Historic Hemet Theatre draws an audience

Inside the Historic Hemet Theatre. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Not all history is found in textbooks and on dusty archive shelves. The Historic Hemet Theatre was built in 1921 and is one of the oldest movie houses in the country. Although it has added more than just a motion-picture experience, it is the preservation of its heyday that is what visitors enjoy most.

For decades, the theater was a vibrant center of the community but when multiplex theaters began to crop up in the San Jacinto Valley and home entertainment options became more affordable, small theaters suffered. New owners struggled to keep the doors open by offering timeless movie classics, as well as niche and cult movies that were not being shown on a big screen.

In 2010, a fire destroyed the storefronts in an adjacent building and extensive water damage from the firefight closed the theater’s doors. If not for the dedication of a group of volunteers who formed The Historic Hemet Theatre Foundation and took over the venue’s operation in 2013, it would have suffered the fate of many other historic theaters around the country.

According to the nonprofit organization’s CEO and president, Susan Carrier, the foundation completed its purchase of the property in March 2018 and began planning its multi-million-dollar renovation. The Century Club campaign was established to raise funds necessary to have the theater ready for its 100th birthday celebration.

She said the transformation started with plaster and paint in the lobby, using old photos to replicate an art deco flair from the 1930s. New carpet and concession equipment were added, and custom chandeliers are being fabricated to complete the look. In the auditorium, projection, sound and lighting equipment have been updated. Elegant plush seats, donated by the Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood, have been installed, with the removed seats being sold to supplement the building fund. One set of 36 seats were shipped to Takamatsu, Japan, as part of a classic movie house created by renowned artist Yoichiro Yoda.

Future improvements include enlarged restrooms with handicap access and improved green room facilities for performers. Eventually, the front of the building will include a reproduction of the building’s pointed marquee from the 1940s with classic neon lights. The upper level of the building will house a museum of early film, dedicated to the theater’s original owner, William Martin. Funds for the renovations are being raised from a combination of donations, program sponsors, grants and fundraisers.

As old as the current theater is, it was not Hemet’s first movie house. Martin built the first one in 1913 across the street from the current venue at 216 E. Florida Ave. Five years later, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake caused significant damage to the original theater, along with most of the buildings in the downtown area. Martin rebuilt the theater on the north side of the street and reinforced it with concrete block walls, which remain to this day.

The building was renovated in the 1940s and the 1960s when its original marquee was replaced with the current flat version it has today. Martin’s son, Harold, kept the theater operating through the 1970s. In 2000, the Martin family sold the property to two diehard movie fans: David Bernal and Emerson Bixby. Once the oldest continually run single-screen movie theater in the nation, the fire in January 2010 closed it down. No structural damage occurred thanks to Martin’s concrete construction. This sturdiness also makes it one of only a few buildings of that era that can be restored without required earthquake retrofitting.

Carrier said the foundation has already hosted more than 50,000 patrons through its various program offerings. Fans are discovering that inside that plain little building in the middle of town is a charming art deco auditorium with wonderful acoustics, a series featuring great tribute bands and a big dance floor at the foot of the stage. And bands are discovering the enthusiasm of the Hemet audiences: cheering, clapping and dancing more than anywhere else they perform.

The Historic Hemet Theatre has been receiving rave reviews and awards thanks to the foundation’s efforts. The nonprofit has about 100 volunteers and its mission is to improve the quality of life in the community with three key impacts: historic preservation of the theater, cultural enrichment through performing arts and educational programming and economic revitalization of Hemet’s historic downtown district.

“We are helping to breathe new life into downtown Hemet, spreading the word that there are exciting things happening here,” Carrier said.

For more information, visit www.HistoricHemetTheatre.com or call (951) 658-5950.