Named for a magical place, the Alhambra Theatre cast a lasting spell.
The legendary movie palace almost has been gone longer than its 46-year reign on the edge of East Sacramento. Yet its image and name immediately evoke strong memories in anyone who passed through its ornate Moorish gates and caught a film in one of its 1,976 red velvet seats.
“People can’t let go of the idea of the Alhambra Theatre,” said filmmaker, critic and historian Matias Bombal. “It seems to haunt this community. It captured the imagination when people were young. That first impression lingers to your dying day.”
Although they never visited the famed theater themselves, Bombal and Chad E. Williams wanted to know what made the Alhambra so special and why it wasn’t saved from being razed in the 1970s. Both dedicated “old theater guys” and history buffs, they had worked together at the Crest Theatre and had become infatuated with the subject.
Over 18 months, the two Sacramento filmmakers interviewed dozens of people about their Alhambra experiences. They watched thousands of hours of archived footage (mostly from old news reels and later TV news casts) and followed countless leads as they tracked down the definitive story of a bygone chapter in Sacramento history.
The result is “Alhambra: Sacramento’s Palace of Fantasy,” a 55-minute documentary that will debut Feb. 21 at the Tower Theatre. As a fundraiser for the Center for Sacramento History, all 800 seats at two screenings are sold out. Much of the archival footage was sourced from the center, which is home to 9 million feet of rare film including thousands of Sacramento TV newscasts.
Buoyed by that strong screening interest, Bombal and William said they expect to have more showings of their passion project and also would like to have it broadcast on public television.
Using previously unseen historical photos and film as well as all those interviews, the documentary attempts to recapture the Alhambra’s allure and splendor while building up to its destruction on April 18, 1973.
“It was torn down long before I knew it existed,” said Williams, 46. “But they tore down paradise and put up a parking lot.”
“Even though we never saw (the building), we’ve worked so long on this project, we can picture it in our minds,” said Bombal, 50. “When I drive down Alhambra Boulevard now, I can ‘see’ the Alhambra where it once stood.”
Wendell Jacob, a Davis entrepreneur, served as executive producer and bankrolled the documentary. (The filmmakers declined to disclose its cost.) In particular, Jacob has an interest in pipe organs and the Alhambra had one of the finest.
“People have very, very fond memories of the Alhambra Theatre,” Jacob said. “Maybe they had their first date there or proposed to their wife. ... It’s a unique situation and terribly unfortunate. People lament the day wrecking balls came in and knocked it down.”
That day followed a failed county bond measure and public campaign to “Save the Alhambra.” The mammoth movie house came tumbling down to make way for a Safeway supermarket.
Many movie houses across the nation met similar fates during that same era, Bombal noted. In the age of television, gigantic movie palaces felt like ancient relics; impractical for audiences that preferred multiplexes or stayed home to watch TV.
Reminders, however, keep the theater’s memory alive. Alhambra Boulevard (originally 31st Street) was renamed when the theater opened in 1927 along with neighboring streets Granada and Seville ways.
When it was built, the theater’s site was past the edge of town, Bombal noted. “It was all sheep pasture. There was nothing else around it.”
Other remnants of the Alhambra still exist. One of its fountains trickles on the edge of the Safeway parking lot. Its famous pipe organ entertains wine tasters at Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys (although the original console rests in storage in Fresno). Bits and pieces are found in local museums as well as private hands.
“I used a tile from the Alhambra as a mouse pad throughout this project for luck and inspiration,” Bombal said.
Designed to host live entertainment as well as show movies, the Alhambra boasted a theatrical stage, orchestra pit and dressing rooms as well as a gigantic big screen. A young Sally Rand (before she became famous as a fan dancer) was among the opening night’s entertainers. (She also appeared at the theater’s farewell in 1972.)
The Alhambra ranked as the first theater outside New York or Hollywood with a sound system for movies, Bombal said. Its gala premiere featured singer Al Jolson in “The Plantation Act,” one of the earliest examples of “talkies.” The main feature was “The Fighting Eagle,” a swashbuckler starring Rod La Roque set in Napoleon’s day and co-written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Tickets cost 50 cents.
With a $1 million price tag to build, the Alhambra was inspired by its 600-year-old namesake castle in Granada, Spain. Architect Leonard Starks, best known for such buildings as Sacramento’s downtown post office and the Elks Building, designed the Alhambra as a Spanish Shangri-La, full of fanciful flourishes. Colorful tile lined walkways and fountains. Featuring flowers and trees from Spain and Australia, an exotic palm-filled garden greeted patrons after they walked through its gates.
“The Alhambra wasn’t the biggest theater in Sacramento; the Fox Senator on K Street had 2,200 seats,” Bombal said. “In the late 1930s, Sacramento had 26 movie theaters in the (downtown and midtown) grid. But the Alhambra stood out because it was so tall.”
“And how many theaters had a garden?” Williams added.
Towering 128 feet, the Alhambra could be seen from West Sacramento and Folsom. Ablaze in red neon, three 19-foot letter A’s stood on its roof.
“I was really surprised to discover the most iconic aspect of the theater – its familiar neon gateway that stood like sentries guarding the entrance – was a later addition,” Bombal said. “Originally, Starks wanted no advertising on the outside of the theater because it might detract from this mythical Spanish fortress.”
Fox West Coast added the signage in 1932 after it acquired the Alhambra from United Artists.
“That was one of my fantastic discoveries – the history of the sign,” Bombal said. “What surprised me the most was the theater was so tall it could be seen so far away. Photos don’t do it justice.”
Bombal and Williams made other amazing finds, including two very early home movies of the theater’s gardens – shot in color. Dating to circa 1928 and 1935, those home movies are among a handful of existing examples of the first Kodachrome film and its experimental Kodacolor predecessor.
One roll, handed down in a Sacramento family, was glimpsed in a 50-year-old newsclip; Bombal tracked down the TV producer who had used it in his original story and he still had the family’s phone number. The other roll was found by a friend of Bombal at a Curtis Park garage sale.
“Nobody even knew these (home movies) existed, and they just magically fell into our laps,” Bombal said. “That happened with a lot of pieces in this project. If we could find it, we found it. Everybody was so willing to help.”
Like other movie palaces, the Alhambra fell victim to neglect and poor attendance. Unable to compete with multiplexes, it tried to find a niche as an art house. In its final days, the theater drew 20 or 30 people to showings of a double bill: “A Man for All Seasons” and “Nicholas and Alexandra.”
As a last ditch attempt to raise funds, the Alhambra hosted rock concerts for four months featuring such acts as Boz Scaggs, Elvin Bishop and Dr. Hook. But it was not enough.
“Personally, I don’t know if the Alhambra could have survived until today even if it was saved,” Bombal said. “So much has changed in the entertainment industry. But it’s nice to imagine if it did.”