During the 1980s there was a movement to construct a major performing arts center on the Monterey Peninsula. It was thought that that a theater of about 1,500 seats would be optimal. The concept had widespread support, and several locations were considered, but each proposal encountered significant hurdles that appeared insurmountable.
On July 23, 1989 I had a letter published in the Monterey Herald suggesting that Monterey's State Theater, as it was known in its days as a movie house, be purchased and restored for use as The Peninsula's performing arts center. I pointed out that the facility already existed, was originally designed to handle both live performances and motion pictures, and could seat 1,200. It was not quite as large as what people were hoping for, but arguably close enough. Numerous letters followed from others supporting the idea. Soon, a grassroots movement developed and the State Theater Preservation Group was born. I served on its board for nine years.
With the cooperation of United Artists, then the theater's owner, STPG arranged for the installation of Tom DeLay's Wurlitzer pipe organ and we produced several sold-out benefit shows in the theater. We also helped bring the building under the protection of the city's historic preservation ordinance. As a result of our work public enthusiasm grew rapidly. Unfortunately, there were disagreements within our ranks and a splinter group began working in competition with STPG. They ultimately met with Warren Dewey who had cash in hand to buy the theater just as STPG was making financial arrangements to make a purchase offer of its own.
It looked like Dewey saved everyone a lot of legwork. However, I had doubts as to whether he could keep the theater running for the long term. Funding and operating a performing arts facility is hard enough. Restoring and maintaining a historic building is a similarly demanding task. The combination is a lot for one person to take on, much less keep up with.
Time has demonstrated that my concerns were valid. Dewey turned over operations to a church a few years ago, and the theater has hosted very few public events since that time. Worse, a recent electrical fire has completely shut down the theater for an undetermined period. It didn't have to be this way.
STPG intended to set up a non-profit corporation to handle fundraising and operations. This sort of business arrangement has proven successful in historic theaters all across the country, including Carmel's Sunset Center. Such organizations are self perpetuating, and not dependent on any particular individual.
We also planned a multi-million dollar top to bottom renovation, including complete electrical upgrades (which likely would have prevented the fire), seismic retrofitting (which, to my knowledge, still needs to be done), modernized stage equipment, and restoration of architectural details in accord with the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation. To this end, we were consulting with an architectural and engineering firm that specialized in historic theater restorations, and we expected to engage them or a similar company in the project if we were able to acquire the theater.
For now, the community should make every effort to support and assist Warren Dewey's efforts to reopen the Golden State Theater as quickly as possible for a much-needed boost to the downtown economy. For the long term, I hope he will work with community leaders to develop a stable management structure for the theater so that this irreplaceable treasure may continue as “The Show Place of the Peninsula” for at least another 86 years.