The West Side Theater is an iconic performing arts venue located in the heart of downtown Newman.
Built in 1940 as a premiere movie house, the locale now features live bands, stage plays and a variety of community arts events.
The West Side Theatre is thriving today as it was in its prime decades ago.
Aug. 1, 1940, was an exciting day in Newman. The day, or rather evening, when the newly constructed movie house named the West Side Theatre was opened to the public with grand anticipation. The comedy film “The Boys From Syracuse” was presented to a full house that opening night. The audience was in awe of the beautiful architecture, art deco design, stadium seating, state of the art lighting and amazing acoustics as they enjoyed the show. From the first sighting of the grand neon marquee, to the illuminated lobby welcoming patrons to the front entrance, to the spectacular grand opening event inside, the whole experience was reported to be phenomenal and one to remember.
The owners of the modern movie house, Charles Gray and James Stephens, continued to bring newly released feature films to the westside community for four decades. The building became a town landmark.
Residents from Newman, Gustine and nearby towns have fond memories of their cinema days at the beautiful West Side Theatre. Those include seeing the novel marquee with the unique square bulletin board that announced the current films. The 45-foot vertical sign that cast light upon the facade with artfully coordinated hues, became a centerpiece of downtown Newman.
Multi-screen movie complexes became popular in the 1980s. The owners of the small town theatre could not keep up with the competition. The Oscar nominated drama “Terms of Endearment” played in Newman on March 29-31, 1984. The tear-jerker was the last English language feature film at the West Side Theatre.
There were attempts to keep the facility running. Spanish films were shown on Sundays for a short time. A skating rink opened in 1988 and stayed open for a few years but eventually closed. The attempt to find a long time solution seemed impossible. The interior of the auditorium had been changed by various business endeavors and the exterior over time lost the brilliance it once had. Something needed to change before the theatre was destroyed and became only a memory of good days gone by.
1995 was the year that change began. A group of hometown performing arts supporting super heroes came up with a plan to reclaim Newman’s shining star.
Farris Larsen, David Larsen, David Reed and Jim Tacheira speerheaded the campaign.
The two key elements were purchasing the building and earning the funds for the restoration. The vision was for the West Side Theatre to be a performing arts center operated by volunteers. All the funds generated through event sales would go directly to the renovation costs. The group knew it would be a long, challenging road but were committed to bringing life back to the venue.
The building was for sale when Farris presented the proposal to the Newman City Council. The city could buy the building and community volunteers would restore the theatre to its original purpose which was to provide entertainment for the Westside community. And that’s what eventually happened.
The city of Newman purchased the building in 1995 as part of their downtown revitalization projects. The volunteers formed a non-profit organization named West Side Theatre Foundation to operate the theatre and restore it.
Farris remembers getting the keys the summer of 1996 and everyone getting to work. The basics were tackled first, enough to get the doors open. Cleaning, deep cleaning, painting, stage building, and seating. The original sloped stadium seating had been removed with the skating rink requiring a flat floor. Cabaret style seating with various tables and chairs were put in place for the first events. And from there, the to-do list of projects were tackled as money came in from ticket sales of local play productions and live concerts.
Returning patrons and performers could see the transformation happening through the years. The art deco style has been “returned” so to speak and the early era ticket booth was restored as well. Some of the improvements are subtle, not noticed right away but the feeling of familiarity is present. “There is always something to be done,” Farris noted.
One project gets done and another begins. Some have a bigger impact than others but all have the same intention-to create the best theatre experience for both the audience and the performers.
For example, replacing the bolstering on the auditorium walls was a huge undertaking well worth the challenge. No more echoing with sounds bouncing off the walls. The acoustics the material provides is priceless. Having the roof redone after rain revealed a huge hole, was definitely a job needed. The city took care of that bill. Grants have helped pay for some costly projects. Funds from a PG&E grant, for example, were used in 2000 to get the neon marquee working again. That was a big night for the westside community, a grand re-opening of sorts after four years of working towards the moment of turning those lights on again. The symbol that the West Side Theatre is back in action.
Since then, volunteers have continued to spend countless hours of their own “spare” time bringing the historic venue back to its original beauty.
Community members offer to use their skills in particular projects, others volunteer to staff event nights as ticket takers, greeters, snack bar crews, bar servers, waiters and waitresses. Volunteers also gather to clean and do odd jobs as needed. All involved are like a big family who enjoy the work they’re doing.
“Performers like coming here because we treat them like part of our family,” Farris shared. She and her husband David Larsen host the visiting performers. “We treat them well. We feed them before the show. We’re genuinely happy they are here,” Farris added.
There will always be projects on the to-do list to keep improving the facility. The major electrical project has been completed. The new sound system is done. Next on the list is a lighting upgrade.
People visiting the theatre for the first time would not know the work that has and is being done there. They will see the marquee and make their way inside, be greeted with a smile, get comfortable, order a drink and a snack and enjoy the show.
“I believe both performers and audiences walk through these doors and can feel the magic of this place,” Farris expressed. They leave knowing they’ll be back again.
The first event following the COVID shutdown was in the summer of 2021. David Larsen had booked James Garner- Johnny Cash Tribute. The house was packed and it continued to be for all the shows that year. “Our attendance was twice the size than any year prior,” Farris remarked. And the trend appears to be staying.
Little by little, booking to booking, ticket to ticket, nearly 30 years of dedicated and selfless community effort, the West Side Theatre is once again the beautiful performing arts venue it was meant to be.
The theatre is located at 1331 Main St, Newman CA 95360
Phone: (209) 862- 4490
Follow West Side Theatre on FaceBook for the latest updates on concerts, plays, art exhibits, tickets and more information.
Visit westsidetheatre.org to view a calendar of events and get ticket information.
Please note - tickets purchased at the box office are paid by cash only. Credit card purchases are made online through Ticket Leap.
Upcoming concerts include:
Unauthorized Rolling Stones - Feb. 4
Chicago The Tribute - Feb. 11
Mariachi Serenade - Feb. 18
Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers - ZZ Top Tribute - March 4
Alan Iglesias and Cross Fire- Stevie Ray Vaughn Tribute - March 11
Carnavale- The Santana Tribute - March 25
House of Floyd- Pink Floyd Tribute - April 1 General seating $25; Reserved $30
Doors open at 7 pm; concert at 8 pm
General seating $20;
The West Side Players will be presenting “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” on the theatre stage at the end of April. Showtime, dates, and ticket prices to be announced soon.