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Roseville Theatre began, endured through untold stories

Theater trying to emerge again as a destination
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, The Press Tribune
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the histories of the Roseville and Tower theaters.

For more than eight decades an elegant icon of lights has signaled from the north end of Vernon Street, casting teal and vermillion shades — a constant reminder that existence on the old avenue has been, in recent years, an uncertain tale of survival.

The Roseville Theatre was erected shortly after World War I by a brotherhood of Free Masons who hoped to make a community gathering point and an eminent showroom where the full force of the arts could flourish. For years the building succeeded in those missions, holding an unusually powerful spot in the imaginations of Roseville’s children. But four generations after one group of Masons created the venue, a new generation of Masons would be called upon to save it — rescuing the theater from a storm of financial and logistical disasters not of their making, which threatened to permanently end its role in the community’s life.

Free Masonry came to Placer County with the Gold Rush. By 1876, a major lodge had been expanded along Roseville’s bustling rail lines. The group began to harbor the seeds of a grand vision for the city. In 1925, a cornerstone for the dual structure known as Roseville Masonic Temple and the Roseville Theatre was dropped in the soil along Vernon. A year later, the Roseville Tribune ran a front-page headline about the eye-opening $150,000 price tag attached to the structure, as well as photographs of hundreds of residents flocking below its opulent marquee. An editorial called the project “a beautiful monument to masonry — the result of six years of earnest effort.”

Newspaper clippings from the theater’s debut show that Roseville residents were indeed awed by what they saw walking in. At the center of its high, luminous hallway was a spouting indoor fountain with koi fish in its rings. Past the concession stand were the cave-like arches of the main hall and a bright, colorful drinking fountain made completely of tile mosaics. A massive $20,000 pipe organ adorned the walls of the main theater, along with scrawling murals set in Egyptian motifs.

In addition to motion pictures, the Roseville Theatre hosted Vaudeville acts like Acherman & Harrison and the “Mare Nostrum” from San Francisco. Tickets to a show cost 40 cents for the pricey and preferred upper-deck seating, and 30 cents for “the pit.” A child’s ticket cost 10 cents.

One day in the early 1930s, David Fiddyment’s father loaded him into an automobile and drove from the family cattle and sheep ranch to the Roseville Theatre. Fiddyment was 10 years old and eager to watch a serialized western starring Tom Mix, “King of the Cowboys.” The experience didn’t go as planned.

“That movie ended up scarring the hell out of me,” Fiddyment told the Press Tribune. “That’s probably my clearest memory of the theater — just how terrified I was once I finally got in to see it.”

In the coming years, silver screen stars like Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and William Holden would all flicker through the Roseville Theatre’s projection light.

By the early 1980s, the Roseville Theatre had ended its run as a movie house. It became a stage venue for local performing arts company Magic Circle Theater. But as the years rolled, convincing residents of an ever-modernizing and ever sleeker-looking Roseville to patronize the faded building became difficult.

“Many people thought the Roseville Theatre was vacant,” said Mark Wolinski, a government relations analyst for the city. “That’s how run-down it looked. The façade was just in complete disrepair.”

Shortly after the millennium turned, Magic Circle Theater approached Roseville’s redevelopment agency with a plan for a monumental make over for the theater. The redevelopment agency issued a significant loan that helped Magic Circle embark on a herculean renovation, including re-upholstering the seats, erecting a new marquee and conducting cosmetic surgery on the theater’s façade. Historic experts were consulted on every move. One detail left unchanged was the original neon theater sign, which has stayed remarkably intact after 80 years. The chic Asian murals that replaced the Egyptian murals during the Art Deco period also remain visible.

New life had been breathed into the Roseville Theatre, but there were still harder times ahead. In 2010, plagued by massive debt, a poor economy and over-spending, Magic Circle Theater — then known as Civic Theater West — fell into final, insurmountable bankruptcy. When Roseville city officials and the Masons obtained a full understanding of the theater group’s alleged mismanagement, the news was starker than they could have dreamed: In order for the Roseville Theatre to continue on as a theater, someone had to assume, and pay for, more than $75,000 in debt left behind by the defunct Magic Circle.

The city wasn’t in a position to do it. The Masons had a serious dilemma.

“2010 was a historic moment for the theater,” said Randy Moore, board president of the Masons. “That was almost the end of it. That was the point were it had to be decided if the theater was going to live or die.”

Mason Eric Wilt also remembers that fateful year. “There was a real sense of the unknown,” he said. “We knew how much value the theater had to the community, but the problems were so bad that I’m not sure anyone had an idea of what was going to happen.”

A number of offers came in from developers wanting to gut the theater. Some looked to turn it into a church. Others envisioned the potential dollar signs behind a convention center.

Every year, the Roseville Theatre hosted an annual Christmas production for children. As the holiday season drew near, the Masons were suddenly flooded with letters from youngsters asking if the production would go forward.

“We got hundreds of messages from kids and families about that Christmas play,” Moore remembered. “I think that’s what ultimately convinced the Masons to keep it a theater. I mean, what do you do when you have all these kids reaching out to you? We decided to do what was best for the children of Roseville. Even though it meant we, the Masons, had to pay almost all of that $75,000 bill — we did it, and we’re glad we did.”

The Masons say they soon found a new tenant that was perfect for the venue, The Roseville Theatre Arts Academy. Headed by Michelle Raskey and Jennifer Vaughn, the nonprofit group has been teaching Roseville’s youngsters about singing, acting and dancing since 2011. In its first year of production, the theater company received 29 Elly nominations.

Ken Duisenberg’s son Nicholas is in a RTAA workshop for kids 8 to 14 and 16-year-old daughter Amanda has performed in a number of musicals. Duisenberg thinks there are some very practical reasons why the historic theater still casts a peculiar spell.

“I’m always just enthralled that it’s a standard theater with a full stage, curtains, presidio arches and an orchestra pit,” he said. “It’s pretty rare to see community theater in a venue like that. It also has a fully operating fly system that raise full-set backdrops 70 feet in the air and a real sound and light booth to work from, which sort of helps you hide the magic.”

For Raskey, the current president of Roseville Theatre Arts Academy, the power of the old theater also resides in elements that are harder to explain. “It’s the legacy of the building and its whole feel that captures people,” she said. “I love thinking about all of the amazing performers that were here before us. I call them the theater ghosts; and I don’t mean that in a bad way. With all the Vaudeville acts and different productions that have inhabited this place, to be dancing and acting in here makes you feel like a living part of history.”

The Roseville Theatre Arts Academy’s first production starring adults, “Into the Woods” starts Sept. 28 and runs until Oct. 20. For dates, time and more information, visit http://rosevilletheatreartsacademy.com.

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA-RsvPT.