Thursday, December 30, 2004
At the time of its opening in 1926, the State Theater could hold a third of the population of Monterey. The city was, of course, much smaller then, and the seats were tightly packed. In the elaborate style of the day, the ceiling was painted to look like a canopy, with the blue sky peeking through, and the walls were decorated to look like a Spanish castle. The balcony was unusual in that it came very close to the stage; the view wasn’t compromised from up high. Chandeliers and elaborate murals, faux balconies in the walls, all these things made the theater an experience in and of itself.
But times change. In the 1970s, people weren’t so into art deco, vaudeville, or any of that. The theater was split into three sections, the beautiful balcony was turned into two smaller theaters, and everything was painted grey.
Almost thirty years later, Warren Dewey showed up. Dewey’s love of movie theaters began in adolescence when he was a projectionist at a movie theater in upstate New York. Throughout the years since, he held many other jobs before becoming a successful record producer and sound engineer, but his boyhood love of movie houses kept coming back to him.
“I’d been wanting to buy a theater for a long time,” he says. He looked all over California—from Eureka to San Diego. Even though the State wasn’t exactly for sale at first, Dewey kept coming back to it. Something about the place stuck with him. He wanted this theater, this project.
“I have this really amazing realtor, and he made it happen,” Dewey says.
The realtor, Ryan Flagel, convinced him to buy the State, even though the smaller Regency theater across the street was a mandatory part of the package.
“The city was thinking of buying the theater for awhile. So was the Monterey Jazz Festival—but neither of them wanted the Regency,” Dewey says. “The thing is, the city had done all kinds of studies to see if it was a good investment, and the studies all said yes, but they still didn’t do it.”
So in a way, some of Dewey’s work had already been done. As for the reservations the city of Monterey had about the Regency? “I bought the Regency and then sold it the same day,” Dewey says.
Was this the dream, then? Not just to own a movie theater, but to restore a vintage theater to its former glory?
“I really don’t take it that seriously,” Dewey says. “It is gonna be restored, but I think people get so serious about restoration that they forget the theater was built in 1926 for the purpose of having fun. People made mistakes even in 1926. They weren’t perfect.”
The theater is expected to reopen for general use in the spring, but will be presenting cartoons, music and other revelry for First Night Monterey on New Year’s Eve. The space is also available for concerts and the like in the meantime.
When it does reopen, it seems doubtful that he State will be devoted to showing first-run movies. Dewey wants to bring back live music now that the acoustics have been restored, as well as hosting film festivals. Already he’s plotting a silent film festival and a cowboy movie festival, both with live musical accompaniment.
I’ve talked very little about how the place looks. Being that it’s still very much in progress, I can’t give a full appraisal, but what they’ve uncovered is certainly intriguing. Would it be cliché to use words like grandeur? From what I saw, and I pretty much saw the whole thing, the place is going to be stunning. It’s like an archaeological project in more ways than one. At the same time that Dewey is trying to make the place look (for the most part) like it used to, he and his crew are finding ancient candy boxes, torn up hand-painted posters (with misspellings) and other weird stuff that people shoved into holes and in-between floorboards in the nearly 80 years the theater was open. It’s a massive project, but you can tell that Dewey and his crew are having a lot of fun with it.
And that’s kinda what makes it cool. I feel really lucky to have gotten a peek at the theater in its unfinished state, and I’m also eager to see it when it’s done. My hope, and supposedly Dewey’s as well, is that people come back and really look around, take it in. Being that the mall soon will be host to a 13-screen Cineplex, it’s nice to see one theater trying to fill a different niche. The world is always changing, but it still needs a little grandeur.