Tower Theatre at 75: movies, memories and a hard-to-see marquee

The Tower Theatre will mark 75 years in business Monday with a day of activities including a screening of “Algiers,” the Charles Boyer film that opened the theater on Nov. 11, 1938.

Sacramento’s oldest continuously running daily movie house (minus a couple of few-month gaps), the Tower has had several incarnations, the most notable of which has been its now 30-year run as go-to spot for independent and foreign films.

Though not precisely on the corner, the Tower has been the cornerstone of the busy Land Park and Broadway intersection, standing even as the drugstore next door that spawned the Tower Records chain – and the subsequent Tower Records-Books-Video cluster across the street – came, stayed a while and went.

Seventy-five years is time enough to spark plentiful memories of and observations about the theater. Here are a few:

Minimal pomp

On Nov. 10, 1938, the Tower Theatre’s owners ran an advertisement in The Sacramento Bee trumpeting the theater’s opening, scheduled for the next day, as “the most important event in Sacramento’s theatrical history.”

For 25 cents, patrons could attend the opening-night festivities, which included a screening of “Algiers,” another feature called “Freshman Year” and the enjoyment of a new $200,000 theater.

“It was a big deal in 1938, in which there were not a lot of big deals,” Gordon Ball said of the Tower’s opening, which he attended with a friend. Ball was then a student at McClatchy High School.

It was not quite the fancy occasion the newspaper ad promised, though.

“I do not recall any klieg lights or a red carpet,” said Ball, a Carmichael resident and retired Air Force civilian employee. He and his friend wore “our everyday clothes – no neckties. As I recall, we just paid our admission and went in without any particular glorification of the event.”

The low-key approach actually suited the opening of a neighborhood theater that showed “subsequent-run” films. At the time, only studio-owned or closely aligned theaters, such as K Street’s Fox Senator, showed first-run films.

“Algiers,” which starred Boyer as a jewel thief and marked the Hollywood debut of the lovely Hedy Lamarr, was a few months old when it opened the Tower. It also was a remake of “ Pepe Le Moko,” a French movie released the previous year (Hollywood liked remakes then, too).

Ball said he wasn’t there for the film, but for the chance to see the new, 1,000-plus-capacity theater auditorium. He was impressed.

Accustomed to theaters with balconies, Ball said he admired the Tower’s “sweeping array of seats,” unbroken in descent from the loge section of stadium seats to the cheaper seats below.

Grandeur by attrition

When it opened in 1938, the Tower was one of many art deco Northern California movie theaters, distinctive for its 100-foot Tower but otherwise one of the crowd. But because so many contemporaries have been repurposed or razed, the Tower now counts as a jewel.

“It was not as grand or monumental” as movie palaces such as the Hippodrome (now the Crest) or the Alhambra when it was built, said Andrew Flink, 82, author of the book “A Century of Cinema in Sacramento, 1900-2000.” “But it is now, because of how things have gone.”

In other words, the Tower’s utilitarian design never rivaled the Moorish-themed, flourish-filled Alhambra (1927-1973), but it wins points for staying upright.

The box office that once sat center-front in the theater’s entry area is gone, but the terrazzo flooring and burgundy wall tile remain from the days when a young Flink would attend Saturday kiddie shows there.

But Flink, who lived at 11th and W streets and would “cross a lot of vacant lots” to meet his young friends at the Tower, was more intent on seeing what was inside the theater: Three Stooges comedies and Westerns starring Charles Starrett, the on-screen Durango Kid.

“He was my boy,” Flink said of Starrett.

Snacks to the left, smoke in the center

The Tower opened without a snack bar. Patrons would purchase treats next door at Zamm’s candy story (now Tower Pipes & Cigars) and take them into the theater.

The space now holding the Tower’s concession stand was a smoking lounge. The theater’s bathrooms, now so cozily adjacent to the snack bar, were part of the lounge.

Black and white and read infrequently

Architect William David, who designed the Tower, the Varsity in Davis and several other Northern California movie houses, designed the Tower’s reader board (the title display section of the marquee) to be visible “from each approach to the building except the rear, and from several blocks down Broadway,” former Tower theater employee Matias Bombal said.

And you could see all sides, when the Tower opened, about 50 years before the nature-friendly Tower Cafe opened next door. The trees and vegetation that now distinguish the Tower Cafe obscure the theater’s reader board from most angles.

“You have to be psychic to see what is playing at the Tower,” Bombal said.

Never hurrying to catch a show

The Tower operated for a few decades on a come-any-time basis, without set show times.

Each day, the Tower would offer a program that included a double feature, news reels and cartoons. Doors would open at 11 a.m., and patrons could enter at any point in the program.

“People did not watch a film from the beginning,” said John Sittig, an old-theater buff and director of projection and sound for Reading Cinemas, which operates the Tower.

Patrons would enter the theater, perhaps catch the last 20 minutes of the feature and stay until they caught up to the part of the program where they started.

This practice, which negated the idea of story arc or surprise endings, was common until the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho.” With that film, “no one was allowed to enter the theater after the show started,” Sittig said. The studio did not want tail-catchers ruining the twist ending, and thus the film, for themselves.

Staggered arrivals were why a 1,000-seat house like the Tower had small box offices, Sittig said. Lines were short or nonexistent.

A crazy long engagement

The Tower established itself as a popular art house in the 1980s, when there still was a long lag time between a movie’s theatrical and home-video releases, and concepts such as Internet streaming would have sounded like science fiction.

With film distributors in no hurry to get product to the home market, the Tower could play a popular title for months or even a year.

The 1986 Merchant-Ivory costume romance “A Room With a View,” for example, ran there for several months. But the Tower’s long-engagement champ was “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

A wild South African comedy involving a bushman who discovers modern technology via a Coke bottle, “Crazy” ran for more than a year at the Tower in the mid-1980s.

The film drew “incredible amounts of repeat customers,” former Tower manager Gerry Watt said. People would see the film, then come back with a friend.

When crowds waned, the theater would announce “only four more weeks” or “three more weeks,” Watt said. The theater would then fill up again with patrons trying to see the movie they were sure would disappear soon.


What: A day of screenings and other events celebrating the Tower Theatre’s 75th birthday, including a 1:30 p.m. screening of the 1941 Gary Cooper film “Sergeant York,” a 5 p.m. cake-cutting ceremony and a 7 p.m. screening of “Algiers,” the film that opened the Tower in 1938.

When: Starts at 11 a.m. Monday

Where: 2508 Land Park Drive, Sacramento

Cost: 75 cents per program. “Sergeant York” is free to military members, and the cake-cutting ceremony is free. (Current films showing at the theater carry regular ticket prices.)

Information: (916) 442-0985 (theater), (916) 442-4700 (show-time recording),

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