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Moderne Beauty 

Restoring the Eureka Theater to its former glory

click to enlarge news1-01-ac0ff0a03dd5e703.jpg

Photo by Ryan Filgas

Living inside a movie theater is a fantasy many cinephiles have surely entertained, but few have indulged. George M. Mann, builder and original proprietor of the Eureka Theater, was one of the few. Mann worked from the 1920s through the 1940s to build a chain of movie theaters that would eventually span from Klamath Falls to Vacaville. The Eureka Theater, largest and grandest of the houses he built, was also — unbeknownst to most — the site Mann chose for his private residence.

click to enlarge Lower-level seating, circa 1939-1949. - COURTESY OF CHUCK PETTY AND THE EUREKA CONCERT AND FILM CENTER
  • Courtesy of Chuck Petty and the Eureka Concert and Film Center
  • Lower-level seating, circa 1939-1949.

Thanks to the efforts of the Eureka Concert and Film Center, the theater building has been undergoing a comprehensive restoration. On the eve of its fall 2021 reopening, I joined a small group to tour its grandly designed public rooms and equally luxurious private ones. I was hoping to learn what motivated Mann, this regional theater mogul, to situate a jewel box of a private apartment just steps from the popcorn-scented lobby.

The Eureka Theater closed its doors to first-run films in 1996 but changes to the 1939 decor have been blessedly few. Ascending to the mezzanine today is still to enter a space that makes you catch your breath. The lobby is a swelling, graciously proportioned vault defined by swooping contours, with rosy light radiating behind delicately tinted panels of inset glass. Curving staircases embrace the lobby on both sides, ushering suavely in the direction of the 40-foot screen with its gilded flanking panels. Visually, there's so much going on that no visitor is likely to notice an unmarked door positioned unobtrusively toward the rear of the space.

click to enlarge The restored seating in the Eureka Theater. - PHOTO BY RYAN FILGAS.
  • Photo by Ryan Filgas.
  • The restored seating in the Eureka Theater.

Opening that door, Eureka Concert and Film Center board member Gregg Foster beckoned guests into the inner sanctum, a foyer leading to Mann's seven-room, 2,000-square-foot private apartment. He pointed out the amenities: one bath, crown moldings, round mirrors, built-in storage, an oval dining room with recessed lighting, a sunroom with a view of Humboldt Bay and a picture window opening onto the backside of the theater's marquee ornament, shaped to suggest the skyline of a Futurist metropolis. (From street level, it looks a lot like the Emerald City as rendered in Victor Fleming's film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which opened the same year.)

"Mann was from back East; he originally came out to California around the time of World War I," Chuck Petty, vice president of the Eureka Concert and Film Center, explained. Eureka native Petty's long-term involvement with the restoration effort is motivated not only by memories of taking in first-run movies at the Eureka as a child, but also by his passion for historic preservation and a generalized "interest in keeping old buildings going." He has compiled an in-depth repository of information on all things theater-related, including the builder's biography.

By the 1930s, Petty said, "Mann had recently been married for the third or fourth time. His son Richard, who would later inherit the business, was working with him at that point." Mann spent long hours on the road, driving from his San Francisco home to locations in Northern California, where most of his Redwood Theaters were based. This made it convenient to maintain the Eureka pad for overnight stays. Petty noted that when the theater magnate built the Regal Ukiah almost a decade later, he had construction manager William Bernard David construct a smaller pied-a-terre as part of that space, as well.

click to enlarge Curves and lights in the lobby, circa 1939-1949. - COURTESY OF CHUCK PETTY AND THE EUREKA CONCERT AND FILM CENTER
  • Courtesy of Chuck Petty and the Eureka Concert and Film Center
  • Curves and lights in the lobby, circa 1939-1949.

During the tour, Foster called attention to the lavishness of the theater's interior, pointing out how gold leaf made vast mural paintings of skyscrapers and horse-taming heroes glitter to the left and right of the massive screen. Old photographs show how the stage was originally framed not only by these panels, but also by enormous, gilded pasteboard columns. Those were removed in the mid-1950s, so the theater could show films shot for Cinerama's extended letterbox format. The theater communicated opulence via modern design, liberal application of gold leaf and more. As a climate-controlled space, it lured 1940s moviegoers with comforts no one had at home. A giant basement furnace provided central heating. In the summer, temperature-controlled "fresh air" was advertised as a perk.

click to enlarge The restored lobby, true to its original color scheme. - PHOTO BY RYAN FILGAS
  • Photo by Ryan Filgas
  • The restored lobby, true to its original color scheme.

