Explore the towering neon heart of Merced – Merced County Times | Salisbury Pipes

Driving through Merced on the 99 Freeway, the most prominent landmark is the 100-foot tower of the Merced Theater. It can be seen for miles with its bright neon orange block letters proclaiming MERCED.

The Merced Theater is significant for its role as the social and cultural center of Merced. The beautiful interior is a mix of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial architecture. Sitting in the theater is like sitting in a Spanish castle courtyard with blue skies and even a cloud machine. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in May 2009.

However, the history of the theater dates back to the 1920s. A gentleman named CH Douglas appeared on the Merced Entertainment scene circa 1914. He built a movie theater on what is now the corner of Main and M Sts. called the Elite Theater. The name changed a few times to Strand Theater and Rio Theater. In 1920 he opened a new theater called the Merced Theatre. This Merced Theater was acquired by the Golden State Theater Corporation in 1924. In September 1928, Frank Alberti, local manager of the Golden State, announced the purchase of land on the northwest corner of Main and J St for the construction of a new theater. This location was chosen because of its central location. The buyers were interested in the development of Merced and saw this project on the southern edge of the business district as a valuable step. Excavations for this new theater are expected to begin in December 1929.

The Golden State Group commissioned the San Francisco-based Reid Brothers to design this new Merced Theater. The Reid brothers also designed the Hotel de Coronado in San Diego. With what was then the most modern projection and sound technology. It was also one of the first buildings in the city to have air conditioning. The auditorium was designed like a Spanish courtyard, with castle facades and fans blowing clouds to the star-speckled ceiling.

Master builder Gian Battista Pasqualetti used steel from Golden Gate Iron Works, decorative iron from San Jose Ironworks and decorative tile from Hispano Maresque Tile Co. of Los Angeles. This was needed to construct the Reid Brothers design for this white stucco covered reinforced concrete building. With its distinctive 100ft tower above the main entrance and marquee.

The design for the lobby included a mural of Spanish exploration made by Dutch-born artist Antoon Heinsbergen. The original furnishings included Spanish-style wooden sofas and chairs. When the theater was built it had 1654 seats. Originally there were two matching staircases from the main lobby to the upper floor. In the auditorium, on the palace facade, there was an attic on which stood a grand piano on which the pianist accompanied the stage productions. The stage was 25 feet deep and 80 feet wide and also had an orchestra pit. That was unusually large for a movie theater built in the early 1930s and for a town of about 8,000 people. The theater was built over the next 9 months at a total cost of $380,000. The opening ceremony took place on October 31, 1931 with the screening of the film “Local Boy Makes Good”. Over the next 47 years, the Merced Theater served the Merced community in a variety of ways, including but not limited to concerts, graduations, weddings, dance performances, speeches, local variety shows, and films. The theater also includes ground floor rental space and second floor apartments with main street frontage.

In the late 1970s, the United Artist theater chain purchased the Merced Theater and reconfigured the theater’s interior, dividing the main auditorium into four smaller theaters. Some of the historic atmospheric details in the main auditorium have been lost along with original paneling and lighting fixtures. This remodeling cost was estimated at around $450,000 and took about 1 year to complete. In 2002, the theater closed due to new competition nearby. Thanks to the foresight of our guide, the decision was made to purchase the theater for $700,000. The non-profit Merced Theater Foundation has been formed, will lease the theater and be responsible for the day to day successful running of the theater and adjacent businesses and homes.

With the city’s purchase of the theater and the establishment of the Merced Theater Foundation in 1998, the restoration of the theater to its original glory began. The foundation worked closely with the city and WMB Architects to demolish United Artist’s conversion and begin restoration. Much of the removal of the old structure was done by volunteers. Many local citizens provided help, but funds also had to be raised to complete the entire project.

Funding for the project was a combination of multiple sources, including grants from the California Cultural and Historic Endowment Funds, City of Merced, and many local donations. Including a $1 million donation from our local philanthropist, Dr. Art Kamangar and $550,000 from the Joel (Bud) Wallace family. The local community really stepped out and helped raise the additional funds needed to complete the restoration of our beautiful theater. Total rebuild cost was $14,000,000.00.

There are many people who could be thanked for the many hours they put in to see this project completed. I will name just a few who have given their time, talent and treasure. Kathleen Crookham was Chair of the Theater Foundation for many years, Gray Roberts donated many hours keeping financial records, Skip George, Rod La Salle and Craig Scott provided their architectural and engineering expertise and Vince Griffith led the volunteers on the demolition work. From town, Bill Cahill was the central figure and a big supporter of this project. There are many more who have donated and their efforts will forever be appreciated.

The theater now seats 1,185 and has a modern sound and projection system. Solar panels were recently installed to reduce electricity bills, and the foundation is getting new stage lighting and painting the theater’s exterior walls. The marquee has recently been digitized and if you walk by at night you can see the very vibrant and colorful marquee displays.

Let’s just say that after the beautiful restoration that brought it back close to its original splendour. The Merced Theater is once again a vibrant venue in the heart of Merced.

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired but remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history enthusiasts and photographers.

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