Livingston's Court Theater now just a memory

A few feet from a sketch depicting hopeful plans of renovation, an enormous claw crunched the walls of the historic Court Theater on Monday morning, ending the legacy of a 69-year-old landmark that towered over the heart of downtown.

A handful of people gathered at the site Monday, sharing memories and gasping as machines began crushing the once-beloved theater. Built in 1945, the theater closed in 1977 and has been vacant ever since. The city purchased it in 2001 for $120,000.

City officials once hoped to renovate the theater but watched in sadness as their efforts fell short and the demolition began.

“I was really heartbroken,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra, who voted to refurbish the theater in 2002. “Here’s what our hopes and dreams were (in the sketch), and here’s the reality of what it is. Some people were so sad they couldn’t wait, they had to leave and said they couldn’t watch it.Restoring the theater would have cost about $6 million to $7 million, Samra said, and the city couldn’t afford to foot the bill. Livingston faces a $150,000 shortfall in its proposed budget for 2014.

Some community members came together to raise money to renovate the old theater, forming the Livingston Court Theater Committee. Despite the group’s efforts over the past 10 years, it wasn’t able to find enough funding to restore the structure.

The committee raised $25,000 as of June, said treasurer Scott Kenoyer. Now the money will likely be used to fund student scholarships, but that will be decided at the next meeting. The date hasn’t been announced, he added.

Committee chairwoman JoAnn Mires spent the past eight years trying to save the theater that crumbled during Monday's demolition.

“It’s very sad for me and kind of depressing,” Mires said. “You work on something for a while, and now you see it being demolished, and no foreseeable plans in the future to rebuild it. Looking at finances and the way the economy is I’m not sure when it would happen.”

Mires said she understands the theater had to be torn down because of health and safety concerns, but that the committee hasn’t lost hope. She said her group will continue to give back to the community.

City Manager Jose Ramirez acknowledged Monday the city doesn’t have the money to build another theater in the near future, even after applying for several grants.

“The economic downturn changed everything, because everybody was watching their budgets and raising money became a lot harder,” he said. “Our hope is that it doesn’t just become a vacant dirt lot.”

Ramirez said the goal is to build a performing arts center, or use the site for another economic development project, but it’s unclear how the city would do so without funding.

One idea, Samra said, is to grow grass at the site and put up an outdoor screen to show movies during the city’s outdoor street fairs.

The $30,000 demolition was slated to take a week but was completed in a few hours. By Monday afternoon, crews worked on securing the site and hauling away the debris, all that remained of the Court Theater.