Tale of Two Theaters

They were the best of venues, then they were the worst. Now they're coming back.

| March 26, 2009

They stand tall, proudly displaying their respective city names with art deco marquees. Most theaters like them have fallen by the wayside, demolished to make way for more lucrative businesses, but the Eureka, the Arcata and the Fortuna, all built during the golden age of movie palaces, each with its own complex history of survival -- these three persevered.

The first weekend in April, after being closed for seven years, the Arcata will be reborn as the Arcata Theatre Lounge, a 21st century amalgam of movie house, music venue, restaurant and bar.

The Fortuna, now a multiplex that boasts "state-of-the-art high definition digital projection and sound," will be showing movies that weekend on a half dozen screens including at least one, Monsters vs. Aliens, projected in 3-D.

The Eureka, now run as the nonprofit Eureka Concert and Film Center, is sporting a newly refurbished marquee. These days the "shabby but useable" theater mostly serves as an occasional concert venue. Dark Star Orchestra, one of America's top Grateful Dead tribute bands, is playing there in April; it will likely use the movie screen for its light show.

The Arcata Theater was completed in 1938, around the same time as the Fortuna. The larger Eureka opened the following year, which makes 2009 its 70th anniversary. The three theaters followed very different paths, but share a common history. All were built and operated by the small town movie house magnate George Mann, founder of the Redwood Theaters chain. All three were designed by the same architect, William B. Davis.

"It's the biggest movie theater between San Francisco and Portland," said Wendy Petty, president of the Eureka Theater's board of directors. "And it was when it was built, which is amazing for 1939, to build something this big, this optimistic right before the war. We were hardly out of the Depression."

In those days large, single-screen movie theaters were not unusual. As the 20th century drew to a close, they were becoming a thing of the past. The Fortuna survived by reopening in 2000 as a multiplex. The Eureka and Arcata have followed a different path. After long periods of dormancy, both are now making anachronistic attempts to reemerge with a mission that resembles the theaters' original design: large, stately, all-encompassing halls for community-wide entertainment. They're both set to preserve and reinvigorate beautiful old buildings that were once at the center of life in their towns. But though the architecture and history of the two theaters may look similar, their financial circumstances, business models and visions for the future make them very different projects indeed.

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The last year of the 20th century was a turning point for the Eureka Theater: 2000 was the year it became the Eureka Concert and Film Center. Wendy Petty got involved in the ECFC in 2005. At that point, she says, "Things were pretty much at a stand-still." The board was in the midst of reorganization. ECFC founder Bob Rickard was serving as general manager -- but not for long.

"They forced me out," said Rickard from Willow Creek, where he and his wife run the Big Foot Dollar Store.

Rickard had a long history with the Eureka. He'd worked at the theater when he was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s. "I was door boy," he recalled. "When I got a little older they made me assistant manager; that was in the early ’50s."

In 2000, after retiring from a career that included running the 299 Drive-in in Willow Creek then the Arcata and Midway drive-ins, he was drawn back to the movie house where he got his start.

"I was walking down F Street and just happened to stop in front of the Eureka Theater, saw it all closed up and thought, 'Man, what a damn shame. Something ought to be done.' I thought I should see if I could get it on the road to recovery; see if I could get it restored."

He ended up calling the building's owner, George Mann II, grandson of the man who built the Eureka and the Arcata. With Mann's blessings on his nascent plan, Rickard was given the keys to the building.

"I put a sign on the marquee about restoring the theater, put a phone number, and got all kinds of interest," said Rickard. In March 2000, a meeting was held at the Eureka. "We filled it halfway up with people," said Rickard. "We had some city councilmen and the mayor [Nancy Flemming] showed up. She said she'd get the city to light up the big Eureka sign, that they'd pay the light bill. It never happened, but her intentions were good."

Despite the burst of interest, things got off to a slow start. Rickard did manage to get the projectors working again and showed films a couple of times a year. He found volunteers willing to brainstorm and help out, but he didn't find many donors. For help on that front, he approached Sally Arnot, who'd spearheaded the Humboldt Arts Council drive to retrofit and restore the Carnegie Library next door, raising $1.5 million to turn it into the Morris Graves Museum of Art, completed in 1999.

"I asked if she'd serve on our board," said Rickard. "She said she just didn't have time to do it, but finally she did. She said she mentioned what we were doing to Rob Arkley. One day he called me up and said, 'If you form a nonprofit, I'll buy that theater and give it to your nonprofit.'"

Arkley was true to his word. He contacted the Mann family, offered them $325,000 to purchase the Eureka and made the down payment.

