Movie News & Reviews

Sacramento’s domed theaters have a storied past

One Century Theaters dome has already been razed, but a petition calls for the other Ethan Way domes to be spared.
One Century Theaters dome has already been razed, but a petition calls for the other Ethan Way domes to be spared. rpench@sacbee.com

One already has been demolished, and the remaining domed (and probably doomed) theaters at Sacramento’s Century Stadium 14 aren’t much to look at. Weather-beaten into a dull tan and dishwater gray, they resemble agricultural silos – especially when the State Fair’s running across the street.

But when first futuristic-looking Sacramento “Century” dome opened on Ethan Way in 1967 with a revival of “Gone With the Wind,” it represented the height of movie technology – a curved, 70-foot-wide screen, stereophonic sound and reserved seating for 960 – and height in general, measuring 51 feet from floor to apex.

SyWest Development – an offshoot of Syufy Enterprises, the Marin County theater business that built the domes – has announced plans to replace Century Stadium 14 with new theaters in close to the same spot. But in a way, Sacramento’s Century domes have been on their way out for most of their lives.

Syufy, which already had built domes in San Jose and Pleasant Hill before Sacramento, added a second dome to its Ethan Way site in 1968. But by 1974, one of the domes had been split in two and two smaller domes had been added, part of a multiplexing effort that coincided with the advent of the summer action blockbuster.

“They always had the movie there, sometimes exclusively,” said Robert Backus, 57, one of many thousands of Sacramentans to see “Star Wars” at the domes in 1977 and 1978. “Star Wars” played there for 60 weeks, according to the website Cinematreasures.org.

But by the mid-1990s, when Syufy added a new wing and eight more screens, the original domes’ auditoriums – the other large dome had been divided as well, post-“Star Wars” – were just more numbers in a 14-screen multiplex.

Jesse Skeen, a longtime theater projectionist and floor employee, worked briefly at the Ethan Way complex in the early 1990s. He was dismayed, he said, to see the domes split in half. It’s part of the reason he lasted only a few months there, he said.

Skeen, 42, moved with his family to the Sacramento region from Cupertino in 1979. He had seen “Star Wars” in 1977 at Syufy’s San Jose domed theaters, which like their Sacramento counterparts were designed by Bay Area architect Vincent G. Raney.

“The high ceilings and the screens were just humongous,” Skeen said. “Nothing else could compare.”

Skeen now is working on behalf of the domes’ legacy. He started an online petition in early June urging SyWest Development and Texas theater chain Cinemark, which bought the Century Theatres chain from Syufy in 2006 (but not the land under which the domes sit), to save the remaining three domes.

Barring that, Skeen would like SyWest to keep the dome’s former presentation specs – big screen, high ceiling – when building new theaters. Too many new theaters contain screens so small that they “are not much bigger than a home theater,” Skeen said.

Skeen’s petition, supported by the SacMod nonprofit and other fans of the midcentury modern architecture, had gathered 322 signatures as of late last week. The goal is 500.

Working on a replacement

Skeen’s petition reads as more pragmatic than demanding, and the overall response to news of the domes’ imminent death seems somewhat muted. At least when compared with the outcry that accompanies any hint of change at Sacramento’s beloved Tower and Crest theaters.

“I’m not sure how people in Sacramento feel about them,” Skeen said of the domes. “They seemed pretty complacent when they split (the big theaters) in half.”

Any current complacency might be due to Century Stadium 14 remaining in business – and continuing to show big films such as Pixar’s “Inside Out,” despite the construction zone beside it. The dome that SyWest leveled sat apart from the multiplex and closer to the Motel 6 SyWest razed earlier this year. A sheriff’s deputy had been shot and killed at the Motel 6 in 2014.

SyWest is redeveloping a 28-acre site that includes the motel property, theater and Howe ’Bout Arden shopping center. In a June 3 news release, SyWest said its new theater will include “luxury seating and other amenities typical of theaters just being built” and will sit a short distance from the current multiplex.

