Opinion: Crest Theatre faces unknown future after Oct. 31

The last of Sacramento’s great movie theaters to be built, The Crest, which opened Oct. 6, 1949 amid searchlights and movie stars in-person for the premiere of M-G-M’s “That Midnight Kiss”, faces an unknown future as the building’s owner is forcing the tenant/operator, CSLM, Inc. out of business with an impossible rent increase.

The Crest Theatre. Photo by Matias Bombal

The Crest Theatre. Photo by Matias Bombal

On that opening night in 1949, as may be seen in a Fox-Movietone newsreel of the event, Governor Earl Warren told the more than 5,000-person crowd assembled on K Street: “This is a great event tonight … We’re very proud of this new theater, and I’m sure the people of Sacramento will give it their patronage because it deserves it.” The Governor was right, and for many years to come the venerable theater, designed architecturally in a late 1940s “Skouras Style” was the zenith of excellence in movie presentation. The theater was built in 1949 with all new state-of-the-art electrical, plumbing, and HVAC.
It was constructed in the gutted shell, or outer four walls of the 1913 structure that had once housed the Hippodrome Theatre and initially, the short lived Empress Theatre, which closed after only one year. The Empress operators, Sullivan and Considine, Ponzi schemers, were run out of town leaving the investors holding the bag.
Fox-West Coast operated the entirely new Crest Theatre, “The Place to Go” from 1949, through some internal changes within their own company, including a rebranding as National General Theatres through mid 1979. Independent exhibitor Ron Morgan’s Morgan Cinemas gave it a short run in the early 1980s. By then the combined elements of urban sprawl and the increasing greed of the movie distributors made the operation of the Crest impossible for showing movies alone and it closed. Herb Liverette tried to turn it into a dinner theater in 1984, with grandiose plans for a remodel designed by noted Sacramento architect David Mogavero. The slogan “Our Quest, Save the Crest” fell on deaf ears.
During that time I was in my early teens, and fascinated by old theaters, I’d run all over the place while Liverette’s team tried to raise funds. I was trained as a volunteer relief projectionist by both Mario Menconi and Kenny Smith. Thus, at that early age I became familiar with the entire physical plant of the Crest Theatre and how all of its systems worked. When the dinner theater plans were canceled, Liverett moved on, and just as today, the Crest’s future was uncertain.

In 1986 the present era of the Crest’s life, and perhaps most significant, began when Linda McDonagh, operator of the Palms Playhouse in Davis, sought a larger venue for music concerts that needed a bigger space than she had in her rustic barn in Davis. Her attitude was “How about we clean it up as it is?” I approached her with the idea of showing classic films in the style of bygone days with short subjects on days the theater was not used for the live shows she wished to present. She got a friend to back her financially, Charlie Soderquist, and the initials of the two became the name of their new company: CSLM, Inc. CSLM then leased the building, taking operation on Oct. 1, 1986.
CSLM’s other partners, Andy Field, Gary Schoreder, and Bill Heberger then took most of October and the first half of November cleaning up the theater, and upgrading anything necessary to make it fully functional and compliant with the needs of any modern building. The theater re-opened with a gala black tie presentation of “Singin’ in the Rain” with the film’s star, Donald O’ Connor, in-person, Nov. 18, 1986. I was CSLM’s first employee and managed the theater for a short period, then stayed on to handle publicity, book movies, and emcee events until I was fired in 1991. In an era before DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and the smart phone, you could not really find classic movies any other way.
In October 1986, I brought a young lady into the group from United Artists’ Theatre on Arden Way. “Sid” or Laura Garcia, would become the shining light of the Crest to the present for CSLM. She has managed the theater for 25 of the 28 years CSLM has had the stewardship of this important cultural icon of the city. She took the torch and ran with it. In that time, hopes that were only dreams at the beginning were fully realized: first and foremost, the preservation of the building in as close to its original 1949 state as possible, the relighting of its magnificent miles of marquee neon in 1991, the restoration of the stage drapery, and the fact that the doors were open to one and all for all types of events for both patrons and event promoters.

The value of the CSLM, Inc.’s operation of the Crest and their contribution to the fabric of the Sacramento community and beyond is self-evident. Great live shows, wonderful movies, and special events have created cherished memories and captured the imagination of all who experienced them. The entertainment knowledge accrued in 28 years shows that CSLM knows its craft in this particular venue better than anyone in this market. This brings us to the present dilemma that they now face.