All this was happening around the same time another theater restoration project was going down the tubes. The Humboldt State University Foundation had purchased the long dormant Sweasey/State Theater a couple of blocks away and made plans to turn it into a performing arts center. In September 2000 HSU announced that it was pulling the plug, in part due to "the lack of firm commitments from potential major contributors," and "the diversion of support to the projected Eureka Theater development."

The following year, 2001, saw a failed bid for the State by developer Dan Ollivier. In 2002, another developer, Don Murrish, whose previous commercial projects included the Mill Creek Marketplace in McKinleyville and the Broadway Cinema in Eureka, made a $20,000 deposit on the State. At that point the histories of the Arcata and the Eureka theaters reconverged, if only momentarily.

As noted, Murrish was part of the Minor Theater Corporation's Broadway Cinema project, which involved turning a hardware supply store into a multiplex. He ultimately bailed on the State Theater deal, at which point Rob Arkley stepped in and bought that building, eventually turning it into the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts. But Murrish wasn't done with movie theaters. He also owned land in McKinleyville next to the Mill Creek Marketplace that would eventually be home to Mill Creek Cinema. Through a complex real estate deal, MTC's CEO David Phillips swapped the land he wanted for his McKinleyville theater for a piece of the Arcata Theater.

Phillips had become Humboldt's own movie theater magnate. In 1971, with a few partners, he'd purchased the Minor Theater in Arcata. The Arcata Theater was acquired in 1974, then the Arcata Drive-in. In January 2000, when Phillips took over the last remaining Signature Theaters property in the county -- The Movies at the Bayshore Mall -- MTC had a complete monopoly on northern Humboldt movie theaters. (The Fortuna, which MTC owned briefly, was not operating at the time; the Garberville Theater was the only screen Phillips did not control.)

While the Eureka was beginning its road to recovery, the Arcata was a fading gem. Phillips was busy working on plans for what would become the Mill Creek; he was also embroiled in a costly lawsuit regarding federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access at the Broadway, and the city of Arcata was demanding ADA upgrades at the Arcata. At one point he'd even threatened to demolish the theater and turn the parcel into a parking lot.

Phillips explained to the Journal at the time, "At this point a single-screen theater is an anomaly and in a community this size it's difficult to make it work as a movie theater. Theaters like the Arcata and the Eureka have to become more than movie theaters. They have to cross over and become a performance space and a community facility."

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On a Wednesday afternoon a little more than two weeks before grand opening day for the Arcata Theatre Lounge, owner Lara Cox sat at a laptop at a high table upstairs in what might appear to be the balcony. Radios blared classic rock below, where electricians were putting finishing touches on lighting fixtures and kitchen staff searched among dozens of cardboard boxes for stainless steel shelving needed to complete assembly of a new kitchen built behind the lobby concession stand. More workers were busy with projects out back and in front.

Five years had passed since Lara and her husband Brian Cox bought the theater and there was still much to be done. In 2004, Lara was running an upscale women's wear shop in Arcata called Lola, which, she says, "just wasn't working. It was just too high end for this town." Brian was employed by the county of Humboldt as a director in the Environmental Health Dept. Among his duties, inspecting restaurants.

As Lara tells it, they decided to look into buying the Arcata when they read about a company called AIRcata giving up its lease. "We decided to purchase the building, but we weren't totally set on what we'd do with it," she said. Not that she didn't have ideas. Walking through the place with a realtor her imagination kicked in. "I could see it clearly: There's the bar, there's live music, there needs to be pizza, there's movies..."

In many ways her vision corresponded with that of Robert White, a businessman from the Bay Area who bought the Arcata in a convoluted deal in 2002. In a property swap, Phillips unloaded a theater he did not want and got the parcel he needed to build the Mill Creek Cinema. Don Murrish received a note on the Arcata, which he sold to White.

White was working with Lincoln Wachtel, a concert promoter/restaurant manager who had been booking shows at Café Tomo on the Arcata Plaza. "When Robert bought it, we were going to run shows there, do concerts and use it for a multi-faceted venue," said Wachtel, who now lives with his wife and kids in Portland, Ore.

"The plan was for a mix of local and out-of-town bands, but given the size, different from what I'd been doing at Café Tomo, more community-oriented. And the plan included a bar and restaurant with pizzas and whatever."

While the White plan was similar to what the Coxes eventually proposed, the reaction of the city of Arcata was quite different. The city is now an active partner helping fund the Arcata Theatre Lounge, but city officials did not welcome the initial plan to turn the tattered movie house into a concert hall/cinema/restaurant/bar.

