|The Modesto Bee
STAGING A COMEBACK
Published April 9, 1999
Its old marquee and spire might not be lit, but the West Side Theatre remains a beacon of entertainment and culture on the West Side. It's no longer a movie house, though. The 59-year-old theater has been revamped to host concerts, plays, dance-parties, fashion shows and fund-raisers. "We have rescued this place," said Farris Larsen, president of the board of the West Side Theatre Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and running the theater. "Not only that we've rescued the building, but we've brought it back to life." The remodeled theater has been used for more than 70 arts, cultural and civic events and entertained nearly 14,000 people since it reopened in August 1996. Its next show will be April 17, when Cheryl Lockett of Merced leads a cast of valley musicians in a tribute to jazz great Billie Holiday, which includes a narrative of Holiday's life and times by black renaissance historian Richard Cummings. Tickets are $10 general and $14 reserved seating. The West Side Theatre, located on Main Street between Tulare and Fresno streets, suffered years of neglect before the city of Newman bought it in 1995. When it first opened in the early 1940s, it was reportedly the only building in town with air conditioning. "So, it was the place to go during those days," said Larsen, 48, who moved to the West Side from Missouri when she was 9. In the early 1980s, the theater was showing only Spanish-language films. By 1984, it was a skating rink, then a dance hall. "It just got more run down," Larsen said. "Nobody really ever put any more money into the building. That's the problem with these buildings. They're too big. And this is a small town. You don't have money to fix them." In 1995, the art deco structure was sold to the city for roughly $100,000. What the city bought was deemed unsafe with dangerously frayed wiring, a leaking roof, backed-up sewer lines and broken heating and cooling systems. To bring the building up to code, the city spent $150,000 on repairs. In June 1996, the city began leasing the building for $1 a year to the foundation -- which agreed to keep up the refurbishment and maintenance and make the theater a venue for the arts. Still, a lot more repairs were needed. The place was filthy, the lights didn't work and the walls were deteriorating. Larsen and a few other volunteers put in many hours -- often working around the clock -- to clean it up. "We started at 4:30 in the morning and sometimes we didn't get home until 4:30 the next morning," said Larsen, a self-employed house painter. "We didn't leave town for two years. When we took our vacation, we took it down here -- just doing improvements." Larsen almost single-handedly redesigned the building's interior. With her husband David, and the foundation's vice-president Jim Tacheira, she repainted the mostly dark walls a gold color accented with burgundy and Spanish sand. To make the ceiling appear higher, they used deep blue. They caulked the cracks and pits in the 5,000-square-foot floor and faux painted it with a light shade of blue. Other volunteers built a stage and restored two female figurines. In August 1996, the theater looked good enough to re-open. Its first event was the foundation's Fall Festival Wine and Cheese Tasting, which attracted 250 people. During the first few events, the audience sat on folding chairs. Later, the foundation replaced them with tables and padded chairs and a few sofas. In this arrangement, the theater that once had 455 seats can accommodate about 200. Non-profit organizations can rent the theater for $250 a day. When not in use, volunteers continue the restoration. Projects include repainting the exterior, fixing and lighting the marquee and spire and building a dressing room and a storage area. They also plan to replace the sidewalk in front with bricks engraved with the names of donors. "The place embraces you," Larsen said. "It embraces the arts. It's a wonderful experience." WEST SIDE THEATRE SCHEDULE This year's events include: * Ernie Bucio and the State Theatre Jazz and Swing Orchestra, April 25, 2 p.m. for dancing to the music of Nat King Cole. Tickets $6. * Tribu, 8 p.m. May 7. Ancient Aztecan music. Tickets $8 adults, $5 ages 12 and younger. * Mario Flores, 8 p.m. May 8. Salsa, rumba, tango and Latin-jazz. Tickets $12 reserved seating, $8 general. * A photographic exhibit of the history of Newman, featuring the works of Timothy Harvey; May 22 through June 11, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. weekends. Admission $2. Artist's reception May 22, 5 to 9 p.m. Tickets $10. * Black Irish Band, 8 p.m. June 12. Music of Ireland, Italy and America. Tickets $12 reserved, $8 general. Tickets available at Ace Hardware, 1321 Main St., Newman; Lee's Floral & Gift Shop, 376 Fifth St., Gustine; and Blues Cafe, 30 Del Puerto Ave., Patterson. The West Side Theatre is at 1331 Main St. Call 862-4490.
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