Cathie Anderson

Cathie Anderson: Auburn’s State Theatre ready to bring up lights on restored auditorium

The leaders of the nonprofit Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center discovered that demolition work can be a lot like excavation work as they undertook restoration of the historic State Theatre in Auburn.

“We discovered that the original ceiling was still intact, and we also discovered some beautiful architectural elements on the top of the proscenium wall and the structure for some curved walls that are typical of this era of theater,” said Janis Wikoff, executive director of the Auburn Placer arts group. “Once we discovered the structure for those curved walls, we couldn’t ignore it. We had to rebuild them.”

Wikoff and her board initially thought they would need to raise $300,000, a fairly large sum in a city of roughly 13,000 residents, but they ended up needing more than $500,000 to complete the project. Fortunately, Wikoff said, the State Theatre holds a special place in the collective memory of many residents in the Sacramento region. Generations of people have gone to movies, concerts or meetings in the building since it opened on Dec. 26, 1930.

Granted, not all them saw the theater as it originally looked. The State was a classic movie palace with a vaudeville stage and seating for 1,325 people between the main floor and the balcony, Wikoff said, but over the years, the building was extensively remodeled. Past owners removed the balcony and created office space upstairs. They split the auditorium into two theaters and covered up the stage with drywall. The vintage marquee, topped by a blade-shaped “State” sign, was replaced by a flat, rectangular display.

By the late 1990s, Auburn civic boosters Doris Viera and Esther Stanton started a movement that inspired Auburn residents to reclaim the State and restore its old glamour. Joining with Auburn Symphony founder Monroe DeJarnette and attorney William Lipschultz, they eventually created the Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center and found financiers willing to lend them the money to help acquire the State Theatre for $800,000 in 2006.

Just as the State Theatre’s acquisition took time, so would the renovation, but progress has been steady.

“There have been some significant capital improvements to the building, the first of which was in 2007 and 2008,” Wikoff said. “In a partnership with the city of Auburn, a single donor ( Viola Wrigley) and the board of directors, the front of the building, the façade was redone into a historic likeness” of the original marquee and blade sign.

The cost was about $250,000, roughly $125,000 of which came from Wrigley, Wikoff said. Now deceased, the Auburn resident had worked in a classic old movie palace in Exeter as a girl during the Depression.

Auburn Placer board president Paul Ogden has said that the marquee has served as beacon for what is possible. In 2012, the Auburn Placer arts group raised $210,000 to remove the old roof and recap the building, making it waterproof. The current capital campaign, known as “Tear Down the Walls, Bring up the Arts,” has raised more than $540,000. It is so named because the wall that divided the auditorium has been removed.

“It’s no longer a split-screen moviehouse,” Wikoff said. “The original proscenium arch has been opened. The vaudeville stage has been opened. A permanent apron has been built as an extension of the stage.”

When it reopens on Oct. 16, she said, the restored theater will have 335 seats. Those seats were arriving as Wikoff spoke with me.

Board president Ogden was in charge of finding just the right chairs for the restored State.

“We’d been looking on the Internet a lot for seats, and we just happened to find some that had been in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in L.A.,” Ogden told me. “We got in on the tail end of the sale, so we got the last 350 seats that they had for sale. We feel fortunate in that regard because they’re special coming out of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The backs recline, and they’re very high quality seats made by the Irwin Seating Co.”

All the board members and dozens of volunteers have not only donated money but also have put in sweat equity. They have taken on tasks such as sweeping the floor, screwing down Masonite into the stage floor and filling holes in the floor with cement. Plus, Wikoff said, every contractor who worked on the project donated time over and beyond what they were paid to provide.

“There’s a lot of economic development aspects to having this business here,” said Ogden, who was Auburn’s city manager from 1996 until his retirement in 2003. “If you do a theater operation like this right, you’re going to bring a lot of people in for shows, and they’re going to eat at restaurants and shop.”

The first event at the restored State Theatre will be the documentary film “Fed Up” on Oct. 16. Bay Area band Blame Sally will perform Oct. 17. Then, there will be an afternoon grand reopening celebration on Oct. 19, with an appearance by touring magician Alex Ramon.