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Tower Theatre looms large in local memories

By: Scott Thomas Anderson, The Press Tribune
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the histories of the Roseville and Tower theaters.

During one of the most trying times in Roseville's history, teenagers would drive their Chevrolets toward a 60-foot blade of light rising over downtown - a dim, air-conditioned sanctuary where they could escape the shadow of World War II.

In the years that followed, the theater would endure a scorching fire, tenant abandonments and a monetary meltdown, though never losing its place as a special icon of Roseville's past. 

Before the Tower Theatre stood along Vernon Street its lot held several identities, from a sprawling oak bower during the Civil War called "The Gypsy Playground" to a Victorian-styled law office known as the Goodpaster House. By the late 1930s, the cinema company Lima & Peters was eyeing the lot for its newest movie house. Lima and Peters hoped its regal theater design would dazzle residents and be the perfect spot to screen "first-run" major motion pictures.  

When the Tower's lights finally came on in 1940, the neon glow could be seen for miles across Roseville's outer farmlands. Ken Lonergan lived in a house just behind the theater on Oak Street. The 14-year-old quickly got himself a job after-school at the hotspot.

"It was the end of the Depression, so the theater didn't hire custodians, they just hired high school kids," he said. "We didn't get paid in money, we got paid with seeing free movies."

Lonergan's working assignment was "gum boy," which tasked him with scraping chewed bubble gum off the bottom of seats with a putty knife. Kids who started as gum boys worked their way up to aisle sweepers. Lonergan quickly learned there was a hierarchy between his buddies and paid employees.   

"I remember the projectionist who worked at the Tower Theatre was in a union," he said. "When it came time to change the reels in between movies, he made sure the teenagers carried the reels around for him. In his mind, there was no way a union projectionist was going to stoop to toting around film."

The woman Longeran would ultimately marry, Vera, also worked at the Tower Theatre. Vera was a teenage usherette, spending her nights in a tidy uniform with a small flashlight as she helped escort customers to their seats in the dark. Today, she also remembers working the ticket booth, and the incredible amounts of people who would flock in for picture shows starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

"When the booth opened, there were always people waiting," Vera said. "There would be a line all the way down the street."

On a December afternoon in 1941, Ken Lonergan was working inside the Tower Theater when he heard that the United States was just attacked by Japanese war planes in Pearl Harbor. Like most cities, Roseville would never be the same. Thirty-four of the young men who left for the war would be killed in combat.  

Between 1941 and 1945, news reels would play ahead of the movies. With all other reports channeled through newspapers and radios, the pre-show reels offered the only moving images of a war that was always hovering over the public's consciousness. Several patriotic war-films starring John Wayne, such as "The Flying Tigers," "The Fighting Seabees" and "Back in Bataan," also loomed on the Tower's screen.  

Despite the constant barrage of war images, many residents found a certain refuge from the stress of the conflict within the Tower Theatre's walls.  

"The Tower was a place where we really go to escape the war," said Phoebe Astill, who was a young girl at the time. "Friday nights were sort of unofficially reserved for teenagers, and Saturday afternoon the kids would flood in for the cartoons, westerns and serialized matinees. While the movies were playing, you didn't have to think about what was happening in the world."    

World War II eventually ended and life in Roseville began to take on a sense of normalcy. However, on March 17, 1955, The Roseville Press Tribune ran a front page headline about a fire that had erupted throughout the theater. The blaze had started sometime around 2 a.m. after closing hours. Roseville Fire Chief Pete Badovinac told reporters that while he could not officially determine the cause, his own suspicion was that a lighted cigarette left under one of the seats triggered the disaster. The fire destroyed the Tower Theater's entire east balcony.

The theater had ceased showing motion pictures by the early 1980s. Largely abandoned, fears circulated that it would eventually be torn down. In 1989, philanthropists Angelo & Sophia Tsakopoulos bought the structure and donated it to the City of Roseville, with the stipulation that it be used as a venue for promoting the arts. Due to concerns over lead paint and asbestos, the interior of the theater was virtually gutted. The city eventually restored the lobby, offices and restrooms to look like they originally did.

The owners of Magic Circle Theatre, who had recently renovated the Roseville Theatre with help from the city's Economic Redevelopment Agency, approached the city again with a plan to renovate the Tower Theater. In 2005, the city committed tens of thousands of dollars to converting the Tower into a modern theater in-the-round. Magic Circle hosted plays at the Tower Theater until 2010, when the company went bankrupt.

Determined not to let the theater be abandoned again, the city set up a new committee to manage use of it. That group was soon approached by Jason and Jennifer Bortz, the owners of the nonprofit Stand Out Talent. The Bortzs were not just looking to continue live theater productions at the Tower, they were also intent on restoring its legacy as a venue for films. Stand Out Talent has since showcased numerous movies by virtue of a digital sound system and a 25-foot dropdown screen. Jason Bortz is also currently planning to use the theater for what he hopes will be one of the biggest film animation festivals in the region. Roseville Assistant City Manager John Sprague said Stand Out Talent is performing to the city's expectations, which is why its lease was recently extended for another two years.   

For Jennifer Bortz, it's an honor to direct events and films in a theater that conjures so many lasting memories for Roseville.

"We hear all the time how excited people are that the theater is open again and being utilized," she said. "People tell us so many stories about things they remember inside these walls over the years. All I can say is, I truly love this theater."

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