Historic gem: Eureka Theater turns 75

As a kid, Charles Petty always enjoyed attending movies at the Eureka Theater.

"Going was an adventure," said the secretary and restoration chair of the nonprofit Eureka Concert and Film Center. "It was more than the movie boxes you go to at the mall. It was a palace. The surroundings elevated your experience."

As moviegoers step into the theater, sweeping staircases and glitzy, vibrant colors catch the eye.

"It's kind of like a Hollywood set from the '30s," Petty said.

On March 4, the streamline Art Moderne style theater will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

"I'm very happy to see it get there," said Richard Mann, son of theater builder George M. Mann. "That was always our flagship. It's a beautiful theater."

Theater magnate George M. Mann built the venue after purchasing theaters up and down the North Coast in 1919.

"He was doing so well, he wanted to invest in a new theater because we just had little theaters at the time," Petty said.

When the grand edifice that seated 1,700 patrons was built at the end of the Great Depression in 1939, it was -- and still is -- the largest theater between San Francisco and Portland. It was designed by Hollywood set designer William B David, who also designed the Arcata and Fortuna theaters.

"That's the way he operated," Robert Mann said. "He always tried to bring big city type theaters to the smaller towns."

The ambitious $300,000 project had all the modern amenities -- heating, ventilation and accousticon phones for the hard of hearing.

"I can remember seeing it being built," said Robert Mann, who was 4 or 5 at the time. "I was sitting across the street in the window of the Eureka Inn when they were putting the letters up on the Eureka. It was like a box. One went on top of each other."

When the Manns came to visit, they lived in a 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bath apartment above the theater. George Mann operated the theater until his death in 1966.

Richard Mann then ran the theater until it closed in 1996. It sat empty for four years until Rob and Cheri Arkley, who were looking for a theater to restore, purchased it from Robert Mann.

The Arkleys originally planned to turn it into a performing arts center, but since the theater was built to only accommodate film, it would have required a lot of work. They then moved their attention to the State Theater Building, now the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts, and bowed out, turning it over to the nonprofit in the early 2000s.

After taking over, the concert and film center has spent thousands of dollars restoring the theater to its original glory, Petty said. The group has raised $500,000 over the years, but needs $3 million.

Wendy Petty, president of the nonprofit, said the theater was very special when it was built because it allowed people to be optimistic and to try to look forward to a better future.

"We're trying to recreate that vision by doing an authentic restoration," Wendy Petty said.

Today, the theater is mostly used for live concerts such as the Redwood Coast Jazz Festival in March. The nonprofit will still show the occasional film, but plans to add more live productions, Charles Petty added.

"My goal is to have it be, especially with the Arkley Center closed with an uncertain future, to develop the Eureka Theater into a performing arts center for Eureka and Humboldt County," he said.

Eureka Councilman Mike Newman said the theater is part of the heart and soul of the city.

"It's one of those things that if it was gone, it would just be one of those other little things that would be the stones out of the necklace of Eureka," Newman said. "It is historic, and it is something that many generations have attended, and it brings a lot of memories around for generations of people."

Robert Mann said he hopes the theater will be around for several new generations to enjoy.

"It was built, somewhat, as a tribute to Eureka, and I think it's served that purpose well," he said.

If you go:

What: 1939 movie marathon

When: 12 p.m. to midnight, March 1, doors open at 11 a.m.

Where: Eureka Theater, 612 F St.

Cost: $0.35 for an all day ticket, $0.10 for children under 13

Lorna Rodriguez can be reached at 441-0506 or lrodriguez@times-standard.com. Follow her on Twitter @LornaARodriguez.

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