Domed theaters in San Jose set for last picture show

Century 21 Theatre at dusk (c) Therese Poletti

Century 21 Theatre at dusk (c) Therese Poletti

Three iconic domed movie theaters representative of the futuristic roadside, or Googie, architecture of the late 1950s and 1960s, are set to show their last films on March 31.

Last week, the current tenants of the Century 21 Theatre, Guggenheim Entertainment and the Retro Dome theater group, sent out an email alert that programming will cease at Century 21, 22, and 23 as of March 31st, because the lease for the theaters to Syufy Enterprises is up and it not being renewed. The theaters are known locally by their current name, the Winchester Theaters.

The property owners, including members of the family of the original architect, Vincent G. Raney, have filed a permit to demolish all three domes, and are fighting any attempt to save the theaters.

Many locals fear that the three theaters will be torn down for another shopping center, but no project or plans have yet been filed with the City of San Jose.

The trio of theaters, near the famous Winchester Mystery House, were originally dubbed the Century Theaters, as commissioned by Ray Syufy, a Bay Area movie theater entrepreneur, who hired Raney to design the domes. The Century 21, which opened in November, 1964, was the first dome in the Century Theaters chain and it was designed to showcase a new widescreen cinema technology called Cinerama. The Cinerama widescreen technology, one of the industry’s many efforts to combat growing competition from television, was originally developed using three synchronized cameras for filming and projecting. But when the first theater designed to show Cinerama opened in Hollywood in 1963, it showcased the improved single-screen Cinerama process using 70 mm film. One year later, Century 21 in San Jose, followed in that vein, showing the same opening film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” in single-lens 70 mm Cinerama.

After the first Cinerama theater opened in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, other domed theaters ensued. Cinerama Inc., the developer of the technology, promoted the dome design as economical and easy to build. Hollywood’s Cinerama, which has been preserved and is now a city landmark, has a geodesic dome design inspired by architect and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller.

Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s

Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s

Los Angeles has preserved important moments and venues in cinematic history, but in the Bay Area — home of Silicon Valley — these domed theaters, representative of a unique cinema technology, are threatened. Last May, the domed theater in Pleasant Hill, also designed by Raney for Syufy, was demolished to make way for a sporting good store. And in the last few months, two other domed theaters, the Century 24, across Highway 280 from the Winchester domes, and Century 25, in San Jose’s nearby Westgate Shopping Center, were also demolished.

Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca

Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca

Last year, the property owners hired Cassidy Turley real estate and advertised for new tenants to develop the acreage. Preservationists though, including the San Jose non-profit Preservation Action Council, fear the land, targeted by the city as another “urban village” will become another bland Santana Row, the cookie-cutter, faux Tuscan style shopping center and apartments across the street from the theaters. After writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the plight of the domes and learning about their historic significance, I have since become a supporter of saving at least one theater from the wrecking ball.

Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti

Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti

A campaign to save at least one of the theaters has gathered community support and over 5,500 people have signed a petition in Change.org.

But there are also detractors, and in an odd twist, those detractors include the architect’s family. In a letter to the city of San Jose a family member wrote that Raney “believed buildings have a life span and that as a community evolves, so should its architecture.” “He would think the Century 21 is ready for retirement, making way for something new that would serve the City’s and community’s needs now,” wrote Michelle Bevis, on behalf of the Raney and Farriss families, who own the land.

An architectural and historical debate

Does San Jose really need more bland shopping plazas and malls? Wouldn’t it be feasible to incorporate at least the earliest dome in the chain, a whimsical icon seen from Highway 280, into a mid-century style shopping area or office building? Some have argued that the domes are not historic, nor are they architecturally significant.

