A Theatre That Would Not Die
By Ronald Kramer
Theatres live because communities want them to. When I first viewed the shuttered Cascade in September, 1998, it was immediately apparent that the Cascade had once been a grand movie palace. Following its years of decline as a downtown movie house, much of the Cascade’s 1935 art deco glory had either been removed or painted over. What we toured was the shell of a theatre which seemed haunted by memories of its former glories.
The curtain and staging equipment were long gone. Little of what had once been a magnificent neon marquee remained. The theatre’s elaborate ceiling chandeliers had been removed in the 1977 partitioning and so few of the recessed ceiling lights were functional that we had to use a flashlight to explore the auditorium. But it was clear to me that there had once been spectacular ceiling decorations, magnificently ornate wall surfaces and a brilliant stage to match – and that effectively bringing this theatre back to life meant restoring all of those elements as well as the many features we were yet to discover. I knew at first glimpse that the Cascade was a theatre that deserved to be re-born.
What was also immediately apparent was that the Cascade was very much a part of Redding’s sense of community. We encountered unbelievable interest in the theatre. But, more important, we discovered a keen community interest in returning the theatre to regular use by the community’s cultural organizations. It was completely clear to me that Redding wanted the Cascade to live again.
Since Jefferson Public Radio opened its Redding studios in 1991, we have been committed to participating in the revitalization of the community’s downtown. We intentionally located our original studios, just north of the Mall, to make that statement. Thus, the Cascade was a natural conclusion to our quest for a new JPR home in downtown Redding.
The past five years have been, in all senses of the word, an adventure. Like all adventures it has included moments of exhilaration, discovery, fear and fulfillment.
And, like all good adventures, this has been an experience shared with many other adventurers.
We have been in extraordinarily good company.
JPR needed a new Redding studio location and I was very committed to our studios being located in Redding’s downtown to support the revitalization efforts underway to re-establish the City’s urban core. We also knew that theatres are a vital part of a community’s life force and we believed that a restored Cascade would significantly strengthen the cultural life of the Redding community. So I went to visit then-mayor of Redding, David Kehoe, and City Manager Mike Warren, and reported that JPR was willing to buy the building, and work to restore it as a performing arts center, if the City of Redding would work with us toward achieving that goal. While no one was entirely certain just what that would entail, we mutually agreed that this was an extremely important project and we then purchased the Cascade with the extraordinary efforts of the University and its then-president Steve Reno.
In 1999, Southern Oregon University purchased the building at the JPR Foundation’s request and then leased the building to the Foundation (which has also assumed responsibility for the University’s mortgage used to finance the purchase). Since then, JPR and the JPR Foundation have been hard at work with Redding supporters to finance the Cascade’s restoration.
Some things are just meant to be and, as things have unfolded, I have come to believe that JPR was meant to bring this theatre back to life.
That vision has fired the imaginations of all who have become involved. When Steve Reno walked into the building with me for the first time, he looked upward and around at the huge hall, he just gasped "Oh, Ron!" And then Steve and his team went to work to facilitate revenue bond financing to accomplish the purchase. Steve’s successor, SOU President Elisabeth Zinser, has continued that same support for the project.
Redding resident Lou Gerard, a devoted JPR supporter (and husband of current JPR Foundation board member Diane Gerard) immediately signed on to chair a stellar committee of local citizens. Under Lou’s steady and wise leadership, the committee has pursued doggedly the necessary funding and vision to realize this project.
We had just begun to assess the full picture of the project when we were surprised and delighted to learn that the Art Deco Society of California had designated our purchase of the Cascade for a prestigious art deco preservation award. Subsequently, the Cascade has been placed on both the California Registry of Historic Resources and the National Register of Historic Places.
Our goal has been simple. This great art deco landmark had been a fundamental component of Redding’s civic life for most of its existence and we wanted to recreate, and rededicate, the facility to those same purposes. Accordingly, we wanted to determine just what the Cascade looked like in 1935 and duplicate that grandeur while updating the systems that make the theatre "work" to contemporary performance standards.
Internally, we began the odyssey of learning what the building originally looked like and discerning methods necessary to modernizing it for 21st century uses without harming the building’s historic character. We found the company that manufactured the wonderful chandeliers. We located sources of supply for the building’s many ceramic tile surfaces and, where we couldn’t locate exact replacements, we had them custom-created. The original cast-iron, highly colored art deco seat standards have been recreated. The geometrically patterned carpet has been replicated and custom manufactured. Railings identical to the theatre’s originals were fabricated. The magnificent ceiling murals, painted over in 1977, were lovingly restored by one of the nation’s premiere decorative painting companies. I knew when I first toured the Cascade that the ceiling was going to be something special but no one could have imagined the grandeur which Evergreene Painting Studio, of New York City, uncovered and recreated. They also re-gilded the bas-relief murals, depicting northern California occupations, which adorn the top of the concrete exterior façade. The reliefs hadn’t been gilded since the early 1950’s. Redding’s McHale Signs undertook the restoration of the blazing neon marquee, including the racing neon at the top of the vertical Cascade sign and neon tubing rising up the building’s façade, which hadn’t been fully lighted in this way in over 50 years.
It’s impossible to name all of the vendors who have worked so carefully and passionately to realize this dream and I’m not going to try. But one other party absolutely must be mentioned. James Theimer, of Redding’s Trilogy Architecture, walked through the theatre with us on that September day in 1998 – and he has been with us every step of the way since. His expertise, invention and incredible devotion have been of critical importance to us and I doubt we could have succeeded without James’ help.
The story of the restoration work that has been done would cover pages….but that isn’t the really important story.
At the outset of the project there were skeptics who said this was too big a project for the Redding community to finance, too big a project for JPR to undertake, too large a venue for the community to properly utilize once it was restored. Originally, we believed the project would cost about $3.7 million and it now totals $5.4 million at conclusion. It has been one of the most significant projects in Redding’s history and an ambitious undertaking for both JPR and the community. As to the theatre’s utilization, it is already so heavily scheduled for the Fall that we had a hard time selecting a date for its Grand Re-Opening. But the really important story about the Cascade’s restoration is the shared sense of community pride, purpose and accomplishment which this project symbolizes.
The City of Redding, having identified the theatre’s restoration as one of its top downtown revitalization objectives, provided $649,000. The State Legislature, under the leadership of Senator K. Maurice Johannessen, provided $750,000. Redding’s McConnell Foundation awarded grants to the project totaling $750,000. The Redding Rancheria committed $300,000. Support from organizations, businesses and individuals have been spectacular. People have sponsored fundraising parties (many of which have been created by the local steering committee and its sub-committees). Local citizens sponsored over $500,000 in seats. Fund raising ran the gamut from five figure checks to small collection boxes at many community businesses over the years. Like JPR itself, bringing the Cascade Theatre back to life has been a broad-based, community-driven steamroller of commitment toward achieving a shared vision.
The grand re-opening of the Cascade Theatre is a big day for Redding and also for JPR. Returning the Cascade as a productive asset to Redding, Shasta County and Northern California, and helping the community realize its cultural and economic hopes and dreams through the creation of a new cultural institution that will serve current and future generations, is one of the biggest, proudest, and most important, undertakings in JPR’s history. We salute all who have contributed to this shared success. And we look forward to the Cascade’s glittering future filled with the benefits which this project will produce for us all.
Curtain going up!
Ronald Kramer is Executive Director of the JPR Foundation.