In 2011, Robert Emerick, a wastewater treatment engineer (sewage) with no theatrical experience, purchased for $2.8 million what he calls “Historic Crest Commercial Center” on his Facebook page. According to an Aug. 26 Sacramento Bee article by Cathie Anderson, Mr. Emerick further states that CSLM was paying well less than half market rent, at 40 cents per square foot.

I would offer that the square foot market value for a theater space should not be valued the same as office or industrial on the basis that the space within the square footage of these structures is utilized differently. With the glacier-like move of the forthcoming sports arena, no doubt square footage values will be on the rise, and clever investors are buying any property they can now, to cash in after the arena is a going concern.

Mr. Emerick is quoted in the same Bee article with statements that did not make sense to me, based on my own past experience with the building and the nature of the theatrical business. He says: “There’s plumbing in the theaters that’s 100 years old.” In actuality, the plumbing was entirely new in 1949, as city construction permit records indicate.
Emerick additionally says that “The Crest’s air-conditioning system must be replaced, at a cost of $100,000, because the state is banning the refrigerant it uses by 2020.” Although the latter part of that statement is correct, Mr. Emerick does not mention that extant air conditioning units that are in good operating order that use that coolant, R12, are grandfathered in past 2020 and are exempt from the ban. Thus, unless there is a major failure to the Crest HVAC system, this is a non-issue.

Sacramento Bee photo of The Crest Theatre's original opening night, October 6, 1949.  This image courtesy of Dolores Greenslate/Portuguese Historical Society Collection.

Sacramento Bee photo of The Crest Theatre's original opening night, October 6, 1949. This image courtesy of Dolores Greenslate/Portuguese Historical Society Collection.

The Bee article quotes Emerick, “if the Crest is ever to show movies again in its historic theater, it will need to upgrade the projection equipment at a cost of $100,000 to $150,000.” This is also not correct. In point of fact, the CSLM has been showing movies at the Crest both on film (rarely, but enough to keep the equipment maintained and in use) and Blu Ray DVD on an industrial digital projector (not DCP) for several years now. CSLM supports and hires union projectionists from Local 50 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.
Emerick says that people want to see more movies at the Crest, as does he, and that a DCP digital projector is needed due to the movie industry change from 35mm film in theaters to DCP digital projectors. This statement, seemingly well intentioned, shows his lack of understanding of the way movie exhibition works.
Movie exhibition is the only business in which the manufacturer is constantly trying to put the retailer out of business. The distributor’s contractual obligation of showing new movies a minimum of 4 weeks which began in the late 1970s, spelled doom for the giant single screen theaters. This gave birth to the multiplex cinema with several auditoriums of various sizes. With several screens in one theater, the operator simply put the movie that has the best attendance in the biggest auditorium. Other movies that have been there two to four weeks are run in the smaller ones.
The show times are staggered so there is a constant flow of traffic at the candy counter; the only place any movie theater makes the money it needs to cover operating expenses, as most of the box-office revenue goes directly to the distributors. With the switch to digital DCP projection in the last five years in most chain theaters, the last of the independent movie theater operators have vanished nationwide for two principal reasons.
The first and most important: movie theater chains bid for first run releases in each market, and the buying or bidding power they offer the distributors (the movie studios) is far greater than a single independent may offer. As an example, if the Crest were to offer an advance of $5,000 for a four week run of a movie for its single screen and the distributor also receives an offer from Cinemark for $5,000 per each of their 332 theaters and 4, 456 screens ($5,000 multiplied by 332 theaters or more!), the reality is that the distributor will not take the Crest’s telephone call. First-run commercial or art films are thus unavailable to independent theaters, which are now becoming extinct in the current exhibition market.
The second reason is the theatrical DCP projector itself, unlike the 35mm film projectors of the past which provided more than 50 years of service if properly maintained, are very expensive, from $80,000 to $125,000 and only have the life of a computer hard drive, and will need to be replaced at that same amount in only a few years. Most independents can’t shoulder that financial burden, and if they can afford one, they still could not get the movies to show because of the impossibility competing with chain theaters to get product.
Those are the facts as I see them. Now, personal opinion:
Ultimately, Mr. Emerick owns the building, and will do with it as he pleases. He’s indicated that he wants to give showbiz a whirl with his fiancee Yulya Borroum booking the theater for live events, both with no theatrical experience, beginning in November. For the sake of the theater, I hope his idea works, but I don’t understand how it could. I’ve given examples earlier. I’ll add to this the fact that the Crest survives as a rental facility for promoters and film festival groups to put on events. The only events that Crest does in-house are the occasional movies that are shown when rentals don’t fill the calendar. Mr. Emerick may lose his shirt and the Crest if he thinks he may do a better job than his tenant with 28 years experience in the building.
There’s also the possibility that Mr. Emerick has invested in the property with the knowledge and hope that the sports arena will increase the value of his investment (indicated by his focused awareness of current square footage values) so that even if he gives it “the old college try” and it fails, he may cash in by selling it or converting the building to some other use. This has already begun with the restaurants in the basement level of the store fronts adjacent to the original theater building. This space was used to house the two additional movie theaters that CSLM used to operate, but had to close due to declined revenue and distributor politics.
If I were a landlord with a solid tenant with tenure that would provide consistent reliable income, I would not force them out for more money thinking more in the long term than short gain. Perhaps Mr. Emerick has other financial concerns that are forcing his hand. His reasons for raising the rent are dubious at best. He bought the building saying “he wanted to preserve a signature regional asset,” yet his actions seem just the opposite of his statement.
The sad result to me is the 28 years of CSLM, made up of people and families that depend on income made there that utilizes their singular talents honed specifically for the unique facility that the Crest is. Soon they will be out of work, their future uncertain. Manager Laura “Sid” Garcia-Heberger fell in love with CSLM partner Bill Heberger, married him and had children.
The many employees, too, will be out of work. Mr. Emerick, if true to his word of “wanting to preserve a signature regional asset,” must reconsider keeping his tenant in place at a rent that is reasonable for them to pay. The heart of any business are the people that run it, they connect to you personally in what they do and how they do it. Absent that, any building becomes a soulless monolith. Let’s not let the 28 years of effort by CSLM, Inc. at the Crest Theatre become lost in the swirling mist of time.
(On the web: Rare newsreel footage of the opening night of the Crest Theatre in Sacramento on Oct. 6, 1949 introduced by Matias Bombal, former Crest Theatre manager, and now movie critic at www.mabhollywood.com and Valley Community Newspapers, can be seen at http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EvZoUH3x2rI)