SyWest has yet to announce a closing date for the current theater, and neither SyWest nor Cinemark responded to The Sacramento Bee’s interview requests. But Cinemark’s website for Century Stadium 14 contains a notice that the theater is “open during construction.”

The mild response to the domes’ imminent demise might also be tied to their appearance – this is the movie business we are talking about, after all. Over the years, Century Stadium 14 has picked up nicknames, the least anatomical of which is “the bubble,” that carry as much derision as affection. When the theater last made big news, in 2008, it was for an infestation of rats and mice that prompted the county to temporarily shut down its snack bars.

“They’re an eyesore,” Backus said of the domes. A film and television sound specialist and musician, Backus was impressed when he saw “Star Wars” at the domes, but no more. “I don’t consider them architecturally important. The grandeur was really because of the size of them.”

Dome history and architecture

Dome theaters, built at the height of the space age, represented “the architecture of the future,” said John Sittig, a theater-history buff and presentation specialist who has worked for decades in the exhibition business but never for Syufy or Cinemark. Sittig spent most of his career with Pacific Theatres, owner of Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome – king of ’60s dome theaters.

Theater attendance dropped off dramatically in the 1950s because of competition from television. The movie business’ answer was to make 70-mm biblical and musical epics, with giant theater screens and 1,000-seat auditoriums to match – the antithesis the small screen and living room.

The domes’ circular design was not necessary to accommodate their curved screens, Sittig said. But they added flair.

But not long after the Sacramento domes were built, traditional Hollywood epics fell out of favor. Studios, smarting from misfires such as the 1967 Rex Harrison musical “Dr. Dolittle,” stopped making them, preferring lower-budget character studies such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Five Easy Pieces.”

Early 1970s disaster films (“The Poseidon Adventure”) bridged some of the gap, but wide-screen showplaces lost steam before “Jaws” created the action blockbuster in 1975. Yet studios required exhibitors to commit to showing films for a designated number of weeks whether they made money or not. Dividing theaters or creating multiplexes, as Syufy did, allowed exhibitors to stash low performers in smaller theaters.

The Cinerama Dome never was divided, and in 2002 reopened as part of Pacific Theatres’ hip ArcLight Cinemas, after what Sittig, who worked for Pacific at the time, called a “a major rehab to bring it up to the industry standards for the year 2000.”

In his own preservation efforts, Skeen said he draws hope from the Cinerama Dome and from the headway that theater preservations have made with the San Jose domes, which sit empty after their longtime theater lease expired last year. The San Jose City Council has granted historic status to one of the domes, built in 1964, and the State Historical Resources Commission has recommended it for the National Register of Historic Places. A plan to redevelop the site into offices and apartments now incorporates the existing theater building.

The remaining Ethan Way big dome does not meet guidelines that a building be at least 50 years old to be considered historically important.

Does nostalgia outweigh quality?

If that big dome somehow were saved and restored, it would not make a very good movie theater, said Matias Bombal, a Sacramento film critic, former theater manager and lay historian. “It would be hard to fill it with audiences for a single attraction for four weeks running,” he said, alluding to studio time commitments.

Bombal, 48, former Crest Theatre manager and one of Sacramento’s foremost advocates for theater preservation, never has been a fan of domes, which he calls “unattractive and impractical.”

“A dome is nearly impossible to heat or ventilate properly,” he said.

Yet he understands some Sacramentans’ “nostalgic connection” to the domes, having seen “Star Wars” there when he was 10.

“That is the first time I remember ever waiting in a line around the block for a movie in my life,” he said. Inspired by George Lucas’ special-effects spectacle, and by the dome’s sheer size, Bombal saw “Star Wars” there several more times.

“There is something to be said for a huge interior space” and seeing movies with a big crowd, Bombal said. “Something that creates awe.”

Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this story.

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