Want to take the pulse of a town in the early 20th century? Just look at its movie theaters. The more the theaters, the greater the population; the better the theaters, the greater the investment in the community’s future. You can guess the hour most residents got up in the morning by when the marquee lights were turned off at night, and the people in matinee seats revealed much about who was idle during the day. In Santa Rosa, improvements in movie theaters also neatly followed the arc of the downtown’s evolution; what was before 1906 mostly men’s territory (via the shoulder-to-shoulder saloons, cigar stores, and the two block red light district) was yielding to businesses more welcoming to women and families.

At the time of the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, there was only one place showing movies: The Novelty Theatre, which used the short, clumsy films (read a sample description) as a break from the  low-rent vaudeville acts that appeared on its dinky stage. After the disaster more than a year passed before Santa Rosa had another place showing moving pictures, which is a bit surprising, considering the barrer to entry was so low – little more was needed to set up business than a projector, a whitewashed wall, and optional piano player.

In mid-1907 the Empire Theatre opened but despite its grand name, it was just another storefront converted into a vaudeville/moving pictures theater. The place almost crashed and burned immediately – literally – in Santa Rosa’s most horrific moment since the earthquake.

On its second night of business, a movie was being shown when the projectionist dropped the hot tip of a carbon lamp onto the pile of highly flammable celluloid film. It burst into flame with a terrifying flash, instantly setting the projector aflame and burning the projectionist. The audience panicked and rushed for the single exit. “Women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot,” reported the Press Democrat. “Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised.” Except for the fright, it was a small blaze that the fire department put out with a “few bucketfuls of water.” As the shaken audience milled outside, one of the owners appealed for their sympathy: “You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened.” He was heartily cheered, according to the PD, but the place was jinxed; it did reopen but soon faded (judging by the disappearance of newspaper ads).

In its stead a few months later arose the Star Nickelodeon, a couple of blocks down at 414 Fourth Street. No vaudeville stage this time; it boasted only “continuous performance” of moving pictures and admission for 5ยข in keeping with its name. There was also no piano; as the Press Democrat described, “Its music is ‘canned music’ it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style.”

Also in flux were the live entertainment offerings at this time. Before the earthquake, the cavernous Athenaeum, which could seat up to 2,500, was rented out to touring companies and vaudeville bills. After it was quake-flattened in 1906, the Hub Theatre opened a few months later and offered the same sort of terrible vaudeville acts as had played earlier at the Novelty (also destroyed by the quake). Soon the Hub was offering plays performed by the homegrown Al Richter stock company, and it wasn’t long before Richter opened his own Richter Theatre on the corner of B and Third street, where his troupe offered a new play every week (see earlier article). That lasted about a year, and the Richter became a vaudeville house just as the Santa Rosa entertainment scene was about to undergo a turnaround. 

If you were reading the Santa Rosa papers from out of town – or, say, from more than a hundred years in the future – there was little clue that something unusual happened in June, 1908. Okay, another movie house, the Theaterette, opened at 507 Fourth street; just another pop-up in a storefront, probably, like the late, lamentably flammable Empire. But a couple of months later the trade newspaper Billboard flagged much was different:

The writer was in Santa Rosa this week and was positively surprised to note that this pretty city of only 10,000 inhabitants supports two handsome nickelodeons. Both are under the same management, the Columbia Amusement Co. composed of J. R. Crone, E. Crone and F. T. Martins. These enterprising men came from San Francisco and established their first one and were so successful that they opened the second one called Theaterette, which is second to none in this state. It is a beautiful affair with art glass, onyx mirrors and beautiful paintings to make an attractive front.

In short, it was the opposite from the Empire Theatre situation in every way. Instead of newbies taking a fling at running a movie house, it was an already-established business expanding and spending coin to make the place appealing. And all of this was possible because the theaters were now controlled by the Columbia Amusement Company, one of the largest theater chains in the nation. In the East and Midwest, Columbia used their theaters to present their own traveling programs of “clean-enough” burlesque; in the West, they staked out their territory by controlling vaudeville theaters and movie houses. (Since nickelodeon programs changed several times a week, they also probably managed film distribution, but that’s a guess – not much has been written about Columbia’s activities in the West.)

Columbia’s investment in Santa Rosa extended to its own print advertising, stepping on toes of the newspapers. Each Friday a four-page “Weekly Show News” appeared in local mailboxes, giving the upcoming weekly program for the two theaters along with blurbs for the films and other entertainment news.