Today, the interior still feels like a time capsule from old Hollywood, even as signs of renovation proliferate. Custom light fixtures with contrasting panels of blue and white glass are being rewired and stabilized. Multiple generations of state-of-the-art film projectors idle in the booth, ranked in the order in which they entered obsolescence and were set aside. The heavy velvet curtain swagged above the stage can still be lowered, Foster said, but the present owners hadn't tried it. Who knew if the nearly 100-year-old machinery, once galvanized, would be capable of hoisting the heavy drapes back up again?

Mann, born in 1876 and buried in 1966, came west and eventually found opportunity, getting in on the ground floor of the movie exhibition business by purchasing Eureka's Rialto Theater in 1919. Over the next two decades he built Redwood Theatres, Inc., into a chain that included theaters in Arcata, Fortuna, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, Marysville, Yuba City, Modesto, Woodland, Dinuba and Vacaville. When it opened in 1939, the Eureka Theater became the corporation's flagship. It was built in the Streamline Moderne style favored by Mann and by David, Mann's go-to builder, an evolution of Art Deco that sought to upgrade the latter's organic metaphors by replacing them with machine-age ones.

Like Futurist artworks of the 1910s, Streamline Moderne buildings used raking lines and aerodynamic contours to communicate the idea of speed. Most were public structures with a transportation connection: ocean liners, airport terminals, roadside cafes, and bus and train stations. When deployed in movie theaters, the same architectural stylings hinted not so much at travel velocity but at speed of a different order: 24 frames per second, the threshold of critical flicker fusion, the point at which still images appear to move. Surely this has altered 20th century lives as much as any other accelerant.

David, born in Massachusetts to Armenian immigrants in 1905, did as much as anyone to bring modern design to rural Northern California. As construction manager for Redwood Theaters from 1935 to 1943 (he never became a licensed architect), his modernist inclinations paralleled the fact that his immediate family had suffered a very modern experience of forced dislocation and exile. His parents had come to the United States in 1890 from what is now eastern Turkey to escape genocide; the family moved west to California by 1920. David trained in the Los Angeles firm of theater architect S. Charles Lee and worked in the Culver City art department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before going to work for Redwood Theatres. His picture palaces looked like they were built for speed — none more so than the Eureka Theater. Its extravagant styling signaled va-va-vroom with horizontal streamlining, rounded corners, recessed lighting, chrome hardware and an eye-catching, city-shaped marquee. The lavish interior wowed moviegoers with appointments in a palette of nuanced hues, including chartreuse, periwinkle blue and French gray.

Murals on both sides of the enormous screen reiterated the theme of technological mastery. Gilded images of horse-taming heroes echo the forms of a famous pair of colossal sculptures created by Guillaume Coustou for Louis XV's palaces at Marly and Versailles; those, in turn, depicted a subject from classical legend, Alexander the Great mastering the horse Bucephalus. Bent on conquest, the streamlined Alexanders flanking the Eureka's screen proclaim 1930s America as heir to the European tradition and successor to earlier empires. They exude confidence in the culture's capacity to dominate and outmatch nature, just as it had made the moving pictures talk.

Indeed, expectations for this half-million dollar venture ran high before the gala opening. "Completion of the project will mark an epoch in the history of Eureka, and is expected to be followed by the greatest business expansion this community will have ever witnessed," the Humboldt Standard trumpeted. "The appointments, beauty and comfort will be second to none in the entire state." The 1,700-seat theater, hailed as the largest between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, elicited raves for its state-of-the-art technology, including a 21-by-28-foot Walter White sound screen and audio equipment from RCA Victor. "Many new and modern ideas were worked into the building," the Humboldt Standard concluded, "bringing to Eureka and Humboldt County an edifice that is truly a 'building of the future.'"

When it opened, the Eureka offered six screenings daily. Ticket prices were 35 cents for adults and 40 cents if you wanted to sit in the loge, where you could smoke. The grand opening kicked off with a screening of "Going Places," a musical starring Dick Powell, Anita Louise and an uncredited Louis Armstrong, with advance publicity couched in the swinging jazz-cat lingo of 1939. "Gather around, Mr. and Mrs. Humboldt County," advertisements urged. "Now's the time to palpitate, 'cause you're 'Going Places' with the hottest killer-dillers in the kingdom of swingdom."

