened in 1989, when 2 additional screens were added. The original lobby and main theatre were left intact. http://lamorindatheatres.com/aboutus_orinda.asp
Fairfax Theater, Fairfax, CA
The Fairfax Theatre was constructed by the Blumenfeld Chain in 1950 as a single screen movie house. The theater was later split and then purchased by Cinema West.
Restored in 1993, the theater has added three more screens, for a total of five auditoriums. In 2012 a sixth screen was added.
Contributed by Ross Manlike
Fox Oakland Theater, Oakland, CA
The auditorium of the Fox Theatre has a colorful East Indian Buddhist temple gloss applied over a standard squared off Weeks & Day interior. The entry portion of the main facade takes the form of a polychrome mosaic-like shrine, with smaller lantern-topped towers on either side. Trim with a Near Eastern flavor forms the cornice line for the remainder of the building.
Opened by West Coast Theatres on October 27, 1928 with the movie “The Air Circus” and stage entertainment, this theatre became the Fox Theatre in 1929 after West Coast Theatres was purchased by William Fox. The theatre was said to have the largest seating capacity on the Pacific Coast, of between 3,200 and 3,800 seats. Stars appearing live on stage over the years included Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and the Jimmy Dorsey Band.
The Fox Theatre closed in 1965, but opened sometimes for exclusive runs such as “Planet of the Apes”. The Fox’s long history of exclusive first run films concluded in 1968, with “Rosemary’s Baby”. From 1969 until 1973, the Fox Theatre played porn movies and second run films. The City of Oakland had a plan to demolish it to create a parking lot. Other events continued until the movie palace closed in 1984.
In 1996, the City of Oakland purchased the theatre for $3 million.
Wagner Electric Sign Company of Ohio meticulously restored the marquee and vertical signs in the Fall 2001, before reuse plans were determined for the interior.
A $68 million restoration project enables the Fox Theatre to be used for a variety of events. An extensive restoration by the architectural firm ELS Architects has included travel to Morocco to find replacement light fixtures. An innovative seating design, movable and on platforms, will make the facility an intimate space or 3,000 seats, depending on production requirements. Chairs were fabricated to match the original theatre seating. It took almost a year to repaint the theatre’s ornate nine-color plaster ceiling as it had to be re-anchored and repainted with faux wood grain and metallic notes. With new construction added, the building will also be a home to the Oakland School of the Arts and to a sixth to twelfth grade public charter school.
Operated by Another Planet Entertainments, the Fox Theater reopened on February 5, 2009. Together with the nearby Paramount Theatre, and Grand Lake Theatre, Oakland is now a ‘must visit’ destination for any movie palace enthusiast.
The Fox Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 2, 1979.
Contributed by William Gabel, “BHousos”, Howard B. Haas
The California Theater, San Jose, CA
Built in 1927, this 1,848 seat former movie palace closed in 1973 after over 50 years of showing films. After a recent restoration project by architectural firm ELS Architects, the California Theatre is now the permanent home of the Opera San Jose and seats 1,200.
Contributed by Ross Melnick
The Tower Theater, Sacramento, CA
Built in 1938, the Tower Theatre is a Sacramento landmark.
In the 1980s, the single screen auditorium was divided into three smaller ones. The exterior, however, has remained in its original form, including still-working multi-colored neon lights.
Tower Drugs, located next door, is where retail giant Tower Records was born.
Contributed by Jeremy Sanford
The Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA
Originally on this site was the Empress Theatre, designed by architect Lee DeCamp as a vaudeville theatre which opened in 1913. It was rebuilt as the Hippodrome Theatre, again used first for vaudeville, until movies were introduced in the late-1920’s.
After almost 20 years showing first run films and vaudeville shows, the interior of the Hippodrome Theatre was gutted in 1946 and the Crest Theatre was built inside the existing outer shell of the Hippodrome Theatre.
The Crest Theatre opened on October 6 1949 with Mario Lanza in “That Midnight Kiss”. In attendance from Hollywood, were the stars of the movie Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza. Government officials included Governor Earl Warren (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and Honorable Belle Coolidge, the first woman mayor of Sacramento. Searchlights filled the air as the theatre was properly christened. Seating was provided in the auditorium for 1,217 on a stadium plan, with a stepped section at the rear.
The Crest Theatre showed films exclusively until late-1979 when it was closed due to poor ticket sales, the decline of the K Street mall, television and the rise of the multiplex.
In 1986, the theatre was re-opened by a group of local residents and continued showing films. The grand reopening took place on November 18 1986, with the MGM musical “Singin’ In the Rain” starring Donald O’Connor, who attended in person. Mr. O’Connor was given a pair of scissors and, with a smile, snipped the celluloid ribbon across the front doors and the Crest Theatre was in business again. In 1995, the Crest Theatre completed a one million dollar restoration that returned the 975-seat theater back to its original Streamline Moderne look, featuring a fabulous gold-leaf interior. Two small auditoriums were created in the basement of the building.
Over the following years, the Crest Theatre has been host to many different types of shows and events. It continues to host a program of classic and recent films. Concerts with artistes such as Cab Calloway, B.B. King, Dave Brubeck and a variety of comedy shows such as Bernie Mac, Carrot Top, Sam Kinison and The Mommies. Community events include the popular Sacramento Symphony ‘Jeans and Beer’ and ‘Mocha and Mozart’ series. In addition, the Crest Theatre is frequently used for private events such as political fundraisers, receptions, movie screenings, conferences, employee orientations and weddings. The two small basement auditoriums were closed in March 2013, and films were no longer scheduled in the main auditorium. However, by 2015 classic films were being screened.