3 Responses to Opinion: Crest Theatre faces unknown future after Oct. 31

  1. barbara ruhmann says:

    What’s the possibility of crowdsourcing and buying him out? You’d end up with lots of owners, co-op style, and I will bet a lot of the donors do it in memory of the Alhambra Theater…

  2. Dane Henas says:

    Very good, and well-reasoned argument for retaining CSLM, Matias. The film festivals will have to find a new home if the Crest is planning on showing first-run films–or at least any first-run films that the chains (The Tower is also part of a chain) don’t gobble up first. Scheduling weekend festivals with first-run films would be virtually impossible–that’s why the Crest only shows special one-off screenings of films outside of festival screenings. My deepest sympathy also goes out to Ms. Borroum for diving into the booking and promotion of live acts or even negotiating with independent promoters (or maybe I’ve got that backwards). Hopefully Mr. Emerick will come to his senses and realize that throwing away a team with 28 years of experience risks not only his investment, but his relationship with his fianceé. I’m sure he was thrilled when he bought the building–but it’s kind of like buying a boat. The 2 best days are the day you bought it and the day you sold it. Stick with what you know, Mr. Emerick.

  3. Linda Hardy says:

    This news is very disheartening .I moved here in 1986 and have watched these events unfold through out the Years .I was honored to be a part of a MoviE Premier and walk the REd Carpet into the Crest as part of a Wedding Event which included a short film shot on lication at St Pauls Episcopal Church of this couple taking their vows in a monastic setting …in 2001 ..
    It was sublime. I m holding out hope for her (the Crest) future but the Arena $$ to be made is probably going to be the bottom line..along with massive parking rate increases. ..I am all for progress but not at the cost of our cities character .A K street mall without the Crest and with a new arena ..dosent add up.Some things are worth presrving , like the CREST. AS a retired Wastewater treatment plant operator I know the current owner and agree with Mathias’assesment of his intentions regarding the future of thid great lady of theatre.
    Linda Michelle Hardy -midtown

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *