Staging a Revival: Milestone for Merced Theatre

Restored downtown landmark nearing its one-year anniversary

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 16, 2013 

As the restored Merced Theatre approaches its one-year anniversary, members of the venue's nonprofit foundation said it is viable and building momentum.

"When you first start, you think, 'I hope we have something for next week,' " said Kathleen Crookham, a Merced Theatre Foundation board member. "Well, suddenly, next week is booked and the week after."

Since the theater opened in April, the venue has hosted 25 major events and about 18,000 patrons. The facility has been used for two weddings, a high school graduation, five school performances, and has shown dozens of movies.

"This is a wonderful anchor for downtown," Crookham said. "If we're really talking about revitalization, we need to have places to go, destinations. The venue provides an opportunity to meet the needs of lots of people in the community."

The theater will celebrate its one-year anniversary on April 21 with an open house and tour of the facility that's free to the public. Members of the foundation board will be on hand to answer questions.

Over the last 11 months, theater events have included: the New Shanghai Circus, comedian Brad Williams, the Merced Symphony fall concert, a Johnny Cash tribute concert featuring James Garner, the Pacific Boy Choir and funk band Fishbone.

On Friday, there was an audition for the weekend show by Broadway performer Franc D'Ambrosio. The audition,

"A Call for Christine and Raoul Master Class," was

open to all high school, college and adult singers.

Five finalists, male and female, will each receive two tickets to D'Ambrosio's performance today, and the winners will perform the parts of Christine and Raoul in the stage production's song, "All I Ask of You" from the musical "The Phantom of the Opera" tonight. The performance, called "Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway -- The Songs of the Great White Way," will begin at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7.

Seeking public input

While the 1,187-seat theater has booked dates into next year, staff and board members said they'd like to hear more about what the community would like to see.

"We're trying to find out what will appeal to a large amount of the population but also find events that could bring something that we don't normally have here," said Adam S. Miller, the theater's managing director.

The theater foundation is always looking for public input, said board member Jim Cunningham. "We want the community involved. Some people may have contacts or know of acts that we don't. This is a community project."

There are two main ways that events are scheduled at the theater.

The venue can be rented, as with the recent series of comedy nights. The price is $2,600 a day or $1,650 for just the downstairs, which seats 688 people. Local nonprofits get a 30 percent discount.

The theater foundation also books shows itself, such as the recent country music act the Sons of the San Joaquin. The foundation's budget for events and music shows usually runs between $3,000 and $7,000 each.

"We're busier than what I expected," said foundation treasurer Grey Roberts. "We've had some very successful events. It's not inexpensive to run, but we can handle it."

The annual budget for the theater runs about $300,000, Roberts said. About $50,000 comes from donations, with the balance being made up by ticket sales, concessions and revenue from renting the facility.

If you're interested applying to be on the theater foundation's board of directors, call (209) 722-3266. If you're looking to rent the facility or have an idea for upcoming events, call (209) 381-0100.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or


1931: The theater is constructed over a nine-month period at a cost of $380,000. The theater is believed to be the last project designed by San Francisco-based architects James and Merritt Reid, who designed the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and San Francisco's Balboa Theatre, Fairmont Hotel and Cliff House.

Oct. 31, 1931: The Merced Theatre opens with the world première of the film "Local Boy Makes Good," starring actor Joe E. Brown. With 1,645 seats, the theater is the first air-conditioned building in Merced County. Inside, visitors are surrounded by a depiction of a Spanish castle courtyard, with blue sky and a cloud machine. For five decades, the theater serves as host to countless films, concerts, graduation ceremonies, dance performances and weddings.

1978: The theater is purchased by United Artists, which gutted the interior and turned it into a fourplex cinema.

1998: A group of local residents form the Merced Theatre Foundation and begin the effort to restore the building.

2002: The city of Merced's redevelopment agency purchases the Merced Theatre building for $780,000. The theater remains in operation for several years.

2006: The Merced Theatre Foundation spends $350,000 to refurbish the building's 100-foot tower and the neon "MERCED" letters that mark the city's downtown skyline. The city renovates six retail spaces and 10 apartments attached to it.

September 2008: The Merced Theatre Foundation receives its largest contribution: $1 million from retired orthopedic surgeon Art Kamangar. Kamangar was born in Iran and moved to the United States in 1963. A portion of the building is named in his honor.

June 12, 2009: The Merced Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

December 2010: Restoration of the theater's interior begins with Selma-based contractor Lewis C. Nelson and Sons.

April 21, 2012: The Merced Theatre reopens.

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