The art deco-style seats, coated in dust, some busted, share space in the abandoned movie theater with other relics, such as a Victrola phonograph and “Coming Soon” displays that no longer hold posters.
Less tangible are the memories attached to Woodland’s State Theatre, built as a showplace in 1937, subdivided and uglified in the name of progress, but still a daily-run movie house when it closed in 2010.
The faded movie palace has shown decades of films, from 1940s war movies to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” It was a place for first kisses, family outings and, occasionally, the discovery of the power of cinema.
When Bill Hollingshead, 77, caught Mario Lanza’s performance as opera singer Enrico Caruso in “The Great Caruso” at the State in 1951, “I almost fainted from the sheer magnitude of it,” he said.
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Lots of old theaters created indelible memories and hold fine design details. From a business standpoint, those things usually were worth the two bits it cost to see a picture in the 1930s. Sometimes a well-heeled neighborhood can sustain a theater, as Sacramento’s Land Park has with the Tower, or a nonprofit turns one into a multipurpose venue, as happened with Auburn’s State. Mostly, they have been razed, turned into churches or left to molder.
What rarely occurs, at least in the Sacramento region, is what’s happening with Woodland’s State. In June, the City Council approved a plan to incorporate the building into a 10-screen multiplex, capping years of discussion about what to do with the theater at 322 Main St. The city, which owns the building, entered a disposition and development deal with Petaluma theater company Cinema West, pledging $2.75 million, over 10 years, to the $9 million to $10 million project.
The plan would respect the building’s art deco sweep and restore its neon signage, but also offer the latest in cinema-going, including recliner chairs and tables to hold food and beer and wine from an in-house restaurant. The goal is to transform the State into a memory-preserver that’s also a going concern.
The project takes into consideration “those who are looking for something new as well as those who are respecting what was here before,” Woodland community development director Ken Hiatt said.
Cinema West has muscle behind it, with 12 theaters in California and Idaho, including the deluxe Palladio 16 Cinemas in Folsom. If all goes according to plan, the State multiplex will open in late 2015, in time for the new “Star Wars” movie. A Studio Movie Grill under construction in Rocklin might beat it to the punch in offering the dinner- with-a-movie concept popularized by Texas’ Alamo Drafthouses, but the State still will be a regional forerunner.
Cinema West owner Dave Corkill has tried to build a multiplex in downtown Woodland off and on since 2004. The town of 56,000 can support a state-of-the-art theater, Corkill said last week during a visit to Woodland, also home to a five-screen Cinemark Movies 5.
If and when it opens, the new multiplex will be a big deal in Woodland. The city’s new mayor, Tom Stallard, came to the State last week to talk to The Bee and tour the building, currently without power, by flashlight, with Corkill, Hiatt and developer Ron Caceres.
Though the State closed four years ago, it was not uninhabited when the contingent arrived. A young man and woman apparently had been holing up in the building. The police were called to roust the pair, who were quiet and compliant. They were cited and sent on their way.
It was hard to envision, from this scene – or the empty lot just east of the theater and storefront carpet warehouse next to it, all part of the new project – a gleaming multiplex. But Corkill can see past the obvious.
He showed this while he and Stallard examined the high ceiling of the main auditorium (the one-screen State became a triplex in the 1970s). What looked like a coat of paint atop the ceiling’s original artwork is nicotine stain, Corkill said, from years of patrons lighting up while watching newsreels.
Corkill also has experience with Sacramento-region sites that look more ready for tumbleweeds than foot traffic.
Cinema West opened the Palladio 16 Cinemas in the ambitious but largely empty Palladio shopping center in 2009, after other tenants had shied away because of a bad economy. An early adopter of technologies such as D-Box motion seating, which moves a viewer’s chair to correspond with action on screen, and Dolby Atmos sound, Palladio Cinemas drew crowds even when the shopping center around it looked like a swank ghost town. It remains an anchor of the center, which since has welcomed many other businesses.
“The same reason the Palladio brought Dave to their project is the reason we want him here,” Hiatt said. “Not only does Dave offer a constant attraction, but Dave offers a quality experience.”
There’s more at cultural stake with the State than the Palladio. Residents have been vocal about wanting the theater of their childhoods preserved.
“There’s a lot of emotion with people’s memories here,” Hiatt said outside the theater.
