News Column

At 75, Sacramento's Tower Theatre still a popular draw

November 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 10--It started as an outlier, a neighborhood theater showing second-run films that had premiered weeks earlier in first-run movie houses on downtown's glittering K Street.

Seventy-five years later, the Tower Theatre stands as the center of foreign and independent cinema in Sacramento.

On Monday, the Tower will offer a day of events celebrating its diamond anniversary. By extension, it also will celebrate its endurance as a daily movie house despite regular threats to its livelihood -- from television, suburban multiplexes, home video and the costly technological demands of modern movie exhibition.

Although most Sacramento movie houses in operation when the Tower opened have been razed or repurposed, the Tower stands stalwart, if also scruffy, close to its original form. Its neon-bathed, 100-foot-high art deco tower beckons patrons to Broadway and Land Park Drive just as it did in 1938.

Timely business decisions -- converting from a single screen into a triplex in 1972, installing expensive digital projectors in 2012 -- and its operation for the past 15 years by the Reading International theater chain have helped the Tower withstand industry challenges.

So has its longtime reputation as Sacramento's go-to for art-house cinema, built carefully in the 1980s, and supported then and now by an avid movie-going audience from Land Park, the neighborhood for which the theater serves as a gateway.

"It's absolutely in a prime spot in a rather well-heeled neighborhood that can support it," said Matias Bombal, a longtime Sacramento movie-theater manager and theater-history enthusiast who worked at the Tower in the 1980s.

Its loyal Land Park customers do not even mind the Tower's less-than-cushy seats.

"It is a really minor thing when you compare that to the ability to see some of these movies that you wouldn't (otherwise) have the chance to see in a theater," said Gary Messing, 63, a labor attorney and Land Park resident.

"It would be nice if they updated, but I think that all of us in Land Park kind of give it a pass because it is the Tower Theatre," said Lane Giguiere, 60, also a Land Park resident and co-owner of Matchbook Winery in Zamora.

Land Park still was in development when Joseph Blumenfeld, whose family already owned Sacramento theaters, and a group of partners opened the Tower on Nov. 11, 1938, on the site of a former city dump.

Opening night featured the Charles Boyer film "Algiers," which the Tower will show again Monday. When it first played the Tower, the film was a few months old. At the time, only studio-owned or -aligned movie houses such as K Street's Fox Senator and Hippodrome (now the Crest) debuted films.

If the system seemed rigged, Depression-era moviegoers did not mind. Neighborhood theaters charged less.

"As young teenagers, we tended to avoid the first-rate theaters on K Street," said Gordon Ball, who as a McClatchy High School student attended the Tower's opening. "They charged 50 cents, but within a matter of weeks, the same film would come to outlying theaters and the price was 25 cents."

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court broke the studios' lock on distribution, allowing independent operators like Blumenfeld to compete. But a new source of competition soon arose: movie patrons were staying home to watch television.

"In 1946, average weekly movie attendance was 90 million people a week, (but) by 1952, it was down to 40 million," said John Sittig, a theater-history buff and director of projection and sound for Reading Cinemas, which runs the Tower.

The Tower held its own for years, until studios insisted that exhibitors commit to showing a single film for six weeks. A single-screen theater stuck with an unpopular picture would bleed money. "There is a reason you don't have eight theaters on K Street anymore," Sittig said.

The Tower adapted, in 1972, by getting in front of the multiplex trend and carving its single auditorium into three. More screens meant lower-performing films could be shifted around as new product came in.

"I am sure if you asked people, 'Do you want a one-screen Tower, or a multiple-screen Tower?', everyone would want the bigger theater," Sittig said. "But it had to become a multiple screen in order to survive."

'Nothing like it'

The Blumenfeld family still owns the Tower and the building encompassing it. But outside operators have run the theater for decades. Reading, which operates art houses in New York and other cities as well as mainstream multiplexes, took over from indie-centric Landmark Theatres in 1998.

The Tower established itself as an art house during the Landmark era, specifically the 1980s, hooking local cinephiles who continue to patronize the theater. As pyrotechnics-filled Hollywood blockbusters were beginning their rise to industry dominance, the Tower was introducing patrons to the works of foreign greats like Akira Kurosawa.

Messing, the labor attorney, moved to Land Park three years ago from the Pocket. But he has been a Tower devotee since the Reagan era, when he recalls seeing "The Gods Must Be Crazy," a South African comedy that played at the Tower for more than a year.

"There was nothing like it, and it become a major destination," Messing said of the Tower.

Messing said his wife, Karen, though also a Tower diehard, finds the theater's seats uncomfortable. But he doesn't mind.

"In law school, I used to watch movies on a black-and-white television screen with static going through it," he said. "I have been trained to ignore things."

Messing has seen many indie films at K Street's Crest Theatre, which early this year closed its two downstairs theaters, citing competition from cable video on demand as a factor. More often, though, Messing chose the Tower and its adjacent outdoor parking lot.

"Part of it is accessibility," he said. "Parking is really easy (at the Tower), and it's right there, practically walking distance from where we live."

Giguiere said she also prefers the close-to-home Tower to other theaters -- and often, to using her Netflix subscription. She likes seeing films on a big screen, and "I want to make sure (the Tower) stays open," she said.

