Undoubtedly one of East Sacramento’s all-time most notable landmarks was the Alhambra Theatre, which was located on a block of land on the eastern side of Alhambra Boulevard at J and K streets. And anyone who remembers this palatial movie house also recalls its rich gardens.
The $1 million Alhambra Theatre and its gardens became a part of the area’s landscape in 1927.
As evidence of the theater’s instant success, tickets for its opening night were sold out in less than an hour.
The opening ceremonies, which were presided over by Gov. Clement C. Young, were attended by about 2,000 guests.
In addition to the draw of a new place to view films, the Alhambra presented a certain elegance and charm that was an attraction unto itself.
Designed by Sacramento architects Starks and Flanders, the theater was constructed in the likeness of the famous, luxurious Moorish palace and fortress, known as The Alhambra. The original Alhambra was built near Granada, Spain in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Moorish landscape design
The theater’s gardens were designed by landscape artist A.A. Nyberg.
And through the assistance of Frederick N. Evans, the city parks superintendent who provided advice on the project, Nyberg was in charge of planting the gardens.
In previewing the new gardens in 1927, The Sacramento Bee described these grounds as being “reminiscent of the famous gardens in the original Alhambra in Spain.”
Additionally, The Bee noted that “Sacramentans will linger long in their strolls through the beautiful gardens of the new Alhambra Theatre,” which “visitors declare to be the most unique setting for any motion picture house in the United States.”
The Alhambra’s gardens were unlike any other approach to a theater in Sacramento. The city’s other theaters at the time lined their particular streets and did not provide the real estate for such gardens.
In its aforementioned preview of the gardens, The Bee described the theater grounds as also having cream-colored high walls with blue-glazed tile, other handmade tile in Moorish design, plots of lawn and marble benches hidden among shrubs and foliage.
Now a parking lot
It may be surprising news to many locals, but nearly 40 years have passed since a Safeway grocery store and its accompanying parking lot replaced the old theater and its gardens. But as the saying goes, ‘Time flies.”
But time certainly does not erase the fond memories of the theater and its loss to development that occurred with the failure to save the cherished structure from the wrecking ball.
Loss of the Alhambra
Despite efforts made by the Save the Alhambra Theatre Committee, on April 17, 1973, a $1.5 million bond issue failed to attain two-thirds of the votes, which was an amount necessary for saving the theater.
In addition to the loss of the theater was the loss of the Alhambra’s gardens, which were by no means a small side note of the theater.
Many locals today are quick to express their disappointment regarding the absence of the theater.
But also drawing much sadness is the topic of the elimination of the theater’s gardens.
Garden walk memories
A simple review of some of the main features of the Alhambra’s gardens can present essential ingredients for a joyful, yet sorrowful ride down memory lane for those who had the opportunity to visit these grounds, which were replaced by the grocery store’s parking lot.
These features included tiled, reflecting pools, 14 cascading fountains that flow into the pools and basins, plaques containing classic quotations, winding walkways, Mediterranean foliage, multicolored flowers and tall palms.
The gardens, which were tended to daily, were an extremely popular, leisure place, where people would often arrive early to take pre-movie strolls or to simply relax and enjoy the scenery.
‘Like God’s country’
Sacramento native Mike Dodge was quick to speak of the gardens’ beauty when asked about his memories of the grounds.
“It was so pristine and so beautiful there (at the gardens) and it was a situation when the people were protesting (to save the Alhambra),” Mike recalled. “I was really young when my parents (Joey and Hazel Dodge) used to take me over there. They kept those gardens up so nice. It was so immaculate there. I couldn’t believe it. And at night, the vibrant, colored lights would reflect on the fountains. It was like God’s land, like God’s country how it looked. People would just drive by to see (the gardens).”
Sole surviving feature
Today, the lone, original feature of the gardens at the Alhambra Boulevard site is an historic fountain, which is located on the south side of Safeway’s parking lot.
In commenting about this feature, Dodge said, “The fountain (represents part of) my remembrances going back in my childhood of how (the gardens) were and how they should have stayed. (The gardens) were beautiful. And I wish they didn’t go away, so I could see them more today.”
Al Vegors, 94, who was born in Napa and moved to Sacramento with his family when he was 3 years old, described the gardens as a “beautiful place,” and added, “They were outstanding. Everybody used to like to go out there.”
Vegors also shared a unique story related to the gardens.
“I remember my father-in-law (Roy Randolph Hodge), and there was a tree there (in the gardens) and he used to put his cigar in that tree,” Vegors said. “And then when he came out (of the theater), he would pick up the cigar. But one time (in about 1938), he came out there to get his cigar and it was missing. It was pretty hard luck.”
East Sacramento resident Norma Idzinga, 82, said that she recalled seeing the gardens in the 1930s.
“I remember going there (to the Alhambra) to see a movie with (her second cousin), Darlene (Idzinga), and (Darlene’s) mother, (Frances Idzinga), and that was considered quite an event in those days, because the Alhambra was a state-of-the-art theater,” Norma said. “It was an adventure going to the Alhambra and the gardens were beautiful.”
Darlene, who resides in Elk Grove and is known today as Darlene Grosz, said that during her childhood, the gardens were like a play area.
“The gardens as a kid, I can just remember always running through them,” Darlene said. “It was fun to run through them. And they were beautiful. (They had) lots of water and the plants.”
‘Model of perfection’
In introducing the theater and its gardens in 1927, George W. Peltier, president of the Granada Company, which built the theater, said, “It has been a dream of mine to give this city a building of design and architecture that will make it stand out as a model of perfection. Perfection is what we have striven for in every detail, and I think no one will be disappointed. I am satisfied that this theater is a gem of art and that it could not be better set off than with these luxuriant, tropical gardens.”
And although the theater and its gardens are decades removed from East Sacramento’s landscape, for those who remember these places, their memories about this classic site run deep.