The city last year signed an exclusive negotiating agreement with Caceres, a Woodland developer long tied to State restoration efforts. Together, Hiatt and Caceres recruited Corkill, at one time attached to a plan with developer Paul Petrovich to build a multiplex at a different Main Street location, to reconsider Woodland. Corkill has built new multiplexes but also converted several old theaters, including Humboldt County’s Fortuna, into multiplexes, retaining historical details when he can.
“Dave is committed to bringing back as much of that traditional experience” of the State as possible, Hiatt said. Cinema West’s renovation plans include replicating the neon “State” blade that adorned the theater before the sign had to be removed when Main Street was widened. A flat, design-obscuring movie-title reader board took its place.
Corkill said he has kept original light fixtures and other historical pieces when renovating other old theaters. A “number of factors” play into deciding what to keep and what to discard, Corkill said.
“There is whether or not (an item) is important to maintain the historic part of a project,” he said. “The cost is (also) something. As much as I would like to be a purist when it comes to remodeling, I also am a realist when it comes to ‘How deep are my pockets?’ Fortunate (for this) building, the bones are there, as such.”
Operated with enthusiasm but little money by Michael Morgan in its later years, the State was a source of much community discussion even before it closed in 2010. Preservation efforts swirled around it, sparked by David Wilkinson, who wrote the theater-history book “Hollywood Comes to Woodland” and helped start the Friends of the State Theatre group. Wilkinson is on board with the new project.
“Culturally, I think the State Theatre represents another jewel in Woodland’s architectural crown,” Wilkinson said. “It is one of our few Streamline Moderne (an offshoot of art deco) buildings from the ’30s. You have the Victorian Woodland Opera House, and the other end of Main Street will have this Streamline Moderne theater.”
The plan entails an addition to the current theater, with eight auditoriums, on the site of the empty lot and carpet warehouse. The main theater’s big auditorium will be reconfigured to accommodate space-hogging stadium seating and recliners, its seats reduced from an original 900-plus to around 300. The main building also will hold a small screening room.
The part of Main Street holding the State slowly is being filled in, with a new Chase Bank recently built on its west side. It’s an expedited version of the slow redevelopment of Woodland’s historic downtown, anchored by the Opera House but dotted by formal-wear shops and antique stores unable to drive a downtown renaissance.
“I look at it like somebody with a big smile, and there is a tooth missing every other tooth,” Hollingshead, the opera fan, said of formerly empty spaces downtown. “They are putting implants in those holes.”
Hollingshead, whose father, Paul W. Hollingshead, was official photographer for the State Theatre in its heyday, supports the multiplex plan. A retired entertainment manager and concert producer, he knows the entertainment business and said Corkill, with 12 theaters and 120 screens behind him, has “the buying power to book the top movie of the week.”
Hollingshead also liked that Caceres backs Corkill. Caceres is “a straight shooter” who’s shown a commitment to restoration already as owner of a circa-1870 business/residential building on Main. “He has totally maintained the integrity of the architecture,” Hollingshead said.
Caceres will shepherd the State project until the permit stage, when Cinema West will take over. Caceres did not grow up in Woodland, but said he cares about its architecture and downtown.
“I love that fact that we are saving an art-deco building, and not turning it into an antique or thrift store,” Caceres said.
The city bought the building for $275,000 in 2012, as part of a plan to turn the State into an Opera House extension. But renovation costs proved prohibitive, Hiatt said.
The city is slightly richer now, having earlier this year received permission to use $4.1 million in redevelopment bond proceeds put on hold when the state dissolved city redevelopment agencies in 2012. The $2.75 million for Corkill’s project will come from those proceeds.
Corkill said the timing finally became right for a downtown multiplex project.
“The leadership in Woodland is much more positive (now), and much more team-oriented, and the council is not divisive on decisions that are important to Woodland,” he said.
“I can go build a movie theater anywhere in the world,” he continued, “but if Woodland wants to open its doors, and roll out the red carpet for us with the enthusiastic response I have gotten, I want to be here.”
There was no red carpet last week, but the mayor took time out for a tour, even though he had a big night ahead – his swearing-in that evening. A renovated State will “contribute to our historic fabric, and bring back something people will really love,” Stallard said.
As the mayor continued to tout the project to a reporter, he started sounding less like a politician and more like a movie fan.
“The screen will be 58 feet wide,” he said, looking dazzled. “That’s wider than some Imax screens.”