Big-screen loyalists like Giguiere are golden to the Tower and to a larger movie industry competing with content-delivery methods such as Internet streaming video. Although 2012 U.S. box-office grosses were up 6 percent from the previous year, they had dipped in 2011 and 2010.

Giguiere and her husband, John, moved to Land Park from the Woodland area in 2004. She began patronizing the Tower two decades earlier, making the drive from Yolo County to see specialty films.

Other '80s patrons took more persuading regarding art films. But former Tower manager Gerry Watt made it his personal crusade to win people over, convincing them that foreign and independent films were not impenetrable or elitist.

"I really felt strongly that anybody could enjoy art film," said Watt, who left the Tower in 1993 and has been a projectionist for the Crest since. "People would come off the street and ask, 'Why aren't you playing normal movies?' I would ask them, 'What are your interests in life?'"

He would match them to an art film suiting their tastes. They often would thank him later, Watt said.

Watt also reached out to niche groups when he foresaw a film coming that might be of interest. "I had every imaginable group in there that you could think of -- science fiction and horror fans, the Italian Cultural Society," Watt said. "It is one of my great joys in life when everyone comes together, and that is what I felt at the Tower."

A meal and a movie

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon got his start at his dad's Tower Cut-Rate Drugs, named after the theater next door. The drugstore starting selling records in 1941. By the 1980s, the corner across the street from the theater held record, book and video stores carrying the "Tower" brand, forming a nexus of hip in Sacramento.

"People looked at Land Park and the Broadway area as a more eclectic, freer-spirited part of Sacramento," Watt said.

Tower's Land Park record, video and bookstores closed in 2006, replaced by other merchants. But the Tower Caf , which opened in 1990 in the space that once housed the drugstore, "really has held the corner together," Bombal said.

A meal and a movie, within feet of each other, holds great appeal for many movie goers.

Linda Johnson and Sue Kupper, a lively pair of 66-year-olds, meet monthly at the Tower Caf for breakfast and a film. On a recent Friday, they walked over from the cafe to catch the James Gandolfini movie "Enough Said."

"We meet here because she lives in Elk Grove and I live in Carmichael," Johnson said of she and Kupper, best friends since they were 13. "We have seen some doozies here, but we will read all the subtitles because we want to be here."

"We don't want it to be like the Alhambra," Kupper added.

The 1973 razing of the Alhambra, Sacramento's all-time grandest movie palace, sticks in the craw of local movie lovers. "Remember the Alhambra!" was a rallying cry of a "Save the Tower" campaign of several years ago aimed at staving off (never realized) plans for more Century Theatres screens downtown and more potential competition for art films.

Johnson and Kupper were among the younger patrons at the Tower on their recent visit. The theater mostly was populated by seniors, a loyal fan base for the Tower and independent film in general.

"We do get a lot of senior citizens that come in, and they are local from the Land Park area," Tower general manager Jeremy DuBurg said. Some of these patrons "will come in every week, no matter what you are playing."

But the theater's demographics are fluid, DuBurg said.

The Tower still plays small, politically minded documentaries, but during fall and winter movie awards seasons, the Tower marquee boasts star vehicles, most from arthouse arms of big studios. These films bring out younger audience members, DuBurg said.

The Tower's current roster includes "All Is Lost," starring Robert Redford, and "12 Years a Slave," the slavery drama that's a current Academy Award front-runner. On Friday, the Tower will open "Dallas Buyers Club," for which Matthew McConaughey has received significant Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a crafty 1980s AIDS patient.

James Rabang, 31, an engineer for Sacramento County who came to see "12 Years"' on opening night, said he likes challenging films, "film as art, rather than film for money." So he patronizes the Tower more often than any other theater, though he lives in Rancho Cordova.

He also likes "the people who work here," Rabang said, looking from the lobby toward the Tower employees greeting customers near the box office. "You can tell they watch the films, and they are passionate about the films. I don't feel like I am just handing them my money and going in."

Changing with the times

Loyal patrons' sometimes bittersweet feelings toward the Tower once had two sources: the creaky seats and the dim projection in one of the Tower's smaller auditoriums. That second complaint no longer carries any weight.

Last year, Reading spent $300,000 on digital upgrades, including new projectors in all three theaters. The projection in that smaller house is now so crisp that you need to sit farther back in the theater than you are accustomed.

Movie exhibitors have been working with an unofficial year-end 2013 deadline to complete conversions from film to digital. Studios now deliver most movies to studios on hard drives, which are far cheaper to produce than 35-millimeter film prints. The end of film-print availability appears imminent.

While Reading, operator of 56 cinema complexes with 467 screens worldwide, could spend the money on a digital switch, "there have been hundreds -- probably thousands -- of small, independent theaters that just cannot afford to switch to digital," said Sittig, Reading's presentation guru.

The single-screen Colusa Theatre, for example, recently launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign aimed at generating $50,000 for a digital projection system to keep the theater from going dark.

Installing digital is an expensive improvement that "doesn't sell additional tickets," Sittig said. "It's not like putting in a new engine in your car that will make it faster. ... It's just one of those things the exhibition industry had to do in order to survive."

Now that the projection issue is solved, loyal Tower patrons can concentrate on other elements of the theater they would like to see improve -- all while continuing to go there once a week or twice a month.

"The Tower, for so long, has been the place where the cool movies are," Bombal said. "It started in the 1980s, and it has become ritualistic."

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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