Contributed by Cinema Treasures, Sid Garcia-Heberger, Robert Styger
Tower Theater, Fresno, CA
The Tower Theatre opened with a premier showing of the film ‘Balalaika’ for a private party of local dignitaries, Fox Theater executives, and guests on December 14, 1939.
Co-hosts for the event were developer and owner A. Emory Wishon (1882-1948) of San Francisco, a prominent California hydroelectric executive, and Charles P. Skoura of Los Angeles, president of Fox West Coast Theaters. The theater opened its doors to the film-viewing public on December 15, 1939. The double feature program included ‘Dancing Coed’ and ‘Henry Goes Arizona.’
A complete restoration of the exterior facade, ongoing tenant improvements in the retail wings, and modifications to allow the adaptive reuse of the theater auditorium for the performing arts have brought new life to the theater and to the surrounding Tower District. The area has since become a lively collection of restaurants, pubs, jazz clubs, and antique shops, with the highly successful ‘Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts’ at its center.
In 1991, the dramatic theater rehabilitation was honored with a California Preservation Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Restoration, and with an Award of Honor from the San Joaquin Chapter, American Institute of Architects.
Contributed by Paul Salley
Rafael Theater, San Rafael, CA
The California Film Institute has restored the former Rafael Theatre, now officially called the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. The Art Moderne Rafael, a 1938 renovation of the fire-damaged 1918 former Orpheus Theatre, houses three screens, specializing in independent and foreign films.
Lark Theater, Larkspur, CA
Opened in 1936, the Lark Theater was closed in the late-1990’s. It stood derelict for several years.
A Marin County theater that for a time was a repertory cinema. It was renovated and reopened in 2004, screening independent films, old classics, documentaries, foreign films, and family-oriented special programs.
Contributed by Garrett Murphy
The Castro Theater, San Francisco, CA
The Castro Theatre, situated at the corner of Castro and Market, is one of San Francisco’s most recognizable landmarks. This magnificent neighborhood theater is decorated in the Spanish Renaissance style; with Moorish Tent, Oriental Zodiac, and Art Deco touches throughout.
Built in 1922, the theater is still going strong in the country’s best known gay neighborhood. Playing films from across the spectrum of independent film, the Castro Theatre is one of the last picture palaces left in the San Francisco area.
Contributed by Tom Rielly
California Theater, Berkeley, CA
Built in 1913 as the T & D Theatre for live theatre and movies. It was taken over by West Coast Theatres and renamed California Theatre around April 1923, and was remodelled in the late-1920’s. The now-triplexed California Theatre has been operated by Landmark Theatres since 1994.
Known as ‘The Cal’ to locals, the theatre closed in 2001 and was reopened by Landmark on June 28, 2002.
Contributed by Ian Grundy
Shattuck Theater, Berkeley, CA
Built from the shell of the legendary Hink’s Department Store, the Shattuck Cinemas was the brainchild of Allan Michaan of the Renaissance Rialto theater chain. However, by the time of the Shattuck’s opening in 1988, ownership was in the hands of Cinerama, and soon after in Pacific Theaters (currently the operating chain is Landmark Theatres).
Still, the Shattuck’s appearance is true to Michaan’s original vision. The entranceway and lobby’s classical pillars and ceiling are remnants from the Hink’s store (though painted and touched up); the eight original theaters, of varying sizes, are Egyptian and Moorish styled and have opening and closing curtains; in effect (like the small Grand Lake theater additions) they are smaller-scale versions of the old picture palaces of yesteryear (two of them even have balconies).
Originally an eight-plex, the Shattuck added two more cinemas in an expansion about 2,000 (which, at least initially, are, in this writer’s opinion, nothing like even the blandest of the original eight).
Since the closing of the UC Theatre in 2001, the Shattuck Cinemas has devoted a portion of its programming to UC-like repertory programming (showing offbeat films in limited release).
Contributed by Garrett Murphy
Minor Theater, Arcata, CA
This is supposedly one of the oldest theaters in the United States that was built for the sole purpose of viewing movies. It was opened on December 3, 1914.
Closed in 1938, it was reopened in the 1950’s. Closed again in the 1960’s, it was reopened in 1972.
Contributed by Rudy Weibel
Clover Theater, Cloverdale, CA
A rather unassuming theater. Think ‘budget-moderne’. It looks like it was built during the early-1950’s. At some point, two of the windows on the upper story were rather clumsily plastered over. Not sure where they fit four screens. Two would seem to be the maximum. Still, it’s always nice to see a small town that still has a theater.
Contributed by Seth Gaines
Boulevard Theater, Petaluma, CA
Boulevard Cinemas opened in May of 2005. It is a twelve screen theater operated by Cinema West. In 2010, a further three screens were added.
Contributed by Lost Memory
Mystic Theater, Petaluma, CA
Originally built in 1911, this former movie theater is now a venue for live music.
Contributed by Lost Memory
Del Mar Theater, Santa Cruz, CA
Opened on August 14, 1936 with “China Clipper”, the 1,521-seat Del Mar Theatre has served the college town of Santa Cruz, California for almost 65 years.
After years of struggling through dollar nights and intermittent attendance, the Del Mar Theatre was sold in 1999 and closed.
After an extensive renovation and restoration, the Del Mar Theatre reopened in February of 2002.
Contributed by Tom Mayer, Jacob Hunter