If you pause on Highway 33 at the Merced-Stanislaus
county line, you can
almost see the spire atop Newman's classic old movie palace, the West Side
Built in 1940 and open for business a little
over a year before the United
States entered World War II, the West Side Theatre - reportedly the only place
in town with air conditioning at that time - has borne mute witness to the
changing tastes of its patrons over the nearly six decades it has been in
Located mid-block on Main Street, between Tulare
and Fresno Streets, and just
a block off Highway 33, the downtown Newman theater was a venue for movie
patrons from the Saturday Matinee Era of whodunits, Westerns and chapter plays
to the more modern programming of the 1980s. Its final years as a cinema were
spent screening Spanish-language features, local residents recall.
77-year-old Richard Nagle was a teen-ager when
he went to work as
projectionist in Newman. He'd learned the trade at the old Victoria Theater in
Gustine, and he worked both venues until called into the Army during World War
Nagle recalls ticket prices being 10 cents
for matinees and 35 cents for the
evening show. He worked both shifts, with a break between, and says Hoot
Gibson and Tim McCoy cowboy pictures were common fare at that time.
The West Side had a new Simplex projector,
Nagle says with pride, adding that
although it was superior to the older equipment at the Victoria, it did
experience stoppages from time to time, and patrons let him know "with their
moaning and groaning."
Being a projectionist was "a good job," Nagle
admits, but he's quick to add
that "the pay was pretty low." He also screened films while wearing Uncle
Sam's khaki, so the skills he picked up in Gustine and Newman came in handy.
Mary Hansen was known as "Flashlight Mary"
during her 25-year stint as
theater manager and usherette at the West Side. She started there in 1957,
patrolling the aisles and dodging candy chucked by youngsters who became
increasingly unruly as the years passed. A continuing sports rivalry between
Gustine and Newman also adversely affected audience behavior, she says.
In 1984, the venerable old movie house was
converted into an indoor roller
skating rink. The seating was removed, the walls were painted red and black,
and the floor was revamped to accommodate wheeled-shoe patrons.
Hansen was appalled that the workplace where she had toiled for so many years
had totally changed. "Seeing the seats taken out made me cry," she recalls.
Eventually, the ex-movie showcase fell into
disuse. The city of Newman took
over control of the property in 1996, and a project to rescue and refurbish
the theater came into being.
A non-profit organization - the West Side Theatre
Foundation - was formed to
spearhead the project, relying on volunteer workers and funded by donations,
performance profits and redevelopment money.
Farris Larsen, the project's human dynamo,
and her husband David, were at the
forefront of the cinema revamp. Mrs. Larsen had to play Sherlock Holmes to
discover clues about the theater's original paint scheme, but she feels
they've come pretty close with the combination of Southwestern hues.
Two female figures adorn either side of the stage area, and they were
repaired and repainted with great care by Agnes Silveira and Lorene Rocha
Moeller. They now look down in golden splendor.
The original Art Deco light fixtures - four
squarish chandeliers with cross
designs and six wall lamps with opaque orbs and curving stainless steel bands
- survived, more or less intact.
A trim piece above the stage features a sort
of New World Discovery motif,
and the repaired floor - it took some 25 pounds of filler to caulk the cracks
and pits - has been painted a handsome shade of blue.
Reuse of the West Side Theater was pegged to
live performances, not movies,
so instead of reinstalling row seating, Mrs. Larsen and the other volunteers
had to borrow folding chairs for the first few events. Later, they acquired
$4,000 worth of second-hand tables and padded chairs to create what Foundation
Vice President Jim Tacheira describes as "a cabaret setting."
There are about 16 tables in the reserved section,
nearest the stage, and a
similar number of tables in the general admission area. Several sofas complete
the furnishings. In the "cabaret" configuration, some 200 patrons can be
accommodated, but Mrs. Larsen and Tacheira agree that maximum use could find
about 450 people in the audience.
Today's audiences at the ex-cinema can order
beverages and light food items
from the snack bar, and a recent musical event there marked the debut of
waitresses, who donned period clothing in harmony with the Swing Era tunes
emanating from the stage.
In its glory days, the theater was part of
chain of 27 cinemas, including
one in Davis that is still in use, local residents say. Newman's theater
retains the original tile-and-glass outdoor ticket booth, something many
classic movie houses cast aside in modernization efforts that shifted the
ticket collection function to the lobby area.
Being an arm of the city, the theater functions
as a civic center for Newman.
The entertainment events are used as fund raisers for the facelift work, which
began inside so the theater could generate income to help pay for the eventual
The next phase in refurbishing the ex-movie
house is to paint the exterior
and restore the neon lighting out front, create an upstairs dressing room for
performers and add a storage area for props and costumes.
Also under consideration is a plan to replace
the sidewalk in front of the
theater with bricks paid for via donations bearing the names of the donors.
Since launching the new era at the West Side
with 1996's Fall Festival Wine
and Cheese Tasting, the Foundation has hosted a variety of programs and events
to earn money for the restoration work, including a Halloween masquerade ball,
Gospel shows, mariachi music, a Patsy Cline impersonator, Sourdough Slim and
the Saddle Pals singing nostalgic tunes, last month's Billie Holiday Revue
(which drew 380 patrons) and a recent February night of swing music featuring
the popular Cats & Jammers trio. Total attendance since opening day has
reached 3,320, according to data provided by Jim Tacheira.
The next big attraction is scheduled for Feb.
21, when Ernie Bucio and the
State Theatre Jazz & Swing Orchestra performs at 2 p.m. Bucio's band will
present a tribute to the Andrews Sisters trio of the 1940s, followed by two
hours of swing dancing and dance instruction. Patrons are urged to wear period
The West Side Theatre has come a long way since
1940, and it looks to still
be going strong by the time its 60th anniversary arrives next year.
This article was placed here
with permission of the Merced Sun-Star. Any reproduction of the
article must be done with their knowledge and consent.
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