MORGAN HILL -- When Marty Cheek and Bob Snow cracked open the front door of the shuttered Granada Theater downtown, they thought they were walking into a horror movie.
Cobwebs were strewn across the movie screens. There was blood-red rust in the restroom toilets. The roof was caving in above the popcorn machine. The neon signs were flickering.
"I'm thinking it would be a perfect place for a Wes Craven movie," said Cheek, a local author.
But Snow, Cheek and some two dozen Morgan Hill-area movie lovers also had a twinge of nostalgia for the theater. They wanted to bring their annual independent film festival back to the Granada, where it started last decade around the time the theater went out of business, unable to compete with the modern cinema across town.
The film buffs spent the past six weeks fixing up the publicly owned landmark, which opened in 1952, back when Morgan Hill was just a train stop, home to fewer than 2,000 people. Now, city inspectors have cleared the two-screen theater at the center of the town's main drag, Monterey Road, to host the ninth annual Poppy Jasper Film Festival starting Wednesday.
"It's pretty much back to where it was -- maybe nicer," said Snow, as the graphic design artist took a break from the cleanup effort on a recent weekend. "It's a lot of elbow grease."
The theater is old enough that it features projectors powered by carbon rods, a mural of silent-film star Charlie Chaplin on the men's room door and a teal-colored old-school water fountain. And it was way out of compliance with city code.
"There were lots of things that needed to be done," said Councilman Larry Carr, a board member on the nonprofit agency that controls the theater. "Not just going in and cleaning up, but a significant sanitizing of the entire building; it doesn't have ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) bathrooms; there was significant water-leaking damage."
Still, Snow said the biggest challenge was airing out the stale smoke emanating from the cigar store next door.
Adorned with protective masks, some 20 volunteers also had to fix the neon Granada sign out front, which said "GRA" followed by some flickering letters and a missing "D." Some families came in to clean the seats. Other volunteers installed new carpeting in the lobby and hauled away a bunch of old desks and equipment. They painted and fixed the ceilings. A local janitorial business came in to power-wash the auditoriums and steam-clean the theater carpets. Other shops will supply the concessions food. All the improvements took about $15,000 worth of work and materials, mostly donated.
"Once you start actually pulling the cobwebs off and cleaning the leaves out of the doorway, it wasn't as bad," Snow said. The room in the worst shape was the employee office: "It literally looked like it had been rained on for seven years."
Snow and Cheek described the Granada as the sort of place downtown pedestrians pass by and, depending on how long they've lived in the area, either reminisce about watching movies there as a kid or ask "what's that?" It's mostly faded into the background of local shops and restaurants lately, but years ago it was immortalized as the centerpiece of a painting of downtown Morgan Hill by the famed, late local artist Thomas Kinkade.
The Poppy Jasper group, named after the gemstone found only in Morgan Hill, started the international short film festival as a fundraiser for the local public access TV station, MHAT-Channel 19.
The film festival began at the Granada, but the theater closed in 2003, unable to compete with the modern Cinelux theater across town. The group held its festival at the Cinelux, the Community Playhouse and other venues, attracting several hundred to more than 1,000 attendees each year, but those festivals never had the same ambiance as the first two at the Granada, Cheek said.
"I think there's a lot of nostalgia for Granada. It's iconic," Cheek said. "A lot of people are going to gasp" when they walk in.
While there's been an ongoing community battle over what to do with the Granada -- with history buffs wanting to save the site and modernists wanting to level it -- the future of the theater remains unclear.
The city's now-defunct Redevelopment Agency previously struggled to find a developer to bulldoze the block the theater sits on and replace it with a large retail and housing project complete with underground parking. Officials have since created the private nonprofit Economic Development Corporation, which consists of city officials and local businesses, to manage the site. They granted the festival a free, one-week lease to use the theater.
"I'm hoping because the film festival is putting their heart and soul into this, that the facility could be used periodically," said Councilman Gordon Siebert, who sits on the corporation's board. "Maybe an occasional benefit performance or screening of a movie that might benefit an organization, like a hospital or the rotary club."
Film festival organizers don't have any big dreams for the theater's future. They just hope that, at least for a week, the community can experience the Granada of old.
"I think there's a pride in this town for the Granada," Cheek said. "It's like seeing an old friend again."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
What: The ninth annual Poppy Jasper Film Festival
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Granada Theater on Monterey Road between First and Second streets in Morgan Hill
Cost: $10 for a block of movies, $30 for unlimited showings
For tickets and the full lineup of movies, visit poppyjasperfilmfest.org