The Novato Theater on Grant Avenue in Old Town Novato. Bernice Baeza, who was involved with the Lark Theater restoration, has submitted a renovation plan
The Novato Theater on Grant Avenue in Old Town Novato. Bernice Baeza, who was involved with the Lark Theater restoration, has submitted a renovation plan to the City Council. (IJ photo/Robert Tong)
The woman who used to co-own the old Novato Theater with her husband said she's rooting for the latest effort to restore the long-closed facility and turn it into a performing arts center.

Santa Rosa resident Clara Bowman has held the same hope for almost 20 years now. She still holds the deed on the property on Grant Avenue where her late husband, Al Bowman, built the theater in 1945 and leased it to theater operators. It was closed in 1991 because of competition from multiplexes and the high costs of bringing the theater up to modern building codes.

The city, which bought the theater for $400,000 and pays Clara Bowman $2,250 a month, is under pressure to move forward with a new tenant who will make structural upgrades on the building and open it again. The city will be finished with its payments in August 2011.

"I know how important this is to downtown Novato," Bowman said. "I'm so glad that certain people have taken charge of the theater because it really belongs to them, the people of Novato. It does not belong to the City Council and it doesn't belong to the Bowman family, it belongs to the residents."

Bernice Baeza, who spearheaded the restoration and reopening of the Lark Theater in Larkspur, is working on a proposal to restore and take over management of the Novato Theater for film, performing arts and other events.

Although Baeza brought forth a less-than-thorough game plan before the City Council on Feb.


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23 - and was scolded by council members who expected more - she is calling for the city to transfer title of the theater to a new nonprofit by June 10. She hopes to gather $1.5 million from private investors, $1 million in financing and $1.5 million in public donations to set up a fall 2012 reopening date.

"I applaud her and hope she stays with it," Bowman said. Baeza did not return a call for this story.

Bowman said she'll never forget how frustrating it was when a previous restoration bid fell apart. In 1996, the Novato Theater Restoration Committee received a loan of $497,500 from the city to turn the venue into a performing arts center. The nonprofit group changed its name to the North Bay Performing Arts Theater Association, but eventually folded in 2004, falling short of its fundraising goal within time constraints the city had imposed.

The committee had raised about $250,000 in its eight-year existence and used much of the money on architectural drawings and marketing for more fundraising efforts. When the committee disbanded, the remaining funds were distributed to other service groups, nonprofits and local schools. The majority - about $45,000 - went to the San Marin High School music program.

"All those people got double-crossed," Bowman said of those who had donated. "Unfortunately, hard feelings still exist."

Bowman said the theater's disrepair angers her. The deed restrictions included language that required the city to handle basic upkeep, she said.

"The city has allowed it to deteriorate. They don't even keep the graffiti off the theater," she said. "It would make my husband sick if he saw it today. He built that place and maintained it all those years. It was in very good shape when we turned it over to the NTRC."

Jean Lewis Jacques, formerly Jean Price Lewis, headed the committee and now lives in San Mateo County.

"I know it was very hard for Mrs. Bowman back then, and it was very disappointing that it didn't happen before Mr. Bowman died," she said. "Bless (Baeza and her supporters) if they have the money to do something. Tell them good luck."

Bowman said she will try to be supportive of the latest effort to save the theater.

"I hope she can really do something with that theater," she said of Baeza. "It's going to cost them some money, but I can wait. I can be patient a little while longer. I want what's best for Novato."


Read more Novato stories at the IJ's Novato section.

Contact Brent Ainsworth via e-mail at bainsworth@marinij.com