"The hurdles they threw at us were ridiculous," said Wachtel. "They wouldn't give us the alcohol license; they wouldn't even let us do music. They really didn't want us there and they did everything they could to make sure [the project] didn't happen."

City officials balked at the idea of adding another bar close to the Arcata Plaza, and truth be told, White and Wachtel did not follow all the requisite protocols as they began transformation of the building. After a concert scheduled for May 18, 2002 was cancelled, White left town and put the theater up for sale.

Selling the place was not easy, not that there wasn't interest. There was a proposal put forward by former ad man Nathan Kaplan to turn the place into a concert hall/recording studio, but he failed to convince the city to give him the cash to do so. Early in 2003, the realtors representing White tried and failed to sell the theater on eBay. The fact that a wayward truck had damaged part of the marquee did not help.

Then in November 2003, a couple signed a lease with plans to turn the space into AIRcata Physical Arts, an acrobatics training facility with trampolines and a climbing wall. They ran into major problems: The city wanted the marquee repaired before work continued, and they learned that they'd have to remove hazardous asbestos sprayed on the ceiling and lead paint on the interior walls. They asked White to fix the problems, he declined, they broke their lease.

That's when the Coxes came along with their dream of an Arcata Theatre Lounge, modeled in part on venues like the Parkway, a restored movie palace/concert facility in Oakland, and a collection of venues in the Portland, Ore. area run by a company called McMenamin's that has refurbished theaters, schools and former hospitals turning them into hip entertainment establishments combining movies and live music.

Once the Coxes had firmed up their ideas they presented them to the city and a long wait began. "The plan was a change of use," said Lara. "We had to see if we could even get a change of use, that took six months to settle."

After they had their CUP, they worked up designs with architect Kash Boodjeh and Scott Penfold Engineering. An aborted plan for balcony seating set things back. They also abandoned plans to get a hard liquor license.

"We carved about $600,000 off the project and that helped, but it still cost a lot," said Cox. And it wasn't easy finding financing. "It's hard to explain to lenders what category it falls under as a business. They'd go, 'What are you?' They like comparisons, but there aren't any up here."

Months turned into years and still no financing. "We were like, 'OK, forget it; it's probably not going to happen.' Then it came together around nine months ago, just when we were at a point where the economy was starting to go crazy."

The key was the city of Arcata. Where White had faced resistance, the Coxes found support, even financing. "Clearly the city is concerned about this building -- it's a landmark," said Cox. "They were part of our loan."

The bulk of the funding for the $1.4 million project is a variable rate $767,000 loan from ReProp Financial, a regional real estate collateral lender run by Eureka businessman Glenn Goldan.

As Goldan explained, the ReProp loan is supplemented by two other loans. "We're stacked on top at $767K and we're administering the construction loan. Part two is going to be an SBA 504 loan [from the federal Small Business Admin.], but SBA cannot finance until about 90 days after completion, so AEDC [Arcata Economic Development Corp.] arranged temporary financing using Headwaters and USDA funding." That's for $305,000.

Part three is $325,000 from the city of Arcata's Rural Development Agency Project Fund. AEDC's Kelli Denny explains, "AEDC is what's called an intermediary. We get an IRP [Intermediary Relending Program] loan through USDA's Rural Development. We apply for funds and loan the money to borrowers. The loans are for job creation and retention for anything but agriculture." (Ag businesses get loans directly from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.)

There's still more available from the city -- the Coxes are in line for a façade grant to complete refurbishing of the damaged marquee and to replace tiles at the entry, but again, that's money that's not available until after the project's initial completion.

The day we spoke, a city crew was working on expanding the sidewalk in front. "It's essentially a bump-out," Cox explained. "They decided to do that because we'll be having big crowds coming in and out and congregating out front. It will double the width."

^^^^^

The "performance space and a community facility" model suggested by David Phillips was in line with Bob Rickard's dream for the Eureka, but what he wanted most was to see the screen lit up once again with classic movies. "We found we couldn't get a turnout for the old classics," said Rickard. "I guess people would rather stay home and watch ’em on Turner Classics. But when we brought in the big name musicians, we sure as hell did. People lined up around the block."

Concerts at the Eureka featuring Merle Haggard, Alice Cooper, The Neville Brothers and others filled the Eureka with people and the rent paid the bills for a while, but there really wasn't enough coming in to pay Rickard a salary as general manager and still put money into restoration.

"I think what happened was they got in over their heads," Petty said. "They had a business plan, but it didn't really incorporate a restoration plan. That part of the project just wasn't being addressed."

