Theatre Histories: California Theatre, San Jose
Thursday, April 24, 2014
By Amy Smith
The first thing I noticed walking into the California Theatre's Market Street entrance was the theatre's original 1927 stagehouse rigging, which is prominently on display in the lobby. Today, the downtown San Jose theatre is probably best known for its iconic marquee with its shining lights–a dazzling reconstruction built from historical photographs. This emphasis on preserving the past, as well as the connection between past and present, has played an integral role in the history of the California Theatre.
San Jose's California Theatre, where you can still see stars' names up in lights. Photo: Gary Parker
Was the California always a performing arts space? Well, yes and no. The grandiose Art Deco venue originally opened in 1927 as a motion picture house called the Fox Theatre; it was designed by San Francisco architects Charles Peter Weeks and William Day. Typical of motion picture houses of the 1920s era, however, the Fox Theatre showed not only motion pictures (the first film shown there was An Affair of the Follies) but live stage revues, musical acts and vaudeville shows. Especially popular were the shows of vaudevillians Fanchon and Marco Wolf, which sometimes featured the Sunkist Beauties chorus girls. Famous stage and screen actors and actresses (including Shirley Temple) often made appearances as well. The orchestra pit notably included an impressive Wurlitzer organ, also on display in the theatre's main entrance.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, business dwindled, and the California Theatre became predominantly a movie theatre (albeit a majestic movie theatre) before closing entirely in 1973. After a brief stint as a rock concert venue in the 1970s (performers included the Doobie Brothers, the Steve Miller Band and Van Morrison), the Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Jose purchased the building in 1985. Their mission was to preserve the city's largest remaining downtown movie palace.
The agency started to renovate the building in 2001, but with an eye to honoring the building's past. Before demolishing the original stagehouse, they preserved its rigging system, turning it into the aforementioned lobby display. They also took care in restoring the First Street entrance lobby; today, it precisely replicates what moviegoers would have seen when they entered the building in 1927 (photo, at left, courtesy of Team San Jose). It's as if the California Theatre is frozen in time, allowing audiences of today to experience the magic of a 1920s-era motion picture house.
The California Theatre officially reopened in 2004; it is currently home to Opera San Jose (the company is celebrating their 30th anniversary) and Symphony Silicon Valley. In honor of the movie-house aspect of the theatre's history, the California Theatre hosts the Cinequest Film Festival every year, where they even show a handful of silent films. Meghan Horrigan, director of public affairs and communications at the venue's management organization Team San Jose, said, "The theatre has always been a haven for arts lovers, from opera and the symphony to movies and arts festivals." And it's not hard to see why—from the original rigging system to the faithfully replicated marquee, the California Theatre provides a unique experience to modern-day audiences.
Amy Smith is a San Francisco-based freelance theatre writer and principal of Amy Smith Consulting. She is also the author of Depth of Field, a blog about historic photographs and the stories behind them.