Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 4:02 am | Fair 51º


The Theater Built by a Thousand People

The curtain is about to be raised on a Santa Barbara landmark that is now a world-class treasure as well.

As a kid I wanted to be a famous actress, among other careers. I didn’t have to be cute like Sandra Dee or beautiful like Elizabeth Taylor, but maybe a good character actress like Ruth Gordon. That dream bit the dust long ago. It seems fate would put me only on a stage that I was a part of building, not to emote upon, specifically the Granada Theater, opening this week, one month short of its 84th birthday.

Susan Miles Gulbransen
It began 11 years ago in a casual conversation with Joan Rukowski and Harriet Miller about a topic frequently discussed back then: Why don’t we have a decent large theater? All three of us asked simultaneously, “Well, what are we going to do about it?"

When Chuck Slosser, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation, offered his conference room to host round-table discussions with community leaders to talk about solutions, things began to fall into place. Out of those talks came support to find a large venue that would showcase our Santa Barbara resident companies and touring groups, a venue to complement our smaller ones like the Lobero Theatre.

A board was formed and met for the first time in January 1998. Among early key players were Sara Miller McCune, Leni Fe Bland and Michael Towbes. They and so many others have contributed to the Granada’s success with incredible time, treasure and talent. At the time, Harriet Miller, then Santa Barbara’s mayor, could cheer us on but not be a board member, although she now serves as board president.

The initial goal was to renovate the Arlington Theatre, a beautiful piece of architecture but primarily a movie house and intermittently home for the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Community Arts Music Association, or CAMA. Here I learned about acoustics, one of many learning curves. The walls of a movie house must absorb sound rather than reverberating it back into the room, ideal for live performances. “Acoustics” became part of my vocabulary including the correct spelling.

Efforts to buy the Arlington stalled at the same time San Luis Obispo developer Rob Rossi bought the Granada tower and theater. He offered to sell us the theater and he would renovate the tower. This path seemed meant to be and soon we were into serious planning.

It quickly became apparent that merely opening the balcony (then closed into two small movie theaters), cleaning the shabby old theater and spiffing it up with a paint job would not provide us with an excellent venue. The board had to expand its vision.

Remember the famous earthquake that hit Santa Barbara early June 29, 1925, and nearly leveled every building on State Street? One building was left standing tall, proud and well above the rubble, the Granada. Its theater had opened the year before with Hollywood fanfare and lots of fancy cars. Charles Urton built the Granada, designed by A.B. Rosenthal, by using a how-to book on constructing high-rises. The day after the earthquake, he hung a large banner from the top floor of our city’s first steel-reinforced high-rise, “Built by Charles Urton, Builder.”

Ever since its opening on April 9, 1924, the Granada has hosted artists such as Ethel Barrymore, Sir John Gieguld, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, movie premieres like Gone with the Wind and stage premieres like Guys and Dolls. It served as a movie theater 1931-2003 with occasional live performances.

Demolition in late 2004 left the Granada without a back end and a large hole in the ground. New construction began a year later. Nearly 1,500 people have worked in some capacity to build the theater. That includes 450 construction workers (70 trades participating), some 300 volunteers and staff, and 700 very important donors. It is a theater designed and built by the community for the community.

Just what does our town get for $52 million? Ten top features pop into mind.

1.            A 16,700-square-feet larger theater with 1,550 seats including eight boxes. All seats have excellent sightlines and the last row downstairs is Row V or the 21st row.

2.            The stage is now 1,600-square-feet larger (10 feet deeper and 20 feet wider) and the proscenium 10 feet wider. The stage can now accommodate nearly any size show, including the whirling helicopter in Miss Saigon.

3.            A hydraulic stage lift with four levels: 1) Bottom for storage. 2) Second to the orchestra pit for 54 players. 3) Audience floor to provide for 68 more seats. 4) Stage level to offload storage and extend the stage.

4.            Improved acoustics, with reworked and redesigned walls with an orchestra shell. The old grill intended for a theater organ — that was never installed — behind the box seats was restored to redirect sounds into the audience area.

5.            Extended lobbies. Downstairs, the concession stand was removed and the wall behind it was extended by 10 feet. Upstairs, the Founders Room and catering kitchen was redesigned with a widened balcony lobby for more intimate performances, separate events and community gatherings.

6. Ample bathroom facilities, with 26 women’s stalls and three accessible bathrooms — compared to 13 at the Arlington.

7. New basement area, with 13,000 square feet of new space and extensive facilities, including 10 individual dressing rooms and 48 makeup stations.

8. Soundproof warm-up room under the stage with spring floor for dancers.

9. New, large box office adjacent to the lobby with a separate lobby entrance for those picking up tickets.

10. Restoration highlights: chandelier, molding, repetition of motifs (use of pomegranate or “granada” in Spanish), architectural lighting, reproduction of original marquee and use of original color palette including real gold leaf.

How do Joan and I feel after this long haul? A bit numb but excited. When the scaffolding left the theater two weeks ago and I stood on stage to look out at the redesign, changes and artwork, I had goose bumps. The Granada is something all of Santa Barbara can be proud of and enjoy for the next 100 years.

The historical opening begins Thursday with a gala celebration, festivities inside and out, and stunning performances on stage by the Symphony, Opera Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Choral Society and State Street Ballet using 170 musicians and performers. This fund raiser still has a few seats left. Call the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222 for more information.

Meanwhile, from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, the Granada will hold a free open house featuring self-guided theater tours, State Street musical entertainment outside and, inside, dance, musical and theater performances by Dancing Drum, Gold Rush, Jamie Green, State Street Ballet, the Granada Music & Arts Conservatory, Christopher Wooley and the Westmont Brass Ensemble.

Click here to order tickets online for the Spring Preview Season at the new Granada!

Granada board member Susan Miles Gulbransen is a writer, book reviewer and co-founder of the annual Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival.

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