The board decided to do away with the G.M. position, and Rickard says he was fine with that. "But then they wanted to take away my keys. That was too much. After all I started that damned thing."

He says, with time, he's getting over his anger and he wishes the new board well in its plans. "Times are tough and it has to be harder than hell to raise money for something like restoring an old theater. I just hope they can keep the place from leaking. I feel bad not being connected with it, but I feel good about the fact that I helped get it back on its way."

Part of getting the Eureka back on track was undoing work from the past. In the mid-’70s the upstairs was sealed off and split to create three theaters. "When the Arkleys were involved at the very beginning, they started some restoration," said Charles Petty, Wendy's husband and another active participant in the theater's restoration. "They took down the wall in the balcony that triplexed the theater."

Petty pointed out another important thing Arkley did: "He paid off the mortgage, paid $10,000 a month until it was paid off. So we have it free and clear, which is nice."

Arkley had brought in architect John Ash to draw up plans. "They were going to blow out the back wall, put in a fly loft, dig an orchestra pit, do all the things the Arkley [Center] has," said Charles.

Those plans have been set aside. Wendy describes them as "adaptive reuse," not in line with the board's restoration vision. As it turned out, since the State/Sweasey space was originally a vaudeville house it was easier to adapt into a space for plays and ballet productions requiring scenery and more extensive lighting.

The ECFC board members seem united on the importance of historic preservation. Charles is vice-chair of the City of Eureka's Historic Preservation Commission. He and his wife also serve on boards for the Eureka Heritage Society and the Clarke Historical Museum. "We're all on all the boards," said Wendy, eliciting laughter from all present.

Ron Kuhnel, another Heritage and HPC board member, joined up about two years ago. "I was watching this, hearing Chuck's reports at Heritage meetings," he said. "I came to realize, this is one of the most serious restoration efforts in the City of Eureka."

While he knows something about restoration from committee work and refurbishing his own Queen Anne Victorian, he learned that showing up at theater events to pour beer was perhaps more important. He helped put together a benefit for the historic Annie B. Ryan House and the Whimsy Garden that included a screening of the silent film Valley of the Giants. "That showed me how usable the facility is, even in its current state," said Kuhnel.

What is the state of the Eureka? "Shabby but useable," said Wendy, with all present board members agreeing. "We have some minor roof leaks," said Charles, adding, "The building is structurally sound, and it's not an unreinforced masonry building," which means no earthquake retrofit.

What does the Eureka need to bring it back to its glory? "We need a roof," said several board members at once. Wendy concurred, but added, "The trouble is, it needs a bunch of things all at once. And we don't have a big money backer so we're basically hand-to-mouth. Our events pay for our projects. The ones we did last year paid for the new marquee." And as Kuhnel had mentioned, that money basically came from beer and wine sales at shows put on by outside promoters.

One of the Eureka's advantages is its size. Even without the balcony the Eureka holds 886. They figure when it's fully restored it will hold 1,400 people. Only the Eureka Municipal Auditorium is bigger, as a result, promoters looking for a large venue have been renting the place out intermittently.

"We'd like to keep the theater affordable so we can fill a niche that others can't," said technician/sound man Steve Falk-Carlson. "The Arkleys put a ton of money into their place to the point where it's expensive to have anything going on there. We can do things on short notice for a doggone reasonable price." To be specific, the rental fee is $800, less for nonprofits.

The Pettys know first hand how tough the concert business can be: They're involved in the Eureka Concert Series, and recently helped put on a show featuring an international touring group, Spanish Brass. "We rented the Arkley Center, it cost us around $2,100 with their technicians, and we paid thousands for the Spanish Brass," said Charles. "We ended up not getting a very big crowd, and we actually lost money. It's a scary thing when you're putting that much out up front. You have to pack the place to make your profit. It's a big risk."

Advancing the Eureka's restoration is not going to come cheap. Estimates for the roof alone come to $135,000. When Wendy puts on her accounting hat and adds up costs for all the things they'd like to see, she comes up with a figure around $3 million. "That's acres of carpet, having the seats restored, getting a new screen, new walls, everything."

All involved in the re-energized all-volunteer board feel like they've made progress in the last couple of years. "When we started in 2006, I think there was $1,550 in the account," said Charles. "We've built it up to around $40,000 in a few years." Of course that's less than a third of the money needed for the roof. The board has talked with banks. "We could get a loan, but the terms aren't very good right now," Charles noted.

"At some point, I honestly believe that a big grant or a large funder will appear," said a hopeful Kuhnel. "There's so much critical mass to attract their attention."

