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Video: Merced man donates $1 million to theater restoration

The ongoing effort to restore Merced’s most recognizable landmark, the Merced Theatre, got its biggest donation to date this week: $1 million.

The money comes from a local retired surgeon, 70-year-old Art Kamangar.

The city of Merced, which owns the theater and has been working for years to restore it, held a press conference Friday to announce the donation.

“Today is truly a red-letter day,” said county supervisor Katheen Crookham, who heads the Merced Theatre Foundation. “There just aren’t enough words to thank Dr. Kamangar enough.”

City officials estimate it will cost another $6 million to finish the theater’s restoration. With Kamangar’s donation in hand, it has now raised $4.17 million. “We made a major stride today,” Bill Cahill, Merced’s assistant city manager, said. “But there’s still some work left.”

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Kamangar was born in Iran and moved to the United States in 1963. He worked for years as a top orthopedic surgeon in the San Francisco Bay Area, then bought a ranch in Merced in 1979. “I had not planned to live here when I bought it, but I fell in love with Merced and the people here,” Kamangar said. He moved his family here 25 years ago. “I thought this would be a better environment for my three children and I was right.”

Kamangar is on the theatre foundation’s board of directors and the UC Merced Foundation Board of Trustees. He has previously donated to UC Merced.

He chose to support the theater because of his children’s love of the arts, he said. “All of my children love music and the art and I think for them and for everyone’s children we need a place for those things in Merced.”

The stunning, 1,600-seat Merced Theatre first opened its doors in 1931. It was the county’s first air-conditioned building.

For 47 years, it hosted plays, movies, concerts, graduations, and weddings.

In 1978, the building was sold to United Artist Cinemas and its Spanish colonial-style interior was torn out.

In 1998 a group of local residents formed the Merced Theatre Foundation, braced with a mission of saving the tarnished gem. The city bought the building, then in dire disrepair, for $700,000 in 2002.

Some of the theater has already been restored. In 2006 the theatre foundation spent $350,000 to refurbish the building’s 100-foot tower and the neon “MERCED” letters that mark the city’s downtown skyline. The city renovated six retail spaces and 10 apartments attached to the theater.

Refurbishing the theater’s interior is the last remaining step. The city intends to restore it to its original 1931 glory. That will require tearing out much of the theater’s insides, replacing its sound and lighting systems and bringing the building into compliance with current earthquake safety standards.

Construction is planned to begin next year, Cahill said.

To make a donation to the Merced Theatre, call (209) 722-3266.