With the Nickelodeon and Theaterette changing their hour-long programs every two days (sometimes a special show on Sunday), Santa Rosans could now catch up to 24 short moving pictures a week. When the silver-coated curtains parted, the screens would glow with overacted melodramas (including the first films from legendary director D. W. Griffith), riotous comedies, and sometime in the months around Easter, always a somber Passion Play for which they charged extra. They presented a three-part version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with two of the chapters flipped, so Santa Rosa audiences watched Tom die followed by the events leading up to his demise. Think of it as the Pulp Fiction version of the story.

Columbia Amusement completed its monopoly on Santa Rosa’s entertainment when it took over the Richter a year later, renaming it the Columbia Theater. Again they spent heavily on showy improvements aimed at drawing ever larger audiences: “The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs,” reported the PD, “and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction.”

With its big hall that could seat about 700 – as many people as the Nickelodeon and Theaterette combined – the Columbia Theater could be used for anything: vaudeville, lectures and speeches by famous people, featured movies, traveling stage shows (charging up to $1.50 for the best seats), even amateur talent dramatic productions of the sort Al Richter used to present. As this wasn’t Columbia’s only venue in town, they wouldn’t lose money by letting the theater remain idle for weeks if there was nothing in the offing. But usually they could find someone who wanted to put on a show. For local singers they charged a dime admission, or free with a coupon from a sister movie house. Among the warblers who performed on their stage was Olney Pedigo; I’ll bet his odd name caused some childhood misery – although none were probably still snickering years later when he became the Sonoma County Auditor.

Thus marks the end of the first chapter of Santa Rosa’s movie history (with the footnote that in 1910 The Elite Theater operated briefly on Fourth Street, “Pictures Changed Daily,” which reeks of desperation). Chapter two begins with the 1916 opening of The Cline, the most famous of early Santa Rosa movie palaces.

Gentle Reader may be bored to yoinks by some of this minutiae (hey, did you know that the Theatrette walls and ceiling were pressed steel?) but it has real purpose. First, all local histories garble these names and/or dates, and the latter particularly needs to be accurate if movie house evolution can be viewed as a barometer for a community’s overall prosperity. Second, the continuing investment into Santa Rosa by Columbia Amusement, a non-local company, cannot be understated; over three years they continued acquiring and improving their holdings because they obviously believed there was growing potential for profit. That leads to the big question: Does the era of Columbia’s expansion also mark the turning point where the town finally lost its feral Wild West temperament and emerged as a housebroken 20th century metropolis? It may be significant to note that Columbia’s second wave of investment soon followed the 1908 repeal of legal prostitution in Santa Rosa and the third (and largest) investment came in 1909 shortly after the town finally closed the red light district just a couple of blocks from the Columbia Theater.

But as always, there’s a believe-it-or-not angle. The secretary of the Columbia Amusement Company here in Santa Rosa was one J. R. (“Raymond”) Crone. He moved to Hollywood sometime around 1916, and years later, climbed the ladder to become the top production manager at RKO. There he was the studio’s final authority on the schedules and budgets for most of the great 1930s Fred Astaire classics, Bringing Up Baby, and a little film called Citizen Kane. There’s an anecdote passed down about his early involvement with Orson Welles, who originally planned to develop Heart of Darkness as his first screenplay. Welles’ script called for the characters to ride a train through the jungle. “Do you know what it would cost us to build a locomotive for that purpose?” Asked Raymond Crone. When told of the incredible expense, the unfazed Welles agreed to compromise: “We’ll make it a hand cart.”

Will Have New Front and a Larger Stage

The Columbia Amusement Company, the new proprietors of the Richter theater, will shortly begin the remodeling of that play house. They expect to spend the sum of $50000 in making the theater modern and up-to-date and will arrange the same so it will be far superior to its present condition.

Among the improvements contemplated is a large stage, so large traveling road shows can be better accommodated on their trips to this city, and so extravaganzas and companies carrying a good many people can put on their shows without hindrance or being overly crowded. A new entrance is to be constructed, an entirely new front will be placed in the theater, and a new gallery will be built.

When these contemplated improvements have been carried out Santa Rosa will have a modern and up-to-date theater.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 7, 1909

Popular Playhouse, Now a Thing of the Past, Closes with the Latest New York Sensation, “The Devil”

No more will Virtue and Vice contend in the footlight’s glare at the Richter theatre. The villain will no longer pursue the helpless damsel to the edge of the paper precipice in that temple of Thespis; and the hero, accustomed to step from behind a set tree and perform his work of rescue to the applause of appreciative gallery gods, will no longer delight his admirers at the Richter. For the Richter theatre is to be closed today, and completely remodeled. When it is rebuilt it will be finer and large, and it will be named “The Columbia.” Until we have the Columbia we must go without the drama, or we must go elsewhere to be thrilled…

– Press Democrat, April 20, 1909

Many Improvements in Santa Rosa’s Playhouse

Work has progressed so far in the rehabilitation of the old Richter Theater that the Columbia Amusement Co., which now has the lease, announces that it will be reopened as the Columbia next Thursday evening. It is one of the neatest play houses north of San Francisco. The entire inside has been remodeled and handsomely decorated and new opera chairs are being installed.