The Eureka would enjoy an uninterrupted 57-year run. But like other single-screen venues of its generation, it struggled to compete in the era of the multiplex. After it closed in 1996, it was purchased by Rob and Cherie Arkley, who donated it to the newly formed Eureka Concert and Film Center in 2000. Since that time, the nonprofit has been carrying out a meticulous restoration intended to bring the building's exterior and interior back to their original 1939 splendor, enlisting local talent, like artist Peter Santino. Achievements to date include the installation of new fire, security, heating and lighting systems. The lobby now gleams with fresh paint in colors carefully chosen to match the uncommon originals and the mezzanine's ceiling shines with new silver leafing. Earlier this year, the center engaged metalworker Dan McCauley to restore the structure supporting the marquee ornament, which had sustained damage in a windstorm. It's also raising funds for rebuilding and restoring the neon "EUREKA" sign, which remains a local landmark and, in Foster's words, "a source of pride for the community."

click to enlarge The ticket booth outside, circa 1939-1949. - COURTESY OF CHUCK PETTY AND THE EUREKA CONCERT AND FILM CENTER
  • Courtesy of Chuck Petty and the Eureka Concert and Film Center
  • The ticket booth outside, circa 1939-1949.

Future projects include a new bar built by Wallace & Hinz for the mezzanine lobby, as well as restoration of Mann's apartment. Workers also recently addressed the termite damage in the apartment's walls. Now, plans call for the space to be completely refurbished in period style. "We're currently focusing all of our efforts on the apartment, hoping to make it available as a unique short-term rental," Petty said. He's hopeful guests will be able to sleep where Mann slept sometime in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, the theater had planned on a grand reopening with House of Floyd, the San Francisco-based Pink Floyd cover band, on Oct. 30, but canceled the show. The Eureka Theater press release states, "We love [House of Floyd] and looked forward to sharing them with our community.  However, we love our friends and neighbors even more than our beautiful theater. Given the state of the pandemic in Humboldt County, our small team of volunteers, after consulting the Public Health department, felt that we would not be able to ensure that everyone would be safe at this time." As of now, the only scheduled event is a Nov. 11 fundraiser for the Humboldt County Historical Society.

click to enlarge The ticket booth, now behind glass doors. - PHOTO BY RYAN FILGAS
  • Photo by Ryan Filgas
  • The ticket booth, now behind glass doors.

New ways of thinking about the movie-going experience and new approaches to its monetization will likely be essential to movie theaters' survival. We don't watch movies the same way we used to, our viewing habits altered by the ubiquity of devices and the immediate availability of films on demand. More and more movies go straight to streaming platforms, minimizing theater runs or skipping them altogether. All this, of course, has been exacerbated by a pandemic that's rendered sitting in a crowded venue even less appealing. In an age that sees wage laborers moving seamlessly in a typical day from pants-optional Zoom to "Netflix and chill," going out to the movies constitutes a big commitment. So a movie theater is and must be much more than a frame for the moving image. Now, more than ever, it's a destination.

If movie theaters' ongoing viability hinges on their ability to maximize the experience, picture palaces like the Eureka may enjoy an inherent advantage in the post-COVID long-run. The lavish, Instagram-able design that rendered them instantly obsolete when the miniplex came along now constitutes their allure. If you've grown up looking at palm-sized moving images, the impact of a close-up projected on a 40-foot screen is not to be denied. There's a generational aspect to this cycle that bodes well for the success of the short-term rental plan, too. If you're a member of a generation for whom the economy has rendered home ownership in much of California out of reach, you might well revel in the opportunity to role-play theater magnate for an evening.

Additionally, Mann's apartment appeals to viewers on a more timeless level. Its builder's reputation as a pragmatic businessman aside, there's something inescapably whimsical about actually living at the movies that speaks to the 12 year old in all of us. Opening an unsigned door to enter a different world — a space categorically different than the one you left behind — is the stuff of children's fantasy. Remember the Pevensie kids opening a wardrobe and finding Narnia, Willy Wonka beckoning Golden Ticket winners into his fantastical chocolate factory or Dorothy's entrance into Oz? Entering Mann's luxe pad through an unmarked door in the mezzanine lobby restages a child's fantasy for an adult audience. It is easy to imagine the contemporary viewers who will be eager to pay for the privilege. Mann was undeniably onto something when it came to situating his private sanctum. What better place for indulging fantasy than a movie theater, a temple built to house 20th century aspirations in the form of flickering, larger-than-life visions of desire?

Gabrielle Gopinath (she/her) is an art writer, critic and curator who lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram at @gabriellegopinath.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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