PITTSBURG -- The California Theatre is ready for a close-up.
A $7.6 million project to restore the beaux-arts theater on Railroad Avenue in Old Town to its former glory after years of neglect is nearing completion. It first opened in 1920 and served as a venue for vaudeville acts, silent films, live entertainment and Hollywood movies before closing in 1954.
To herald its reopening, there will be an opening gala on Jan. 19 with entertainment by the Junius Courtney Big Band featuring vocalist Denise Perrier, Pittsburg Community Theatre, the Black Diamond Ballet Theatre and other local entertainers. A video about the theater's history will also be shown.
The gala opening will provide an opportunity to showcase the building's new life following its restoration.
"We really want to put the California Theatre through its paces," said Jill Hecht, assistant to city manager Joe Sbranti.
Count Rosemarie DiMaggio among those who will be attending the gala.
"We've been waiting for this for years," said the 74-year-old Pittsburg native and resident and curator of the Pittsburg Historical Society.
She recalls going to the theater as a little girl during World War II.
"It was like going to Hollywood. It was something else," she said. "It was a small theater, but when you are little it looks big. On Saturdays, they had seven cartoons, and they had serials that continued every week. And on Sundays, what they always played was a double feature."
The idea behind the restoration work was to recapture the art-deco style and interior murals of the building, Hecht said. The architect was A.W. Cornelius, who also designed the Curran and Orpheum theaters in San Francisco.
The city purchased the building in 1970. Over the years, it fell into disrepair and sustained heavy water damage from leaks in its roof. In 2003, redevelopment funds became available for its restoration. Planning and design work commenced, and in May 2010 construction got under way, which included restoration, rehabilitation and seismic strengthening on the theater's main auditorium, which has seating for 300. (Work may commence on the balcony at a later time if funding is found.)
Old photos were used to help guide the restoration work. The glorious interior is painted in soft peach hues and features a stunning ceiling medallion for audience members to gaze upon. The original water fountain is in the lobby.
"We restored murals, we restored light fixtures and a chandelier, and uncovered some of the original medallion that was hiding behind layers of paint," said Dick Abono, project engineer for the city of Pittsburg.
Benicia artist Beate Bruhl helped bring the ceiling back to its original appearance while standing on a scaffolding platform during the painting restoration. On the building's exterior, Pittsburg sculptor J. Robert Greigo recreated lions' heads, arch features, urns and two life-size female sculptures on either side of theater.
Finishing touches are now being done and all the work should be completed by the second week of January, Abono said.
"It's taken a couple of years of hard work. It's kind of a labor of love for the people who have worked on it," said Rose Mary Tumbaga, of the Pittsburg Arts & Community Foundation, which is in charge of the opening gala.
While the theater will have its gala opening in January, other events and performances will not start until later in the year, Hecht said.
In response to a request from the city, potential theater operators have submitted proposals to manage the theater's day-to-day operations, which will include ticket sales and programming. The City Council is expected to select a theater operator in February.
Community groups will be able to work with the theater operator to develop programming and the operator will be receptive to ideas for events locals will be interested in paying to attend, according to Hecht. Some dates will be set aside each year for community events, including fundraisers.
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.
IF YOU GO
What: "The Curtain Rises," the California Theatre Opening Gala
Where: California Theatre, 351 Railroad Ave., Pittsburg
When: 5:30 p.m.to 10 p.m. Jan. 19, with entertainment starting at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $150 per person go on sale Dec. 26. Tickets can be purchased at the Railroad Book Depot, Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, the Art Shack and online through the Pittsburg Arts & Community Foundation's website, www.pittsburgfoundation.org.
If you have a memory of spending time at the California Theatre back in the day, contact Jill Hecht of the city manager's office at 925-252-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.