Historic Theater

A downtown Merced icon
By DOANE YAWGER

From Highway 99 passing over downtown Merced, only two landmarks stand out. One is the historic 1870s vintage Merced County Courthouse Museum and the other is the Merced Theatre, which has been a community fixture for 86 years.

And stand out the theatre does. Neon lighting adorns the tower which reaches 97 feet into the sky and its 1,187-seat amphitheater has features unlike most any other entertainment venue.

Maxwell Norton moved to Merced in 1979 to direct the UC Merced Cooperative Extension Service. Now retired, he has always been interested in history and architecture, both key traits of the theater which opened Oct. 31, 1931 with the world premiere of the movie “Local Boy Makes Good.”

“I always considered it (theater) to be quite a thrill,” Norton says. “Since it was restored my wife and I come to the musical events. I think it has pretty good support around Merced; people appreciate what a local treasure it is. It’s lucky it was saved.”

The theater at West Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way was designed by the Reid brothers for the Golden State Theatre Corp. and took nine months to build. It cost $380,000 and has design features shared by a theater in Monterey, the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

For 47 years the theater served Merced with concerts, graduations, dances, weddings and movies. In 1978 United Artists purchased the theater and its interior façade resembling a Spanish villa was demolished. That area was sectioned off to create a four-screen multiplex. The new configuration wasn’t financially successful and couldn’t compete with newer movie theaters. It fell into disrepair and closed 15 years ago.

A member of the Merced Theatre Foundation’s board of directors and a volunteer, Norton plays the tenor and baritone saxophone. He says the acoustics are excellent and of a quality level where nationally known musicians feel comfortable performing.

Over the years performers Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd, Steven Curtis Chapman, Travis Tritt and others have appeared at the theater. Its biggest sellout was in September 2016 when Aaron Lewis took the stage.

Heather Holt has been the theater’s managing director for a little more than a year and was production manager since 2013. She says many famous performers are eager to come back for encore shows.

The configurable stage has been used for events involving UC Merced, the Merced County Office of Education, the symphony concert series, proms and even a community meeting to brief victims of the Detwiler fire, which ravaged the Mariposa area last summer.

Holt moved to Merced when she was 12 years old and grew up in the area before moving to Azusa Pacific University in Southern California to study technical theater. The perception years ago was students would move away from Merced because there was nothing to keep them here.

“The theater was one way that is changing that thinking,” Holt says. “It’s such a great venue. For me I see it changing the area for the better and how we can use the arts to build up the community. It makes Merced a destination socially and economically, bringing lots of positive changes to the area.”

Frank Quintero, director of economic development for the city of Merced, said the city’s Redevelopment Agency paid $700,000 to acquire the theater from UA Properties. The city used grants, historic tax credits, new market tax credits, and redevelopment funding. Total cost of the project is $14 million, Quintero said. Community fund-raising also has provided a substantial chunk of needed funds.

The Reid brothers’ signature was to design interiors in the style of a Spanish villa. The façade of buildings gives the impression of being in a courtyard. All this was lost when United Artists took over.

Since no blueprints of the original design were available, the theater foundation asked members of the community to send them photos, which were used to restore the interior to original specifications.

The original couches still exist, with new upholstery. The chandelier comes from another historic building, the Hotel Tioga several blocks away on Main Street. Much of the tile fringing parts of the building is original and other parts have been faithfully reproduced.

The theater also includes 10 second floor apartments and three retail spaces which include Coffee Bandits and 17th Street Public House.

Norton points out the theater generates business for the community. Motels and restaurants experience extra business when key performances are scheduled.

“Between us and Playhouse Merced we are generating lots of activity for downtown,” Norton says. “We still have to raise money because we have major upgrades that need to be done. Lighting of the marquee needs to be upgraded along with the sound system which will be expensive.”

Holt says she still runs into people who aren’t aware the theater is open. There are always interesting events on the horizon. News of future events are on social media sites Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Holt says there is a sense of pride and community generated by the arts, where people having a shared experience create connections which impacts how they treat each other.

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