I beg to differ. The domes, which evoke notions of a spaceship, were emblematic of an era that has vanished, of optimism in the future, looking ahead to the 21st century and the space age with joy and anticipation. The domes were based on the concepts of Fuller, who patented his geodesic dome, a precisely calculated, patterned mesh that provided maximum strength at a minimum of cost. By 1959, Fuller had licensed his dome design to more than 100 corporations and city governments. At two futuristic world’s fairs of the early 1960s, for example, the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962, and at New York’s World’s Fair of 1964, Fuller-licensed domes or copycats were popular exhibition venues for forward-thinking companies, in that brief interlude of post-World War II optimism. It is also worth pointing out that Apple Inc.’s plans for a new corporate campus, as envisioned by the late co-founder Steve Jobs, also recall the idea of a spaceship.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was another major influence. Producer Mike Todd, one of the original founders of Cinerama, had formed his own company to work on a competing but improved single lens version of Cinerama, called the Todd-AO process. Todd hired Wright to design a domed theater with a geodesic roof using aluminum from Kaiser Aluminum, a theater with gently curved walls to showcase the widescreen movies his company was producing. Wright used Fuller’s concepts, according to the book, “Treasures of Taliesin, Seventy-Seven Unbuilt Designs,” but also modified the size of the dome and the scope of its overhead curve.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. The American Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber

Wright’s design, according to a rendering in “Treasures of Taliesin,” also included pre-cast concrete shells as walls. But Todd was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1958 and his heirs did not pursue movie theaters. Wright died one year later. Still, the Todd-AO single lens process was used by Cinerama and Panavision as an improvement on the original three camera process.

When Raney was hired by Syufy to design the first of many theaters in the chain, Cinerama sent Raney drawings of the standard dome theaters and the scaffolding used to erect it, according to the book, “Suburban America.” In addition, Raney had a personal connection to the site of the first theaters and the nearby Winchester Mystery House: his wife Edna was the oldest daughter of John H. Brown, the man who turned the bizarre tale of Sarah Winchester’s compulsive building additions and expansions to her rambling Victorian mansion into a major tourist attraction. Raney’s heirs today are among the owners of the vast parcel of nearly 12 acres of land the three theaters sit upon, and part of the group of 40 family members who are protesting the landmark nomination.

Finial atop Century 21 Theatre

Finial and bird atop Century 21 Theatre

Next month, California’s Historic Preservation Commission will review a nomination submitted by Docomomo Noca, the local chapter of an international non-profit focused on preserving and documenting mid-century modernism. The nomination seeks to add the Century 21 Theatre to the state’s register of historic resources. The nomination will be reviewed by the State Historical Resources Commission on April 22, at the California Preservation Foundation Conference at Asilomar. (disclosure: I am now on Docomomo Noca’s board).

If the theater is deemed by the state’s historic preservation commission as a “historic resource,” its survival is not guaranteed. According to historic preservation consultant Christopher VerPlanck, who is also president of Docomomo Noca, such a designation would require that any developer complete a costly and lengthy environmental impact report. “Any project that could negatively affect the ‘resource’ must take those effects into account with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR),” VerPlanck said. “Most developers will do whatever they can to avoid having to prepare an EIR, even if it involves preserving whatever it is they want to tear down.”

But it seems like in San Jose, it’s out with the old, in with the new.

Let’s hope some compromise can be achieved and that an important piece of the Jetsons era in Silicon Valley can be saved.

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10 Responses to “Domed theaters in San Jose set for last picture show”

  1. Lora Says:

    I am producing a historical wall featuring Henry J. Kaiser. I was intrigued by the photo of Kaiser with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd. Kaiser had his hand on a model of a geodesic dome. Henry Kaiser built that geodesic dome at his Hawaiian Village hotel in just 20 hours in 1959. It was used for Mike Todd’s worldwide premiere of Around the World in Eighty Days. Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor (his wife at the time), came to Hawaii for premiere. That geodesic dome was being used for different shows for 40 years and was torn down in 1999.

  2. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Here is the latest from my fav. ‘ROUTE 66′ website!

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Gold Dome back on market
    by Ron Warnick

    The historic Gold Dome building in Oklahoma City as back for sale after a company’s plans to turn it into its headquarters were scrapped because of a nosedive in oil prices, reported The Oklahoman last week.

    Building owner David Box said he’ll try to sell the structure to someone who will preserve the geodesic dome.

    TEEMCO, an area engineering firm in nearby Edmond, Oklahoma, that specializes in the oil industry, announced in August 2013 it would buy the Gold Dome and convert it into its headquarters. But, as reported in The Oklahoman:

    While TEEMCO once promised to build massive fish aquariums and install the world’s largest salt crystal lamp in the lobby of the building, the company says it is strapped for cash because of falling crude oil prices that have cut into their environmental contract work for the energy industry.

