Sacramento’s Tower Theatre at Risk?

posted by cubey on March 29, 2004 at 6:44 pm

SACRAMENTO, CA — The City of Sacramento is giving a corporation millions of dollars to construct a multiplex in downtown, which may force the Tower Theatre, Crest Theatre, and other Sacramento theaters out of business.

You can find a lengthy cover story about the multiplex project in the current issue of the SN&R (Sacramento News & Reviews) paper, which is distributed throughout the Sacramento area free of charge. The story is also available on the SN&R website.

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Comments (8)

Matias Antonio Bombal
Matias Antonio Bombal on April 5, 2004 at 8:24 am


This was sent to the Editor of the Sacramento News and Review.

Matias Bombal

Tom Walsh, Editor
Sacramento News and Review

I was very upset by the cover of the News and Review depicting, through some excellent Photoshop work, the center marquee panel of the Sacramento Tower Theatre with letters reading “Closing Credits”. Because the SN&R is widely visible throughout the community it clearly proved the “perception is reality” concept for those who might not have a chance to read the lengthy article inside the paper. I have heard from several people, who did not read the article, that they saw on the cover of the SN&R that the Tower Theatre was closing. The article itself, demonstrating a concern for the impact on the business of the Tower Theatre by potential development of new multiplex theatres in 2 locations on K St. served to make readers aware that there may be, in future, a serious impact on the historic Tower theatre. The intention of the article was well placed, but the cover has apparently created just the opposite effect, placing a visual in the mind of many that the Tower Theatre is in the process of closing at this very moment. Yes, one then should read the article, but those who have seen the cover, and parroted the cover picture, without so much as even reading the subtitle at the bottom of the cover, have done irreparable damage in furthering a misconception in our city.

Having been an exhibitor of movies for a majority of my adult life, working at both the Tower and Crest Theatres, and more recently in Lincoln City, Oregon, operating a single screen theatre for 7 years, The Bijou, which ran both first run blockbusters and art/independent films, I have a very clear idea of the impact that a multiplex with similar films can have on an independent exhibitor. It was only a matter of 3 years after starting with the small theatre that Regal, a large chain, built a brand new multiplex within a mile of my single screen. The impact affected the theatre in very specific ways that might not readily be apparent to the average moviegoer or preservation minded individual. I might add that The Bijou is still operating successfully in Lincoln City, in spite of the huge Regal Cinemas chain at its doorway. If anyone would like me to illustrate these points in detail, I encourage them to reach me via email:

Within the article I was further maddened by the revival of the misconception that Safeway Stores tore down the Alhambra Theatre. Yes, there is a Safeway where the Alhambra once stood, but no one ever mentions the more reprehensible aspect of its loss: That the blow was not delivered by Safeway, but by the people of Sacramento. Safeway Stores, upon hearing the tremendous public outcry of its potential destruction, offered the building and property back to the City of Sacramento for exactly what they paid for it. A special bond measure election was held to raise money to buy the property, and Sacramentans, likely not interested in additional taxes at that time, voted against it. With no acceptance by the City or any private party to buy the Alhambra, Safeway proceeded with their development.

In 1946 there were 26 theatres in downtown Sacramento within the central city core. In those days a theatre meant one screen, and arguably in a more esthetic setting than todayâ€\s multiplexes. Todayâ€\s movie distributors care only about the bottom line and often will give booking preference only with exhibitors that have the most number of “screens”. If you are an independent with three screens, as is the Crest, and your competition is part of a chain of 2,500 screens nationwide, of which 6-14 are in a building across the street from you, vying for the same title, you, the independent, will not get the title you want. End of story. There is no competition, and certainly not from what one could perceive as the individual building, or multiplex situated across the street from you, or in the same demographic movie market. The Tower has the slight advantage over the Crest in that they are part of a large chain, Reading Entertainment, with much greater buying/bidding power for film attractions.

Currently, in looking at the SN& Râ€\s film times page one can see 11 screens on K Street alone, in just three theatres, and that the SN&R film times page considers the Tower Theatre to be “downtown” although it is a Land Park landmark. It would have been considered in 1946 a “nabe” (a neighborhood theatre), and not part of the first run houses along K, J and L streets then. The Tower opened on November 11, 1938 with Algiers with Charles Boyer and Freshman Year with starlet Dixie Dunbar- sub-run films that had already been downtown or were considered “B” films when new.

The Tower Theatreâ€\s eventual development as an art house in the early 1980â€\s following the closing of Landmarkâ€\s beloved Showcase Theatre, demolished, on L St, across from Macyâ€\s, and the J St. Cinema, was in the days before cable/video/DVD. The Tower certainly became a treasured part of our city, nurtured by the Landmark Theatres at the peak of its art house days, and with sensational management that was indeed a part of the fabric of the community. Reading Entertainment took over in 1998, following Landmarkâ€\s departure, saving the Tower from becoming just a memory, or equally depressing, a dark theatre.

