Alhambra Theatre to be featured in new, big-screen production

By LANCE ARMSTRONG

Filmmakers Matías Bombal and Chad E. Williams sit at the computer where they worked on the creation of their new documentary, “Alhambra: Sacramento’s Palace of Fantasy.”
Photo by Lance Armstrong

Once recognized as the “showplace of Sacramento,” East Sacramento’s Alhambra Theatre captured the hearts of many area residents. And although more than four decades have passed since this movie palace met the wrecking ball, its memory is about to become more vivid.
Through the work of local filmmakers Matías Bombal and Chad E. Williams, the Alhambra – a venue where many classic films were shown throughout its nearly 45-year existence – is set to hit the big screen itself.
In their attempt to capture the storied memories of the Alhambra Theatre, which majestically stood on a block of land at J and K streets on the eastern side of Alhambra Boulevard, Bombal and Williams produced a 55-minute documentary film, titled “Alhambra: Sacramento’s Palace of Fantasy.”
The film will make its public debut at the Tower Theatre, 2508 Land Park Drive, on Feb. 21 at 7 and 8:20 p.m. The first showing is already sold out and a very limited number of seats are available for the second showing.
A finely weaved mix of vintage films, photographs, interviews and information gathered through research, this documentary does everything it can to showcase the former glory of this celebrated theater.
Designed by Sacramento architect Leonard F. Starks and Edward Flanders, the Alhambra Theatre was rich with elegance.
It was constructed in the likeness of the famous, luxurious Moorish palace and fortress, known as The Alhambra, which was built near Granada, Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Beyond its alluring exterior and gardens entrance, this cinema palace had an attractive interior that included a ceiling with a colorful dome-like effect, long beams leading to an ornamented proscenium arch, perforated grillwork, many rows of fancy seats divided by a large center aisle, a balcony, a 75-foot stage, elegant lighting, drapes, tapestries and a large gold velour curtain with an image of the historic Alhambra of Spain.
Certainly, Bombal and Williams did not rebuild the theater in its old, physical form, but the footage taken from old television newsreels should give audiences of this new production the feeling that they are both inside the Alhambra and meandering outside in its spacious, beautiful gardens.
Williams, 46, described the uniqueness of the Alhambra Theatre, which opened on Sept. 24, 1927.
“What strikes me about it is most theaters are part of a city block,” he said. “They are a building within a larger building in some cases. (The Alhambra), on its own and at the time, was kind of in the middle of nothing.

The documentary, “Alhambra: Sacramento’s Palace of Fantasy,” will make its big-screen debut on Feb. 21.
Photo courtesy of Matías Bombal

“It was this huge place, and it may not have been the largest theater in town, it may not have been the grandest theater, but it was unique in that it was its own little universe. You could go in and be completely taken away from your everyday life.”
Bombal, 50, described the special feelings that people continue to share about the Alhambra.
“The clear message that comes from everyone – although they word it very differently – is that the Alhambra, in their mind’s eye, now lost, is their lost youth,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which generation.
“If it were the older folks who remember it in the 1930s, the people that remember it during the war years or if it were the hippies that were trying to save it (from demolition) or the people that went to see (rock concerts there in the 1970s), any person we’ve talked to that set foot on the grounds or in the theater has never forgotten it.
“It made an impression so indelible, it stays with them the rest of their lives. That was at the key of what Chad and I really wanted to get to (with this film). What was it about this place that made that impression?”
Bombal – who is also a noted film critic whose reviews have appeared in Valley Community Newspapers publications – added that certain views of the theater that are shown in the documentary reveal how it stood well above any other structure around it.
In particular, he was impressed by an image taken from 8th and K streets.
“(From that point, looking eastward), you could see this (theater) towering in the horizon over all of that,” he said. “This thing was a building that was impressive to behold.”
In creating the Alhambra Theatre documentary, Bombal and Williams benefitted from their previous experience of working together on films.
Their other films were “The Sacramento Picture” (2015) and “The Story Behind Your Radio Dial” (2016).
Williams said that the latter film, a documentary on the 1948 short film about NBC’s broadcasting facilities in New York and Los Angeles, led to the creation of the current documentary on the Alhambra Theatre.
“(Davis entrepreneur) Wendell P. Jacob saw our film, ‘The Story Behind Your Radio Dial,’ and loved it, and was just really impressed with the amount of detail we had presented and the way that we had presented it,” he said. “After seeing that film, he approached us with (the idea of funding) a project. Matías and I both looked at each other and went, ‘Yeah, we need to do something on the Alhambra.’”
Williams added that the idea of creating a documentary on the Alhambra dates back to when he and Bombal were working on “The Sacramento Picture” – a film featuring local footage from 1910 through 1974.
The process of creating the Alhambra Theatre documentary included Williams’ work with Mahlon Picht, of the Center for Sacramento History.
Together, they went through the center’s film archives and acquired about 45 minutes of KCRA and KOVR TV news footage of the Alhambra. Most of those films were from the early 1970s.
The result of that two-week venture was what Williams called “an amazing treasure of images.”
“(There are scenes) that nobody has seen, probably since it was filmed in 1972 or 1973,” he said. “I think that stuff has been sitting in boxes ever since.”
Williams credited Bombal for his researching ability and talent for tracking down details of the Alhambra’s past.
With the digitizing of old films, the conducting of interviews and the many hours spent to bring this new documentary together, “Alhambra: Sacramento’s Palace of Fantasy” is prepared to make its public debut in a timely fashion: during the 90th anniversary of the theater’s opening.
To purchase tickets for this second showing of this film, visit sachistorymuseum.org/programs-events/alhambra-sacramentos-palace-of-fantasy/.

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