The California Restoration
The California Restoration

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After 30 years, San José's historic California Theatre has reopened as a major performing arts facility designed both for live stage performances and for motion pictures. The $75 million renovation has been the result of a six-year joint undertaking of the San José Redevelopment Agency and the Packard Humanities Institute.

Originally designed by Weeks and Day, the architects of the Sainte Claire Hotel, Oakland's Fox Theatre, and San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel, the California Theatre is one of the best-preserved examples of late-1920's motion picture houses in the country. Over the years, the theater housed vaudeville shows and featured 3D and Cinemascope until it finally closed in 1973. Twelve years later, the San José Redevelopment Agency bought the property to protect it from permanent loss; and in 1998, the generosity of the Packard Humanities Institute launched the conversion of the theater into a modern performing home for Opera San Jose and other performing groups.

The transformation of the theater into a top tier performance facility required a larger and wider stagehouse. Unfortunately, a service alley for the Hyatt Sainte Claire, located directly behind the existing stagehouse, left no room to expand. With the gracious cooperation of the hotel, the alley was relocated from Market Street to First Street, allowing a larger stagehouse to be constructed. The added 13 feet of stage depth permits Opera San Jose to stage opera performances and exchange sets with other opera companies. Symphony Silicon Valley, too, needs every inch of the extended stage to accommodate the full orchestra.

Restoration of the historic building to its 1927 richness was a major goal of the project. The First Street entry façade now displays a recreation of the original marquee, and the vertical blade sign, featuring a motif of California golden poppies animated with chase lights, has been faithfully reproduced. Tony Heinsbergen, son of the original decorative designer of the California, supervised the restoration of the magnificent interiors until his untimely death; James Goodman then completed the design and supervised the decorative painting in the historic portions of the theater. The auditorium and three foyers have been refurbished with cast plaster detail and painted finishes that take their cues from historic photographs. The elaborately stenciled entry hall ceiling has been cleaned to reveal to its original brilliance. Custom broadloom carpeting, infill terracotta tile, and marble veneer cover the surfaces; restored Moorish-style chandeliers and light sconces of amber mica glow with a subdued warmth.

The theater will soon have two mighty Wurlitzer organs. One, already installed, is located in the main auditorium behind the original ornate plaster grillwork flanking the stage. The second will be heard in the historic First Street entrance lobby. Within the auditorium, restored painted designs in geometric shapes and amber light fixtures continue the transformation, along with theatrical lighting embedded in dropped ceiling beams and in Juliet balconies, and 1,134 new mohair upholstered seats.

To accommodate live on-stage performances, both the rear orchestra and balcony seating were re-raked for better sightlines, while retaining the traditional movie palace ambiance.

A sound-dampening roof structure now reduces outside noise penetration. The stage rigging and curtains, the orchestra pit elevator, and theatrical lighting and sound systems are new. For each of its performances, Symphony Silicon Valley will install a provisional orchestra shell designed to project the orchestra's sound out into the audience. Its 108 modular panels can be adjusted to help 'tune' the hall for orchestral music.

Operated by Team San Jose, this beautifully restored and expanded historic theater is the new home for Symphony Silicon Valley, Opera San Jose, a classic film series and the annual Cinequest film festival. It has become the centerpiece of San Jose's South First Street theater, arts, and entertainment district, "at the center of a revitalized downtown music scene." (Mercury News, May 3, 2005)

Special thanks to Opera San Jose, San Jose Redevelopement Agency and PAC*SJ for information and photos.

© 2018 Symphony Silicon Valley
P.O. Box 790, San Jose, CA 95106-0790
325 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
Phone or Fax: (408) 286-2600

Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José