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A Grand Second Life

01 May 2019 Written by  By Rick Carraher
Published in May 2019 Articles

Recounting a Decade of El Campanil Theatre Revival

El Campanil Theatre is East County’s finest showplace. It provides an elegant and lavish venue for live performances as well as for the showing of foreign films. Events include dance, comedy, and live theater. The venue is rooted in decades of history dating back to 1928. However, the house lights and stage lighting are up to standard and the sound system is the highest quality. We especially focus on theater for children. El Campanil Theatre schedules auditions, rehearsals, and performances for the public and for school children on field trips to the theater.

I’ve lived in Antioch for the past 43 years, after growing up in Southern California. When I opened my upscale Rick’s on Second Street sandwich restaurant in 1986, El Campanil Theatre was still showing movies across the street. One clear memory I have from those days is one Christmas season when the Antioch Business Association rented the theater. For the donation of a can of goods any child could come see a free movie. I remember that about 500 happy noisy kids showed up for the event. It was great!

The potential for the theater restoration first came to my attention about 20 years ago when I attended a meeting of the Antioch Economic Development group. At that meeting Nordyn Anderson proposed that we search for some way of saving El Campanil, which at that point had been rented out for a number of years to a church.

I immediately saw the potential. Nordyn and I worked together to develop a strategy to make the restoration happen. We approached the city manager, Mike Ramsey, who put us in touch with a consultant specializing in theater restoration and preservation.

IDENTIFYING THE PATH AND TAKING THE FIRST STEPS

Restoring the theater to its original elegance was a huge challenge that never would have happened without the hard work of a team of dedicated volunteers. Six of them served as members of the El Campanil Theatre Restoration Board. Nordyn remained our visionary. 

Gary Reiman added expertise from his perspective as President of the Antioch Arts and Culture Foundation. Dave Brink, a retired electrician from Dow Chemical, served as project manager. He brought to the table a wonderful spirit of day-to-day get-stuff-done. Sharon Beswick conducted our capital campaign and labored diligently and intelligently to get the resources we needed to move the project towards completion. Esther Park served as head of the Classic Film Committee. Venue Tech Management — a company out of Lafayette — provided technical guidance, consulting services, and management resources.

The first thing we had to do was to identify the scope of the project. The Calpine Corporation gave us a one-time grant of $25,000 to conduct a feasibility study and to put together a business plan. A main part of the plan that we came up with included bringing together community members and other people who were interested in preserving the theater and keeping it alive as a center for performing arts.

We conducted initial discussions with the property owners, the Stamm family, and identified their interests in seeing the project go forward. Fortunately, the Stamms encouraged us to continue our efforts, so we spent the subsequent year refining the plan, working on funding strategies and developing a capital campaign, while seeking support from the Antioch business community.

In early 2003 we successfully negotiated an acceptable purchase arrangement with the property owners and in June that year, once again using money from a Calpine Corporation grant, we purchased the theater. We took ownership of the facility in July and initiated a membership drive.

The Redevelopment Agency approved a $750,000 one-time grant to get the first phase off the ground. The El Campanil Theatre Preservation Foundation raised the remaining $400,000 through its capital campaign.

Fortunately, the church that was occupying the building at the time moved to another base of operations, so we had the theater to ourselves and could begin work. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any money, so we set up a strategy and did some planning. We subsequently were able to rent the property to New Hope Community Church on a Sunday-only arrangement. We were also fortunate, as the current property owner, to be collecting revenue from street-front businesses on Second Street including a law office, computer shop, insurance company, barber, and gift shop.

On July 4, 2009, we opened the front doors, providing a premier performing space for the local entertainment industry.

We put together a proposal in late 2003 and approached the City of Antioch Redevelopment Agency. The project plans included details of how we intended to restore and renovate the theater at a cost of between four and five million dollars.

The first phase, costing about a million dollars, made sufficient renovations so the facility could open for public use. This included replacing carpet and seating, installing new sound and lighting systems, expanding the stage, renovating projection equipment, and restoring the mural on the wall above the stage.

We were particularly proud of our success with that mural. It is a beautiful work of art that had been partly covered in brown paint, completely covered in drapes, and had holes drilled through it as part of a former restoration of the theater’s cooling system.

On July 4, 2009, we opened the front doors, providing a premier performing space for the local entertainment industry. Our initial opening coincided with the always-lavish Downtown Antioch Fourth of July Celebration. A wonderfully talented ensemble called Vocal-ease and the Boogiemen had the honor of giving the first live commercial public performance in the El Campanil Theatre in more than a decade.

We continued to move forward in raising funds and completing the restoration. We conducted a seat-naming campaign. For $750 anybody could have the name of their choice displayed on a plaque on the armrest of one of the seats. We made structural improvements and hired Hollywood set designers to recreate original decorations, artifacts, and trim details.

Our Grand “Gala” Opening took place in October. It was “grand” indeed, because it featured Debbie Reynolds. The schedule filled up with a variety of interesting events. We worked with Actors’ Equity and Playhouse West, which is a repertory theater group performing at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

From the beginning, my passion for the El Campanil restoration project was based upon the economic value that I see for our downtown area. I believed that the theater, and other planned improvements, would lure people back downtown. I hoped El Campanil would serve as a cornerstone to anchor a wave of such redevelopment activities.

The rebirth of downtown Antioch is moving slowly but is underway. The vacancy rate is currently one of the lowest it’s been in a long time. There is a good mix of small shops and businesses. The area is beginning to attract some new restaurants, such as the beautiful upscale Smith’s Landing Seafood Grill. There is a vibrant, hopeful atmosphere; things are changing.

The Campanil Restoration project was a wonderful undertaking for Antioch. I am still hopeful that it will be at the lead of good things yet to happen. 

Photos by Ron Essex

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