That having been said, I get the feeling, having been a past theatre manager, (I do not know this to be a fact) that the company running the Tower may be non-supportive to the local management who likely is helpless to make any improvement without corporate OK which, controlled from so far away, may not have a real sense of the intrinsic value that the Tower has in our Sacramento history and current entertainment. Additionally, this possible lack of Readingâ€\s support for the theatreâ€\s local manager is likely what is behind the current poor screen presentation and insufficient maintenance of the building. In spite of this handicap, it seems the current manager has done everything possible with the limitations of his office, and little touches here and there show a respect for the historical integrity of the building and also an appreciation for its esthetic value. The manager of the Tower, like many chain theatre mangers, is probably not able to actively involve the community, control advertising, or make any improvement or maintenance that would cause any expenditure over bare bones operation. These elements alone are more of a danger to the Towerâ€\s continued success than the added effect of alleged local competition and worse, the corporate buying power that a bigger chain will have nationwide. It is my opinion that Reading Entertainment initially acquired the Tower solely to boost the number of screens the have across the U.S. to increasing their bidding power for film titles.

I believe that there is a great public misconception that at every theatre one goes to, the manager of that particular theatre or multiplex is responsible directly for the selection of the films shown and the overall operation of the policies of the theatre under his or her control. This is just not true. Only the Crest Theatre in Sacramento is under the personal direction of its manager/business owner. An office somewhere else controls every other screen in town.

No matter what exhibition chain makes the move, assisted by the City of Sacramento or not, with the eventual arrival of additional screens downtown, and it is not a matter of if, but when, the independent Crest and the operators of the Tower must become even more aggressive in their community involvement. There must be a return to showmanship. They must find energetic and creative bookings in films, their promotion and look for alternative means to keep the doors open. The Crest has done this effectively for several years. Had they not, even while I still had the pleasure of being involved there myself, moved to becoming a rental hall for live events, and filling with movies when live events were not present, it would not still be open today. That theatre cannot, nor could it ever survive on film income alone. In the case of the Crest, films have not been the “bread and butter” of its operation as suggested by the author of the SN&R article.

These theatres must, in addition to promoting the individual films as an attraction, must highlight that the experience of going to the Tower or Crest, cannot be had anywhere else. They must work on every aspect pleasing the patron while attending the theatre, with the often touted, yet seldom realized concept of customer service. The great movie palace showman of the 1920â€\s, Marcus Loew, summed up the concept ideally: “We sell tickets to theatres, not movies"

Although these days Iâ€\m found behind a microphone at a local radio station and not in a theatre lobby of recent, my passion has been the historic preservation of movie theatres, and I have spent a great deal of energy, love, blood and sweat to make the dream of the classic theatre of the golden age be an experience people of our time could still reach out and participate in. I, as well as many others, long for the preservation of our historic theatres. In my experience, the only way to insure the permanence of those places that we love is to give them your constant support. You must go as often as possible. Since an ever growing chunk of your ticket price goes right back to the filmâ€\s distributors, be sure to spend as much as you can at the refreshment stand, for this is the funding source that pays for the theatreâ€\s entire operation budget.

While I felt that SN&R article was well intentioned, I found it sensational and manipulative of public opinion. The cover was irresponsible, and potentially damaging to the business of the Tower Theatre in that it looked real enough to appear as if the letters spelling out “Closing Credits” were actually on the marquee.

Big movie chain art house business is coming. Your best way to keep those places, that you believe in and wish to support, alive, making them part of the present and not a memory of the past, is to personally take action by showing your support in the form of going to the movies. While you are at it, take a friend…and get the BIG popcorn.


Matías A. Bombal

GaryMeyer on April 5, 2004 at 8:38 am

Landmark didn;t abandon the Tower. Reading/Angelika, a partner elsewhere with the circuit that holds the master lease, insisted that that Landmark’s lease not be renewed because they wanted to expand their Angelika brand and Landmarkwas forced out. Interestingly it was about the same time that specialized film business in Sacramento took a dive. Now the circuits force any specizlied film with potential crossover business into a multiple. The Crest is in many way the most threatend by this new multiplex, especially since Century is moving into their Cine Arts program in many places.

AlanSmithee on April 30, 2004 at 8:10 am

I can’t believe they actually held a rally for this place- as far as I’m concerned it was already demolished when it was triplexed in 1974. I refuse to go to this theater, hating it even more due to the fact that they get so many exclusive engagements of movies I’d like to see. That said, the only way for this theatre to survive is to restore it back to the original large auditorium, and don’t skimp on the projection and sound equipment like Landmark and Reading have (Landmark had good equipment in the original booth, but the 2 lower sections were awful, all the more reason it shouldn’t have been triplexed.) If it’s restored I promise to attend it regularly, maybe even work there! Til then, I’ll be over at the new Cinearts, provided Century doesn’t give it the incompetent staff that currently runs the Downtown Plaza 7!

