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Tower Theatre 85th anniversary attracts packed house, testimonials of unique Sacramento history

The Tower Theatre pulled out all the stops Saturday for its 85th anniversary celebration.

A packed house watched the Academy Award-winning 1988 Italian film “Cinema Paradiso.” The classic art house movie is told through a filmmaker flashing back to his childhood friendship with a projectionist in a colorful Italian town.

The film was an apt choice. The Tower Theatre has inspired artists who’ve grown up in Sacramento, including Colin Hanks (son of Tom Hanks) who directed the documentary “All Things Must Pass” about Tower Records, and Director Greta Gerwig, who included the Tower in her breakout indie-gem “Lady Bird,” which premiered at the Tower in 2017.

Several staffers at the theater told The Sacramento Bee that they are aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters. “I’ve seen 27 movies so far this year,” assistant manager Taylor Moore said as she served up popcorn.

Sacramento film actress and director Greta Gerwig is interviewed by the media as she walks down the red carpet for the premiere of her film “Lady Bird” at the Tower Theatre in 2017.
Sacramento film actress and director Greta Gerwig is interviewed by the media as she walks down the red carpet for the premiere of her film “Lady Bird” at the Tower Theatre in 2017.

The theater with its trademark spire recently obtained a vintage organ. Moviegoers on Saturday were treated to a performance by organist Dave Moreno accompanying a Laurel and Hardy uproarious short, “Big Business.” Moreno’s deft touch had the audience in stitches as the organist punctuated the comic duo’s antics with period music, dramatic notes, and sound effects.

Mixing with the crowd in the lobby before the screenings, the dapper film and music historian (and former impresario at the Crest Theater) Matías Bombal, who emceed Saturday’s event, was celebratory of the Tower’s survival.

“The architectural design that William B. David, the architect, came up with — this wonderful 96-foot sphere — is extraordinary,” Bombal said. He added, “of course, that sphere later became associated with Tower Records worldwide, but somehow, it’s just part of our consciousness in this community.

“Every time you come in, as we have since Nov. 11, 1938, you bring a part of your past experiences —when you came with your parents as a small child, when you came with a girlfriend. It’s not just a building, it’s a primary part of our physical past. You don’t get that at the local shoe box theater.”

Film historian Matías Bombal stands in the lobby of the Tower Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, during its 85th Anniversary celebration event. Bombal gave a brief overview of the history of the theater before a screening of of the 1988 drama “Cinema Paradiso.”
Film historian Matías Bombal stands in the lobby of the Tower Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, during its 85th Anniversary celebration event. Bombal gave a brief overview of the history of the theater before a screening of of the 1988 drama “Cinema Paradiso.”

That the Tower continues to survive is no small feat. Across the country, largely due to streaming and bigger and better home movie screening experiences, independent and smaller movie theaters are shutting their doors. In the past two years, movie theaters in the East Bay have suffered a staggering contraction. The California Theater in downtown Berkeley closed along with the Shattuck Cinemas. This summer the Albany Twin dimmed its lights for the last time.

General Manager of the Tower, Dave Parker, said that things got scary at the Tower during COVID and he wasn’t sure that the theater could survive. But Parker and other staff at the theater said that both more silver-haired clientele and a number of “hipsters,” who have rediscovered the allure of the vintage movie theater experience, are keeping the theater relatively healthy these days.

Sacramento resident Kendall Tobe, dressed in a vintage outfit, sits in the auditorium of the Tower Theatre to watch a screening of the 1988 drama “Cinema Paradiso” on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, during a celebration of the theater’s 85th anniversary.
Sacramento resident Kendall Tobe, dressed in a vintage outfit, sits in the auditorium of the Tower Theatre to watch a screening of the 1988 drama “Cinema Paradiso” on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, during a celebration of the theater’s 85th anniversary.

Saturday’s event was co-sponsored by a business association that utilized the occasion to rebrand the Greater Broadway District as the Sacramento Tower District. Joan Borucki, executive director of the newly named Tower District, said that the rebranding is a recognition of what an anchor the Tower Theatre is for the city’s identity.

“We want it to survive,” she said.

Borucki added that the Tower District is “focused on preserving and highlighting” the Tower and working with the city to remake Broadway through the City of Sacramento’s Complete Streets Project.