Driving south from Santa Barbara through the neon playground of Ventura, I went to visit to Vogue Signs in Oxnard earlier this week. As you leave the freeway, of course, you pass the classic and abandoned old Wagon Wheel Inn sign, with neon horses and stagecoach, the whole place moldering and vandalized beneath it.
Around the corner, the Hacienda de Oro Restaurant stands abandoned under green and gold neon.
Then, a few blocks from Vogue, I passed the Teatro Theater at 624 Oxnard Boulevard. My CD deck was spilling out Willie Nelson’s CD, Teatro. I’d never connected the two, but when I got home, I found the connection was real.
“I’m going to hang a neon sign with letters big and blue Home Motel on Lost Love Avenue.”
Willie Nelson, Home Motel, Teatro
Opened as the Teatro in 1929, the 775-seat theater showed first run films for many years, and then, in the 1960s, as downtown moved out towards the 101, they became the Teatro “Boulevard” Theater and switched over to Spanish-language movies. They finally closed their doors in 1993 as the multiplexes continued to multiply around town.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “poor attendance and a recent drop in the production of Mexican films caused the demise of the Teatro Boulevard, the only Spanish-language theater in Ventura County.” General manager Jose Romo said, “It’s a tired old theater and there’s not much product anymore. People just stopped coming.”
From about 1997 to 2001, musician and music producer Daniel Lanois owned the theater and produced albums there. These included Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, 12 Bar Blues by Scott Weiland, the Brian Eno/U2-inflected and manned Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and of course, Willie Nelson’s Teatro. Lanois decamped to Silver Lake in 2001 and the Teatro owners tried to reinvent the place.
Film director Wim Wenders filmed the Willie Nelson recording sessions in his film, Willie Nelson at the Teatro.
But plans to reopen as a sound stage and rehearsal hall in 2002 fell through. The space was described at that time as having 250 seats with an 800 square foot stage. The central area of the theater “has a flat 3000 sq ft area for additional seating and for building sets.” The projection room had been converted to offices with sky lights and hardwood floors and there were DSL and new electrical installed throughout.
The theater was used by Iglesia Universal as a church during 2003 and 2004. When Universal left, the theater was up for lease again, this time for church use. Rumor had it that the cause was a zoning limitation set by proximity to the 14-plex a few blocks away. But this was not the case.
In late 2007, filmmaker Paul Sangster purchased the building. He has used the building for film shoots but would like to see other tenants, particularly creative-use tenants, interested in the space. Next month, the independent film, Polly Baker Pattern Maker will be shooting there.
But the city changed the zoning on the building immediately after Sangster’s purchase. Citing cracks in the rear masonry wall, they downgraded the number of people allowed inside at any given time to 500, limiting potential uses. Churches were interested and a boxing ring looked at the site, but the zoning limitations sent them down the road.
Maureen Hooper, with Oxnard’s Community Development Department, explained that the city has approved funds through Oxnard’s Façade Improvement Program for the building. She expects the refurbishment to start this month (Feb 2010) with soda-blasting of the exterior side and rear walls to remove several layers of paint and bring the side wall back down to the original brick. The masonry repairs are spec’ed to start for the rear wall soon as well.
The theater will then be repainted using a period art deco color palette. The final color selection is still in process.
The final touch will be restoring the original neon sign. Sangster contacted the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles for a recommendation of someone to restore the sign. Concurrent with the neon project, will be a project to install ambient LED lighting that will wash the front walls with lights of changing colors.
“Once we get our zoning back,” Sangster said, “it could be a theater again.” But his preference is to find tenants that would use if for “a music studio, photography, or [film] post production.” Once the work is completed the City has agreed that the original 500-700 person zoning will be restored.
It’s wonderful to see a beautiful old building getting needed care and attention from both the city and the owner. It will be worth the drive to see it when the place is restored. It will be a classy anchor for whatever redevelopment Oxnard focuses in the area. The entire façade restoration project is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.
Interested parties should contact WWW.FUTURELIGHTING.NET