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Revitalization of Gridley's Butte Theater envisioned
Gridley officials envision their town's partly-destroyed movie house as a community polestar, one that would lure residents downtown and transform the city.
The Butte Theater, built in 1938 when it was hailed by the local newspaper as a "new sensation" and "a credit to the city," now sits unused and decaying in the heart of town.
Seventy-four years later, Dave Garner wants to start another new sensation. A City Council member and Butte County deputy district attorney, Garner is leading a charge to nab federal money that would spur a major revamp of the Butte.
"Having a theater with blinking marquee lights would be a tremendous victory for what makes small-town America good," Garner said.
Refurbishing the theater would lure residents downtown, which in turn could attract new businesses, perhaps a coffee shop and a restaurant, he continued. Instead of driving to Chico, Yuba City or Marysville, Gridley residents could stay in town for a drink, a show and a chat with friends.
"It's always good if people are out and about in their community," Garner said. "A revived theater could anchor all that.
"If we can breathe life into this community again, I think people could rediscover why the town is there in the first place."
The Butte is not alone. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001 listed "Historic Movie Theaters" like the Butte as one of the most endangered historic buildings in America.
No exhaustive national inventory of historic theaters exists, according to a 2005 report from Lafayette-based Venuetech Management Group, but the company cites estimates there were once more than 20,000 historic, single-screen theaters in the country — and that fewer than 5,000 remain.
Garner said a few times that maybe he's being unrealistic, especially in a time when Gridley, like pretty much every other California city, is struggling to make ends meet.
Which is why he has a plan to go outside the city's budget to get the money.
The city plans to apply for a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which would pay for a renovation's design, said Angela Redamonti, the city's community development director. The city could then leverage that work to get more money to pay for construction.
The main project would be replacing the old marquee, which was torn down because of safety issues in the mid-2000s, said Redamonti, who said officials plan to work with the theater's owner to assess any other repairs and renovations that are necessary. Until then, they won't know how much the project's total price tag would be.
The Butte Theater is a great fit for the endowment's Our Town grant, Redamonti said.
The money would let Gridley go after the grant's goal of "leveraging the arts to create livable, sustainable neighborhoods with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, distinct identities, a sense of place, and vibrant local economies that capitalize on existing local assets."
Those local assets could use a revamped theater, too. A new Butte Theater wouldn't just show movies, Redamonti said. It could also host concerts, comedy shows, live theater, opera, dance, meetings, conferences and workshops.
"There's a whole myriad of possibilities," Redamonti said.
The alternative to rekindling some sort of nucleus downtown is growing out along the highway and sprawling into farmland," she said.
Sprawling across ever greater expanses of farmland won't be an option as gas prices continue to rise, Garner said. Days to come will resemble a time before the combination of automobiles and cheap fuel allowed people to drive long distances on a regular basis.
"It's going to force people to make friends with their hometowns again," Garner said.
The Butte was built in a time when people had to stick close to home because they had no other option, he continued. They had neither the time nor the money to do much outside town.
"You didn't take off for Chico every day when you needed a pair of socks," he said.
Garner hopes the words written in the Gridley Herald the day the Butte opened will ring true for a descendant that again draws people together:
"We may well be proud of the new Butte Theater for years to come."
CONTACT Jonathan Edwards at email@example.com or 749-4780. Find him at Facebook at /ADedwards or on Twitter at @ADjedwards.