Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Romance Theatre

When I was a kid, there was a movie theater* in town named, The Romance.  The original building had been built in 1917 in the Beaux Arts style.  In that building, there were prize fights, vaudeville and burlesque shows, live plays and of course silent cinema. 

In 1935, Messrs. DeMourdant and Drennen remodelled the theater in the Art Deco style.  In doing so, they purchased the bakery next door, knocked the walls out and expanded the original building to almost twice it's original width.  Inside was decorated with beautiful plaster ornamentation that was brightly painted in the Art Deco style and colors.  We have a photo of the theatre during this time period with the 1937 version of "The Prisoner of Zenda" on the marquee.

The Romance Theatre today

This is the theater I grew up with.  Going to the movies back then was an event.  Something you planned for, saved for and cleared your schedule for.  The ticket office was just outside the front door and the line would stretch around the block.  In those days the movie houses were always full.  When you entered the theatre it was like entering another world.  People spoke in hushed tones, the house lights were turned low, just high enough for you to see your way to your seat but not dark enough to be dangerous.  In the front there was a very large curtain that covered the screen and lights in the floor warming the curtain so it looked beautiful.

At about three minutes to showtime, the main curtain went up, usually in an Austrian style (Austrian is a curtain that rises from the floor and gathers in symmetrical swags as it ascends).  Some theaters had a second inner curtain that would page open like drapes in a home.  As that was happening, the giant screen would roll down and the houselights would dim.  When this delicate choreograhy of screens, curtains and lights was finished, there might be one preview and then a cartoon.  Finally the movie would start.

These days, going to a movie is a vastly different experience  There is no main curtain, the much more modest screen is exposed and usually has a digital projector playing really bad community ads.  The patrons are loud, usually texting and otherwise generally obnoxious.  When it's showtime, there is usually fifteen minutes of previews of upcoming attractions.  Finally the lights go down and the movie begins.  The old way was much better.

When I was in grade school, a kid named Dave DeMourdant moved here from California.  Dave's dad inherited The Romance and I became Dave's friend.  Saturday afternoons were spent at the theater watching movies.  In those days you could purchase a ticket at the first showing and stay to the next.  Life was good back then.  I remember Dave and I watching "Tora, Tora, Tora" three times, back to back to back on a Saturday afternoon.  Somewhere along the line, our church congregation split and he went to one and I went to another.  Funny how imaginary boundaries like that can change things.  We kind of went our separate ways after that.  We stayed friends but were never close again.

In 1976, the Teton Dam collapsed and flooded Rexburg and the surrounding communities.  The water level in downtown Rexburg was about four to six feet deep.  The Romance Theater was flooded along with every other building in the downtown area.  The high water mark of the flood is still visible on the stage right brick wall on the stage of the theatre.  It is one of very few public places in town where you can still see the flood line.  After the flood, the DeMourdants decided to update the theater and covered all the ornate plasterwork with curtains, put new seats in, put mustard yellow melamine across the front of the building and changed the name to The Westwood Theater.  I saw "Star Wars" in The Westwood in 1977. 

The line on the dark brick is the high water mark from the Teton Dam Flood in 1977

Early in our marriage, Chimene and I saw the movie, "Aliens" at The Westwood Theater.  I have many fond memories in The Romance and then The Westwood Theater.

At some point, DeMourdant sold the theater to a major theater company and the mom and pop days were over.  The manger they hired told the big company that there was still some old theatre scenery from the vaudeville days behind the screen.  They told him to take it to the dump and discard it, tell no one about it.  I believe they didn't wish to have anyone nosing about and trying to get the theatre listed on the National Historic Register.  He followed their orders and a great treasure was lost.

Somewhere around the year 2000 the movie chain fell on hard times and began ridding themselves of theater properties.  The Westwood was one of them.  They had another theater right around the corner called The Holiday and didn't want anyone they sold it to to be able to open up competition, so they began gutting The Westwood.  The city attorney found out about it and filed a cease and desist order and the theater was saved.  It sat empty for a couple of years and the city coucil was trying to determine how to dispose of the property.  One idea that gained alot of ground was to raze the building and replace it with a parking lot.

In the city council meeting where the disposition of The Westwood Theater was being discussed the citizenry of Rexburg descended upon city hall and let the city council know that in no uncertain terms, we would have another city council in the next election cycle if they tore the building down.  The city fathers made a quality decision and decided it was in the best interest of all that the building be restored.  I wrote a note to one of the council members I knew that I would be willing to donate my time to paint the plaster inside the auditorium.

I was named to the committee to restore the theatre, and we voted to restore not only the theatre but also the name, and The Romance Theatre Committee was born.  Over the next several years we had many ups and downs with the citizens, the city council, inner strife within the committee, and a lack of committment among some of the members.  For a short time, the city disbanded the committee and took over management of the property.  The person they put in charge was disinterested and just about ran the thing into the ground.

About that time, the city attorney got involved.  He's just a year older than me and has many great memories of the theater as well.  He restored the committee and we were back in business.  There was alot of construction that needed to be done, many repairs to the building before we could paint, and finally this year we have been able to paint the decorative plaster.  It's been a long time, but finally it's here.  We painted the proscenium in the spring and summer, and I went in today to paint for a few hours.  The place is looking very good.

I insisted that we paint the plaster with casein paint and that we use gold and copper leaf in areas.  I also insisted that we paint the deep recesses of the plaster with ultramarine blue instead of black.  These were correct choices.  As I mentioned it is beginning to look like a theatre again.  Here are a few pictures I took today.

Detail of the painted plaster

All the interior doors looked like this once

The old houselight resistance dimmers on the linoleum floor

The old Peerless carbon arc projector

1930's vintage drinking fountain in the basement

Cracked plaster over brick in the basement

Window in the back wall

Unpainted plaster pilaster

Unpainted ceiling medallion

*Note:  You may think I misspelled the words theatre and theater.  That is not the case.  I used the word theater when I was referring to it as a movie theater, and I used the word theatre when I was referring to it as a live theatre.


Shaela said...

Holy cow, that plaster is gorgeous!! Lucky you in helping to bring that beautiful building back to life. :)

Bascombe said...

It's been a labor of love for those of us on the committee. They formed the committee, then they got in our way for several years, and now finally we can do something about it.