Oroville Getaway Artist Theaters

Restoring the State Theater, One Pipe at a Time

Since 1927, the now-his­toric Oroville State The­ater has been a cen­ter­piece of the Down­town Oroville landscape.

Built by renowned Cal­i­for­nia archi­tect Tim­o­thy Pflueger, with its first per­for­mance on April 7, 1928, the State The­ater start­ed its life as a vaude­ville the­ater. In the style of the time, it was ornate­ly dec­o­rat­ed and equipped with a Wurl­itzer organ.

Over the decades, though, as it moved from silent movies to con­tem­po­rary block­busters, from one own­er to anoth­er, those orig­i­nal flour­ish­es dis­ap­peared — paint­ed over, removed, shrunk, or oth­er­wise forgotten.

The State The­ater Arts Guild (STAGE) , the all-vol­un­teer group that oper­ates and man­ages the the­ater, wants to change that by return­ing the build­ing to its orig­i­nal appear­ance and ambiance.

See­ing the Present Progress

When you walk into the State The­ater, you can see the progress, though in this case, it’s one of those sit­u­a­tions where things have to get worse before they get bet­ter. Walk­ing through the doors, stand­ing at the entrance, and tak­ing in the entire space, it feels some­what run­down, with strips of paint miss­ing on one wall here, a bit of the ceil­ing there, with a gen­er­al air of incompleteness.

Restoring the State Theater, One Pipe at a Time
Stripped areas reveal decorative finishes from the past. (June 2019)

Uncov­er­ing the Past

But step­ping clos­er, the State The­ater’s past begins to take present shape. 

Rather than from dis­re­pair, the strips of miss­ing paint in the lob­by are inten­tion­al. Peel­ing away the near­ly 10 lay­ers of paint from all the changes over the decades, STAGE found the orig­i­nal col­ors and dec­o­ra­tive fin­ish­es from the 1920s and 1930s. Along with his­tor­i­cal pho­tos of the build­ing from its glo­ry days, STAGE is using those stripped sam­ples to repaint and ren­o­vate the State The­ater and bring it back to its peri­od of great­est influ­ence,” gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered between 1934 and 1948, with that sig­na­ture art deco influence.

Some of those pho­tos are dis­played in the State Theater’s lob­by. Black and white framed pho­tographs from var­i­ous points of the theater’s life show the changes over the decades. You can see why STAGE is work­ing so hard to bring the past into the present: in 1941, the the­ater had an ornate, bright­ly lit mar­quee and con­spic­u­ous State” sign that puts the cur­rent design to shame. Bring­ing back that glam­or would make the State The­ater once again shine downtown.

Restoring the State Theater, One Pipe at a Time
The exterior of the State Theatre in 1941 (left) and in 2019 (right)

From Bold to Bland

Built for and oper­at­ed by T&D Jr. Enter­pris­es, which also owned the Sen­a­tor The­ater, the State Theater’s orig­i­nal design reflect­ed a time when going to a movie was still con­sid­ered a cap­i­tal E Experience. 

But when Unit­ed Artists bought the The­ater in the late 1970s, they mod­ern­ized” it, paint­ing over or chang­ing most of the remain­ing orig­i­nal flour­ish­es, and twin­ning” the the­ater with a divid­ing wall so they could show two movies at a time. By the time Unit­ed Artists sold the State The­ater to the City of Oroville in 1983, much of the spir­it that was built into the The­ater in 1927 was lost.

Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, the curi­ous (if not slight­ly lurid) paint schemes and design ele­ments — green art deco chan­de­liers, gold and sil­ver strip­ing, taupe and green walls — had been removed or paint­ed over. Func­tion­al­ly, the once near­ly 1,600-seat audi­to­ri­um now only held 600. The seats, which were orig­i­nal­ly in a bowl struc­ture with bet­ter views and air flow, now stood in straight lines. The live per­for­mances that defined its incep­tion were few and far between, as the State The­ater oper­at­ed pri­mar­i­ly as a film theater.

Restoring the State Theater, One Pipe at a Time
The view of the auditorium in June 2019

Bring­ing the Past to the Present

The City owned the State The­ater for more than 30 years, remov­ing the divid­ing wall, clean­ing the inte­ri­or, and man­ag­ing the upkeep. But in 2014, the Oroville City Coun­cil approved a con­tract allow­ing STAGE to oper­ate and man­age the State The­ater, allow­ing the group to con­tin­ue the work it had long been doing and bring­ing sta­bil­i­ty to the process.

Under STAGE, the team of vol­un­teers and sup­port­ers have come togeth­er to be a part of the ongo­ing Mir­a­cle on Myers Street,” the com­mu­ni­ty project named for sus­tain­ing the Theater’s day-to-day oper­a­tions and pro­mot­ing the dream of its com­plete restoration.

This sum­mer, that includes installing new car­pet and a repli­ca of the orig­i­nal water foun­tain, repaint­ing the lob­by, com­plete­ly uncov­er­ing a mur­al on the stair­case, and putting in the new” old mar­quee to replace the cur­rent plain one. 

The Mighty Wurl­itzer Pipe Organ

STAGE will also con­tin­ue ren­o­va­tion on a Wurl­itzer organ that was returned to the the­ater in 2018, thanks to the support of bene­fac­tors and ongo­ing indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens’ dona­tions. The State The­ater secured the instru­ment in 2009, but it lived in pieces in stor­age near the Oroville lev­ee until the 2017 spill­way inci­dent. Every­one then real­ized it was time to bring the organ, which has some mech­a­nisms dat­ing back to 1914, to the Theater. 

The State The­ater orig­i­nal­ly had an organ, but it was removed when the silent film era end­ed; today, With about 1,200 pipes con­nect­ed to dozens of instru­ments, the Wurl­itzer is one of the most expen­sive and time-con­sum­ing parts of the over­all restora­tion — but it’s well worth the effort. Played for select per­for­mances and spe­cial occa­sions, the sounds of the organ fill the audi­to­ri­um and drift into the lob­by, trans­port­ing you back to State Theater’s heyday.

If you close your eyes and lis­ten, you can almost see what the The­ater was like 90 years ago — and where its sup­port­ers hope it will be in the future.

Updates 5/18/2020

The Fall 2019 reopen­ing of the State The­atre revealed the new dig­i­tal mar­quee, which shines bright­ly in Down­town Oroville. Inside, vis­i­tors will see the updat­ed water foun­tain, art deco detail­ing on the ceil­ing, and the ren­o­vat­ed mur­al on the stairs. Restora­tions are ongo­ing—donate to help STAGE con­tin­ue its efforts.