The Minor Theatre — the oldest surviving multi-reel feature film theater in the United States — turns 100 this month. There likely will be no little girls with golden harps, no perfume christening and no flapping pigeons, as in the inaugural dedication. But there might be speeches. Possibly, the local smoky perfume will trickle in from elsewhere, as happens on occasion. And there will be a special production.
The theater, at 10th and H streets in Arcata, opened its doors on Dec. 3, 1914, and nearly half of Arcata's 1,200 residents swarmed in to fill the 524 seats and stand in the aisles, according to the Arcata Union. Isaac Minor, the merchant who built the theater with nickelodeon owner Mrs. Bert Pettengill, told attendees the theater was the safest fire haven in town, with its 13-inch reinforced concrete walls and floor, nine exits and steel-shuttered glass projection ports ready to slam shut if the nitrate film caught fire (a common occurrence back then). Then the silent film The Chimes — Charles Dickens' second rich-poor moral tale after A Christmas Carol — was shown, accompanied by a five-piece orchestra. The next night, the show sold out again. The new theater also had a stage, and on Dec. 8 the first play opened to a full house: Her Own Way, performed by the drama class of the brand new Humboldt State Normal School, which had opened in April. It was a benefit for the Belgian Relief Fund.
The Pettengills ran the theater six months then sold the lease to Byard & Byard's California Theatre Co. The company installed a pipe organ, and ran it until 1927, struggling financially and burning old tires to heat the place. George Mann's Redwood Theatres ran it next, brought in sound and showed the theater's first talkie, Honey, in 1930. The Minor closed in 1938, just before Mann opened the bigger, more modern Arcata Theatre a block away. It reopened in 1946, and closed again in 1962 when television took off. It sat empty and crumbling for 10 years. The city of Arcata wanted to turn it into a parking lot. But in 1971 a group of Humboldt State University film students formed the Minor Theatre Corp., leased the theater, renovated it and on Jan. 1, 1972 held a grand re-opening with a sold-out double-feature: San Francisco, starring Clark Gable, and A Night at the Opera, starring the Marx Brothers. Simplex the cat moved in, warming laps and watching movies until she died in 1981 in the balcony. She's buried on site, says David Phillips, one of the Minor Theatre Corp.'s original members.
The corporation bought the Minor, and the attached apartments and storefronts, in 1980. Phillips and Michael Thomas became the sole owners, and in 1988 expanded and spruced up the place: a new marquee, the latest equipment, two new screens , a new heating system and more. They also owned the Broadway Theatre, Bayshore Mall's The Movies, and Mill Creek Theatre in McKinleyville. But the Minor was special — it had to be, says Phillips, to survive drawing from Arcata's small and diverse population.
"The Minor was an oddball little theater," he says. "We showed a lot of movies that appealed to a lot of people."
They did family shows, afternoon bargain shows; midnight shows every weekend; the Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly and afternoon surfing movies. They hosted film series including the Spike and Mike animations, school and community groups, film classes and film festivals. The Showbill calendar announced each week's eclectic offerings.
In 2006, Phillips and Thomas sold the three big theater complexes to Oregon-based Coming Attractions, and leased the Minor to the company under the condition it be run as a theater.
Coming Attractions modernized all of the theaters but tried to maintain the Minor's quirky programming, says Lee Fuchsmann, Coming Attractions' vice president and director of film. But it was hard, she says, because people could watch classic and second-run movies at home. Today's programming is a mix of mainstream and art films, with regular show times and no more series or film classes. Occasionally, there's a special event, such as this Friday's documentary Pelican Dreams followed by a Q-and-A with wildlife rescuers. The theater still hosts a Latino film festival, and plans to resume hosting HSU's short-film festival in April, says Lee.
Coming Attractions' lease on the Minor is up in 2016. Al Lane, Coming Attractions' president and CEO, won't say what will happen then. "We're pleased with the way things are now," he says. "In a year we'll look at it again."
If Coming Attractions doesn't re-sign, Phillips says he and his wife, LouAnna, and Thomas will look for another operator. And if one can't be found?
"I guess we'll get back in the movie business again," Phillips says. "It'd kind of be fun."
For now, there's the centennial to celebrate. On Monday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m., the theater will host a radio reading by HSU's drama department of the first play performed there in 1914, Her Own Way. Tickets are $12 and it's a benefit for the Emma Center.
Lane says he'll be there, along with other senior management. "It's an opportunity for us and HSU to take a beautiful old building and put a spotlight on it for a night," he says.