The new front is practically completed and presents a very showy and inviting appearance. The entire front of the building is outlined with electric bulbs, with several clusters, and a real electric sign will extend out over the corner walk so as to show on Third, Fourth, and Fifth streets for blocks in either direction. There is a double front entrance with the ticket window between, while separate entrances are provided on each side for the gallery.

The gallery has been extended forward into a semicircle and the ceiling angled so as to give good ventilation. The changes here are marked and will grow very popular to all who sit with the “gods.”

The stage has been deepened six feet and the “fly gallery” added so that none of the scenery will be in the way on the stage floor. A new drop curtain is being painted, while entire new scenery is being made ready for the opening next week.

The companies playing in the Columbia will be provided with new and commodious dressing rooms under the stage. The stage entrance from Fifth street is so arranged that trunks and baggage can be dropped down into the dressing rooms or taken right on the stage, if desired, with little difficulty. The stage door from the auditorium has been done away with, and the only entrance to the stage is from Fifth street.

Musical comedy will be placed on the boards for four nights in the week for a run of twenty weeks, with a change of program twice a week. There will also be some vaudeville and road shows booked whenever good ones can be secured. It is the purpose of the management to conduct a first-rate play house at popular prices.

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1909

“The Nickelodeon”

“The Nickelodeon,” which is the new hall of entertainment on Fourth street, has opened to a good business, and the large crowds in attendance have departed well pleased with a nickel’s worth of fun that overflows the measure. The moving picture machine works well and its views are good ones, well selected. Its music is “canned music” it is true, but that gigantic phonograph and its horn as big as all the horns in a big brass band, can give the finest sort of music in the finest sort of style. Children, especially, find the Nickelodeon a delight, and there are matinees for them today, tomorrow and next day. But there are many children larger grown in the audiences, and they, too, are pleased with the performances.

– Press Democrat, September 5, 1907

People Make a Lively Scramble for Exits

The second performance at the Empire Theatre in the Ridgway block of Third street had just commenced last night when a fire scare threw the audience into a wild panic. There was a mad scramble for the doors, chairs and benches were smashed, women screamed and one fainted and narrowly escaped being trampled underfoot. Several boys were knocked down and more or less bruised. The theatre was crowded, and above the din arose the shouts of the cooler ones telling people to sit down and be quiet, that there was no danger. But few heeded the advice, and not until they found themselves out in the open air and gazing up at the small blaze that had broken out in the front of the building just to the right of the entrance did those present realize that their excitements had been all unnecessary.

The panic started when a sudden flash of flame shot out from the moving picture gallery in the rear of the auditorium above and just to the right of the entrance. The fire was caused by the operator of the picture machine accidentally dropping a hot carbon point into the box of films under the machine. These firms are made of celluloid and are almost as inflammable as powder. The flash which followed completely destroyed the machine, consumed the films, singed the hair and clothing of the operator and set fire to the woodwork of the office and the small gallery above from which it was finally communicated to the window frames outside. When the fire department arrived, the flames were quickly extinguished with a few bucketfuls of water.

In the excitement a number of ladies dropped their purses, wraps, etc. These were recovered by the management as quickly as possible, and returned to the owners, one of the men in charge mounting a box outside and announcing a list of articles found. When he had finished the distribution, he made an impromptu address which went something like this:

“You people have all been through an earthquake and fire and know what it means. We put everything we had into this little venture, and now the most of it has gone up in smoke. We propose to stay right here, though, and will have things running again tomorrow night just as if nothing had happened. If you wil give us a helping hand we will come out all right.” He was heartily cheered when he finished his few remarks and stepped down from his improvised platform.

One of the women patrons and quietly removed her shoe after being seated on account of a corn. When the excitement began she did not stop to recover it and when she started home it was with one shoe on and one shoe off.

The damage to the theatre proper was trivial. The loss to the Empire management will amount to several hundred dollars.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1907

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Looking Out For The Week

There is a surprise at the Novelty Theatre for Santa Rosans. The manager states nothing like it has ever been here and that each succeeding week will be ahead of its predecessor. Keep your eyes open for Monday night, he says, and also watch the comical moving pictures. The pictures will depict a policeman coming to arrest two servant girls. They resist, and set him down in a wash tub of soap suds, break dishes over his head and throw him out through a window.

– Press Democrat, January 31, 1904

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