AlanSmithee on April 30, 2004 at 8:13 am

Added- for the amount of time the Tower was closed between Landmark and Reading, there was no reason why they couldn’t have restored it then! If one screen isn’t enough then build more next door like the Crest did! Check out the main auditorium at the State Theatre in Woodland to see what the Tower probably looked like intact.

GaryMeyer on April 30, 2004 at 4:20 pm

The Tower was triplexed long before Landmark took it over…in fact before they existed. Multiplexing in the 70s always was terrible.
The big upstairs theater had great 70mm presentation and yes downstairs was lousy though Landmark did spend money making it better. But there is just somethig creepy about some divided up theaters.

There is no economic sense in going back to a single screen unless the theater wants to do live shows like the Crest. When you book a movie you are stuck playing it for a certain amount of time. If the reviews are less than raves or even 4 stars but buried in the paper, the film will possibly bomb. With multiple screens you at least have the economy of scale and collective box office to help with overhead. I don’t think most cusomters have even the slightest idea how much it costs to run a movie theater. And if you don’t have many customers then you aren’t selling much concessions. And you can’t survive resulting in less choice for the audiences.

Landmark did explore building additional theaters on the Tower site but the Landlord refused to discuss it, an adjacent restaurant was part of the appeal of the location and there were city restrictions and neighborhood opponents.

Reading promised many things when they closed for remodeling. Since I haven’t been to Sacramento since they took over I don’t know if they did upgrades or not.

I am disappointed to hear from Mr. Smithee that he will be at the Cinearts rather than attending the Crest where they need his support right now. And incompetent staffs are part of what come with the megaplex circuits. At the Crest they care about you, the experience you have and the quality of the show they present.

Who are you, Mr. Smithee. That is a pseudonym for someone who doesn’t want their name attached to a project they created. Come out from behind your wall. How generous of you to offer to work at a restored Tower. You must be somebody special to make such an offer even though you are an unknown commodity.

AlanSmithee on April 30, 2004 at 8:33 pm

Yes, I do support the Crest, and that’s what blows me away about this even more- I haven’t seen people gathering in front of that to “save” it, probably because it already stands a chance of surviving with the new competition since it’s been kept up better than the Tower. I do think building the new theatre right across the street from the Crest is a bad idea, but people seem to be more concerned about the Tower (rolls eyes). The Crest does need to fix the acoustics in its main auditorium though, it echoes really badly right now, and the last film I saw there was supposed to be in Dolby Digital but was played only in optical.
The bottom line is the Tower should not be run the way it has been for the past 30 years, and they certainly should not be getting exclusive engagements. The attitude seems to have been “Why should we put any money into this place when we’re the only ones who have these movies, where else are they gonna go?” The “Remember the Alhambra” is a bit far-fetched as well. The Tower is no Alhambra, and does anyone really think the building will ever be torn down? I can’t see that happening in any case.
As far as Century goes, since they run the oldest first-run venue in the area on Arden Way (opened in 1967), there should be a campaign to get them to restore the two large domes! They were magnificent theatres when they were new but shortly after they opened they were both cut in half and are a prime example of why plexing should be illegal. Needless to say I do not go to that theatre either, but would go there regularly if they brought back the big screens! If the city’s giving them money for this new theatre maybe they should make it a condition that Century restore their old theatres?

Bud K
Bud K on May 4, 2004 at 11:08 pm

I love Old Theaters Really I do, but why worry about this Theater or better yet why worry about any remaining Theaters in Sacramento, We only have a Few Gem’s (“Crest” and “Guild”) and there just your average nice Theaters, What we had is gone and what is left now is crumbs, the rejects nobody wanted. Sacramento only had one really nice Theater the “Alhambra”, next was the “Fox” (the entrance was grander than the theater) and then the “Esquire”. The Tower needs to be Saved, its would be nice……..
But I really do not think so!

The Tower is now a pure 100% dump, Last time I saw a Picture there (The Mighty Wind)
The Unprofessional Display of the Movie, Trash, Dirt, Grime, Water Stains disgusted me, You can feel the springs not the seats, Filthy bathrooms and a crew that just did not care! I am not a Big Fan of Century Theaters but at least there clean.

I have to support our City on what they want to do on the K Street Mall, The CineArts Proposal is Great, Downtown is finally coming to life with many fine Restaurants and
Attractions, I am not worried about the Crest, Its large theater and the two smaller ones
will keep it in business, Remember the City pumped a bunch of money in that building a few years ago. What I hate about Downtown is the Parking
The lots should be free from 6pm to 6am and all weekends to encourage people coming Downtown.

The Operators are to be blamed entirely for the demise of the Tower, They ran it in the ground, They are a Big Operator too, Ok Compete with the CineArts, Refurbish the Tower, Market it and then we will see who wins don’t cry on the shoulders of the People
who care about this Theater and say You are the Victim here, We should be Protesting not at City Hall But the Offices of Reading Entertainment, If not Turn it into a Office Building or a Supermarket, The Neighborhood needs it!!!

BTW where are the Sacramento Owners Of the Tower and There Opinions ??

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