Nearly a month ago, Lodi resident Terrance Clark purchased the Sunset Theater on West Lodi Avenue with plans to revive the historic building and breathe new life into the property.
After closing down in 1998, the theater sat dormant for 21 years, occasionally being offered at auction only to remain unsold.
The theater, which accommodated a thousand moviegoers, opened its doors on Jan. 20, 1950, according to Lisa Craig, executive director of the Lodi Historical Society.
“The building was one of many T&D Theatres, which once existed in California, and it was one of a few theaters with a distinctive vertical sign above a large rectangular marquee, which became a defining feature,” Craig said.
Built in 1948, the theater was designed to attract audiences from around San Joaquin County. The interior of the building was treated with acoustic plaster to enhance the sound quality, and the projection room featured E7 Simplex equipment, Altex Lansin Simplex Mirrophonic sound, and high-intensity arc lamps.
The theater cost $150,000 to build, according to an article published in the News-Sentinel.
On opening night, a crowd of 2,000 moviegoers stood in line to watch the first film that played in the theater, a 6:15 p.m. showing of “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
“The Sunset Theater was modeled after the Ritz Theater in Hayward, which was designed by San Francisco architect Albert H. Larsen,” Craig said. “This particular building is a piece of mid-century architecture, which has become a popular style amongst millennials for its minimalist design, and it invokes a sense of nostalgia for older generations.”
The prospect of recapturing both the brilliance of the building and the sense of excitement it created is what inspired Clark to purchase both the theater and Alexander’s Bakery located across the street.
“This is something that happened in the last 30 days, it’s all still new,” Clark said. “I was someone who had been watching the building for years, and it all just kind of came together fairly recently.”
Clark, who moved to Lodi when he was 14 years old, remembers going to the theater. Following the recent sale of the family company started by his father, Clark Pest Control, he decided to resurrect the building.
“I thought that it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Clark and his wife plan to demolish the existing bakery adjacent to the theater and convert the property into a multi-story parking structure with both retail and office space available on the structure’s first story.
The parking structure will service the theater, which will remain structurally intact, according to Clark.
“We believe the theater building could be contaminated with asbestos and lead paint, but I have worked with properties in downtown that had asbestos. It usually requires some HAZMAT suits and tossing things in approved landfills,” Clark said.
He does not believe the asbestos will pose too much of a threat to the integrity of the theater, because the interior of the building was encapsulated with concrete.
“We haven’t investigated the building or received an environmental impact study to know for sure,” he said.
As the Clarks await the green light from the city, they are working with esteemed Lodi architect John Vierra to develop renderings for both properties.
Clark says he would like to preserve most of the initial layout of the theater, including the concession stand, theater stage, bathrooms and a few rows of theater seats.
“All of it will be updated but we want to keep it fairly similar,” Clark said, adding that they plan to flatten out most of the main floor to accommodate parties and group functions and convert the space into a multi-use entertainment and meeting center.
Clark would like to the community to use the space for future fundraisers. He also envisions the theater serving as a cost-effective space for local thespians and artists to utilize for theater performances, comedy shows, and dance recitals.
“I just want this to be a space that the community can appreciate and use. I am not looking at this project as a money-making investment. This is about giving something to the community,” Clark said.
Lodi District Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Pat Patrick believes the building will be an improvement for West Lodi Avenue and could potentially serve as a wedding venue for people that see Lodi as a wedding destination.
“Lodi is growing and it’s attracting people for weddings and receptions. This offers consumers more venue options and pricing prospects,” Patrick said.
Patrick supported Clark’s decision to build a parking structure next to the theater to reduce future parking issues.
“This will no doubt satisfy people that like the outside retro feel of the building with its heavy neon lights and its classic elegance and ambiance,” Patrick said.
Clark said he intends to refurbish most of the chandeliers inside the theater and modernize the marquee in front of the building along with adding an outdoor patio overlooking Lodi Avenue.
“The concept for the property will have people of all generations flocking to it for two reasons: the repurposed vintage feeling it offers and for the iconic theater experience that will resonate with older generations,” Craig said.
Craig has been in contact with the California Historical Society, which has expressed interest in designating the theater as a historical site.
Craig said the Lodi Historical Society would love to work with Clark — if he is interested — in having the building recognized as a landmark building.
For now, Clark is waiting for the buildings to clear escrow by Dec. 6. Once the sale is final he will have to be issued a permit by the city to begin construction, which could take up to 60 days.
He said the city staff have been extremely helpful during the process, and have expressed their gratitude for him purchasing the building.
“I think everyone is ready to see the theater back to its former glory,” Clark said.
Clark estimated the project could take a minimum of two years to complete. Once it is finished, he intends to call it Sunset Avenue.