The Modesto Bee


Published July 28, 2000

Section: B 
Edition(s): All 
Page: B1 


The West Side is about to get lit. 

The neon lights at the West Side Theatre in Newman will be turned on Saturday for the first time in nearly 40 years. Volunteers who devoted the last four years to restoring one of the West Side's most prominent landmarks feel like celebrating. 
"It was a piece of caca when we got ahold of it," said Farris Larsen, president of the West Side Theatre Foundation, whose board members led the renovation effort. "I knew we could do it. And we have!" 
The foundation is throwing a block party Saturday night in front of the theater on Main Street to show off their accomplishment. They're inviting everyone from the West Side and the region to the party, which also marks the 60th anniversary of the building's opening as a movie theater. The building has gone through several incarnations since then, even serving as a skating rink and dance hall at times. The theater is now being used as a performing arts center. 
Larsen and other Newman residents, including Mayor James Silveira, first dreamed of turning the old building into a performing arts center for the West Side in 1991. At the time, the building was closed. The skating rink had closed in 1990. 
Someone else bought the building and opened a dance hall, which later closed. The mayor convinced the council to buy the building in 1995. The foundation formed and started a lease Aug. 1, 1996. 
The foundation's board members -- Larsen; her husband, David; city Councilman Dave Reed and Jim Tacheira -- soon discovered how much work was ahead. The plumbing had been backing up for 40 years. Electric wires were dangerously frayed. The roof leaked in more than one place. More than 50 years of cigarette smoke had yellowed the walls and fixtures. 
The board members did the bulk of the work and got help from about 100 other people in the community. Farris Larsen spent 60 hours just scraping up gum that had been covered with epoxy when the dance floor was put in. 
They cleaned the interior, built a stage, repaired holes in the ceiling, restored murals and painted the industrial art deco interior and exterior. They got volunteer help from Newman professionals -- a carpenter, electrical engineer and tile layer. But more work remains; the back half of the roof still needs repairs. 
"Something's on our side because it's never rained during a performance," Larsen said. 
The foundation also needed to replace the neon lights on the marquee and on the spire that reaches 70 feet, making it one of the tallest buildings on the West Side. The lights hadn't worked since the early 1960s. New lighting was paid for with a $22,000 donation from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as well as $6,000 from the city and other donors, Larsen said. 
As soon as they made the building usable, foundation board members worked to bring performers to the West Side. 
"At first they were saying, 'You want me to go where? How much are you going to pay me?' " Larsen said. "None of us knew what we were doing." 
Now, agents for musicians from San Francisco and Europe are booking small gigs at the restored theater. The West Side has even drawn Flavio Cucchi, one of Europe's premiere classical guitarists, and a top American bluegrass performer, Peter Rowan. A community theater presentation of "Oliver" opens next Friday. 
"They ask me how we did it," Larsen said. "It's because a woman's in charge. It smells good and everything. It's gorgeous." 
Bee staff writer Suzanne Hurt can be reached at 578-2321 or 
Light Up the West Side * When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday * Where: 1300 block of Main Street, Newman * What: Live music, arts and crafts, food vendors, antique car display * Lighting: 9:30 p.m. * Cost: Admission is free. * Contact: 862-4490 

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