    “We have entered into an agreement to relinquish our plans for the Dome due to market conditions,” TEEMCO CEO Greg Lorson said in an email. “Our first priority is to get TEEMCO back on solid financial grounds.”

    The price of oil was over $100 a barrel in June. It since has cratered to under $50. A sizable part of Oklahoma’s economy is dependent on energy prices, and the plummeting price of crude has prompted the state government to brace itself for steep budget cuts.

    The announcement was so abrupt, TEEMCO still hasn’t removed its plans for the Gold Dome from its website. At the least, TEEMCO put a new roof on the building and rewired it. So it at least is in better shape than it was before.

    The Golden Dome was built as a Citizens State Bank building in 1958. In 2003, it faced demolition until Dr. Irene Lam bought it and turned it into a retail complex. Shortly afterwards, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2012, the building fell into foreclosure.

    The Gold Dome sits at Northwest 23rd Street and North Classen Boulevard, both sections of Route 66.

  3. Frank Dellaglio MA Says:

    Frank Dellaglio MA

    Domed theaters in San Jose set for last picture show | Timothy Pflueger Blog

  4. HippyFairy (Margaret Z) Says:

    Sad 😭 as an Aussie in another land I loved going here when I lived in Santa Clara. A great piece of local history gone?

  5. Michael Says:

    Therese, Thanks for putting this out. I’m interested in looking further into what DOCOMOMO is doing. Perhaps a bit more mid-century representation in SF.

    On another note, do you have the name of the person whose house was used for the City Guides annual party a few years back? The guy with all the pianos. I have someone with an old player piano who is interested in selling it.

    Hope you are doing well. Thanks.

    Michael

  6. tpoletti Says:

    Hi Cynthia. Thanks for reposting. Save the Googie Domes!

  7. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    California is fast becoming a place of : “That is where the huge, immpressive such ‘n such’ used to be and now its a drive-up burger bar!” How sad these beautiful structures are not treasured in the use-it / abuse-it / throw-it-away lifestyle that grows in California. Amazingly, in Little Rock, Arkansas – there is one of these magnificent domed theaters. Sadly, it no longer plays movies but it will hopefully be around for many decades into the future and will again have a link to bringing smiles to the hearts of all who walk through the front doors.

    • tpoletti Says:

      Hi if you have any more info on your Little Rock dome/former theater would love to learn more, or send a link. Thanks for sharing.

    • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

      It is regretful to be returning to this site with bad news…The CINEMA 150 in Arkansas will soon be destroyed.

      MONEY DOESN’T JUST TALK IN LITTLE ROCK, IT MUST SURELY SCREAM!

      A couple of realtor/ developers – who always know more about what is best for a community (and understand it is modern day’ American Way’ of business to make a fast dollar regardless of the history and drama in the design of a structure) – have announced they will have the magnificent “CINEMA 150″ – a splendid domed movie palace, felled next week. It is currently located in a shopping center(University at Asher Avenue) that has approx 40,000 vehicles pass it daily.

      The fancy designed dome hosted Arkie-born Glen Campbell at the elaborate Grand Opening. He was co-starring in the orig. production of ‘TRUE GRIT’, which was based on a splendid book authored by the Little Rock native, Charles Portis. Vintage local news film of the event showed a big crowd which included special guests as well as elected officials who were accompanied by the State Police for security!

      The “CINEMA 150″ was a place of excitement, grandeur, awe and fun.

      The new concept is to remove the gigantic theater, thereby making the strip of stores along the back of the parking area, better viewed. Today, the mall area – one of the first of its kind to be developed in the Capital city, has many empty storefronts, a long gone restaurant however there is a thriving tattoo joint in a former branch bank drive-thro place. So you can easily tell, this is a prime location for a big empty hole at the side of the asphalt parking lot, where a great building once stood. (Yeah, sure…) YAWN!

      I wish I could say there is a movement to save the structure, however the building has tremendous, new-fangled rivals for movie houses in the area. The structure (following the closing of the movie business) was transformed into a live-music venue for a brief time and soon will be just a long gone dream…

  8. Cynthia Says:

    Reblogged this on The Cynthia Project and commented:
    Save the Googie Domes!

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