February 13, 2011 Sunday
ALL EDITION/LOCAL NEWS; Pg. B6
MODESTO’S 10TH AND J STREETS THRIVED ON THEATER
By COLLEEN STANLEY BARE
Years ago, 10th Street was Modesto’s banking and shopping street. But it also became the town’s entertainment avenue, with J as its closest competitor.
Within two years after its founding, little Modesto Village had its first “theater” in the hayloft of a barn on I Street near 10th. In 1877, it was replaced by the popular firetrap, Rogers’ Hall.
Reprieve came in 1892 when the Platos built a new building for their men’s clothing business, which included a hall. Located on 10th Street between H and I, the store was on the ground floor, with the hall upstairs. It accommodated up to 800 people and remained until 1910, when it was remodeled into a 13-room hotel called the Hotel Plato.
Another performing arts building during that period was Eastin’s Brick Hall on I Street near 10th. It advertised “theatrical, concert and minstrel troupes at reasonable prices.”
Beginning in 1911, Modesto sprouted several new theaters, including the Star at 927 10th St. between I and J. Opened in February 1911, it had 372 seats and was described in the Morning Herald as “the cleanest, neatest, safest playhouse in Modesto.” It later moved across the street to 928 10th.
During the teens, other downtown theaters rose, each featuring short films and vaudeville shows for a 10-cent admission.
These were the Isis at 916 10th, which seated 600 and changed pictures every day; the Dreamland Theatre, around the corner on I Street, advertising “exits and ventilation”; and the Modesto Theatre at 913 10th, which had three stories and seated 900.
After it burned in 1913, that theater was rebuilt and functioned until 1933 when another fire led to its closure. However, the tall dome over its staging area is still visible on 10th Street.
Some recall the Lyric Theater, next to the fire station at 721 10th St. Sounds of screaming sirens often penetrated the walls, disturbing the audiences next door. It was later renamed the Esquire Theater and was torn down in the 1960s.
The most beautiful of Modesto’s early theaters was the Strand, opened in December 1921. Situated on 10th near K Street, it had carpeted floors, crystal chandeliers, wall murals in the lobby and 1,800 seats.
Costing $250,000, it featured silent and then talking movies, plays, vaudevilles, musicals and community events, such as recitals and graduations. Typical were the 1940s-’50s Omega Nu Follies, produced by the sorority as fund-raisers, featuring members as the dancers.
The Strand story ended sadly, with years of decline and its eventual burning in 1984. Today, Brenden Theatres occupies the Strand’s original site.
In 1922, the Auditorium at Sixth and I streets, originally built as a hall in 1911, reopened as a movie theater. Admission was 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. The opening movies were “Daddy Long Legs,” starring Mary Pickford, and “Haunted Spooks,” with Harold Lloyd.
Another popular movie house was in the Hotel Covell, built with its lobby facing J Street. Through the years this theater changed names four times: the Richards, the National, the Princess and finally the Covell Theater.
Only one of Modesto’s early theaters remains today: the elegant Art Deco-style State Theatre on J Street. Opened on Christmas Day 1934, featuring “Flirtation Walk” with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, it has been completely restored and technologically updated. It is here that Modestans can really get a sense of the “good old days.”
Bare is author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at columns