^^^^^

At the Arcata, five years of waiting is about to come to an end and there are many loose ends to tie up. "Our grand opening is April 3, so it's not far off. We'll have two soft openings first to get our kitchen, our servers and security all ironed out."

Cox describes the kitchen fare as "fusion pub food -- entertainment food that goes with beer, wine and sodas," including Indian samosas and calzone. "People will come in and get their food from the concession stand just like in a normal movie theater, except it's more than just popcorn and candy. You can actually have a meal."

Food in hand, patrons will enter the theatre/lounge, either to hear music or to watch a film. The old theater seats have been removed, replaced with tables and chairs.

If it's a movie, it won't be first run. That's because of a non-competition clause placed in the property purchase contract by David Phillips. "The restrictions are that we cannot play movies until after they have been released for six months," said Cox. "That's OK, because all the other theaters are playing new releases and we don't need to compete with that, it's not really what we're interested in. We're going to be showing movies that are more classic and avant-garde. There's a huge pool of interesting films to draw on." (Actually the term "film" is a slight misnomer. The Arcata's old 35-mm film projectors have been replaced by a theater-grade Sanyo digital projector.)

Cox was still not sure how many nights a week the theater might have live music "We're still working that out. The thing is, we're doing all different genres and different levels of shows. Our main stage will be right in front of the screen and that will be for 600-plus people. The stage is portable so we can move it forward to a different part of the room and section it off for a smaller audience, say 350. We can do the DJ dance events, so we're thinking maybe three or four days a week."

She says local promoters have expressed some interest, but she will be doing most of the booking herself. "Aside from the grand opening [with The Delta Nationals and Ponche], the biggest show coming is the following weekend with Junior Reed, that's a reggae show. That'll be a big event."

The reggae show, a co-production by Bonus Entertainment and Proper Productions, will be the Arcata's first foray into rental. With rent set at $2,100 a night, it's uncertain how many outside promoters will use the facility.

"If I rent it to someone, I have to get as much as what I'd make myself that night -- it has to be comparable," said Cox, noting, "We have a huge debt. We figured the price based on what it costs us on a daily basis. There's no profit on the [rental] price."

More than one experienced concert promoter expressed concern about the high rent, and about the long-term viability of the business. As one of them put it, "Their approach is not sustainable in this market."

Cox declined to state exactly how much is tied up in the building. "We've invested our lives in it; let's put it that way," she said with a laugh.

All in all she's happy with how things are going. "I think it turned out better than what I imagined. It's so weird having it all come together after thinking about it for so long. I have to keep pinching myself."

^^^^^

Sidebar:

According to the Cinema Treasures website (cinematreasures.org) William B. David designed 18 theaters, all but one in Northern California.

Four of the 18 have been demolished. Four are currently shuttered. Of the remaining 10, five are currently operating with from two up to six screens (the Fortuna and the Ukiah each have six).

Three have returned to a single screen: The Eureka was de-triplexed in 2000. The Esquire in Sacramento was de-twinned and turned into an IMAX theater. The Varsity Theatre was de-twinned and is run by the city of Davis as a community theater with occasional movies and live entertainment.

Only two have never been multiplexed: The Lark in Larkspur, a 299-seat single screener, which has never been divided, is a nonprofit art house theater showing indie features, documentaries and foreign films with occasional concerts. The Arcata is set to reopen as the single screen 617-seat Arcata Theatre Lounge on April 3.

 Tale of Two Theaters

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Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Thanks for the great story. Congratulations to both venues for getting great things happening in our area!

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Posted by Shoshanna on 03/31/2009 at 11:08 PM

Thanks for the great story. Congratulations to both venues for getting great things happening in our area!

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Posted by Shoshanna on 03/31/2009 at 11:08 PM

It would be great for sure if Wendy and chuck would allow anyone they want to volunteer there. I was one of the original volunteers at the Eureka and Sweasey theaters. When I asked about volunteering again, she laughed, said no, and made some sort of comment about bombing the place. Bottom line is that she doesn't want any of the original volunteers to help out with this place. There's one big thing wrong with this theater, its got a board. Anything with a board is certain to have problems.

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Posted by Former eureka volunteer on 04/12/2009 at 6:26 PM

Correction please: the architect for this theatre and many others thruout north and central California was William B. David, (not Davis). I initially met Mr.David when I was in my teens working at a theatre in Sacramento. I later managed theatres owned by Richard Mann, (son of Geo. Mann, founder of Redwood Theatres) who had a history of using Mr. David as their architect. He designed some beautiful 'movie palaces' over many years.

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Posted by JCL on 07/15/2009 at 10:46 AM
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