Nonprofit Moxie Gives New Life to Historic Hemet Theatre

April 4, 2018, Idyllwild Town Crier

Located in the San Jacinto Valley in California’s growing “Inland Empire” region between Riverside and Temecula, the town of Hemet is home to nearly 85,000 people. The city is not wealthy; the $37,000 median household income is only a little over half the statewide median. The city population is about 46 percent white and 40 percent Latinx, with 7 percent Black, and the remainder Asian, American Indian, mixed race, or other.

In downtown stands the Historic Hemet Theatre. Built in 1921, “it is one of the oldest surviving movie houses in the country,” says CEO Susan Carrier. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed the original building in 1918, and owner William Martin rebuilt the theater in 1921 with reinforced concrete to protect it from damage in future earthquakes.

Once, the movie house was a focal point of town, but ultimately the downtown movie house stopped showing films in 1995. The building reopened in 2004 and struggled as a discount theater until fire hit in 2010. The building suffered damage but survived. (Some adjacent storefronts were not so fortunate.) The theater’s website adds, “Water damage…had leaked into the auditorium, leaving a musty smell that lingered for a year. Fortunately, the landmark suffered no structural damage because of the reinforced concrete that Martin had used for the building.” The reinforced concrete is sturdy enough that, even in 2018, the building meets California’s strict earthquake codes and there is no need to retrofit for earthquake safety.

In 2011, a nonprofit called the Valley View Foundation was incorporated to revitalize the theater. But, as the Town Crier notes, “a board of directors’ scandal crushed the project, scattering the board members, volunteers and donors.” As NPQ explained in 2013, “Four founding board members of the nonprofit organization which formed a year and a half ago to buy and rehab the theater ‘have left the building’ after it came to light that the board members had paid themselves $30,000 out of the $113,000 raised and $15,000 borrowed in 2012.”

Still, a few persisted. As the Town Crier explains, “a small group of dedicated volunteers saw a unique opportunity to utilize this old movie house to put a spark back into the community with a performing arts center, while preserving a charming art deco piece of valley history.”

Operating under a lease-to-purchase agreement, the foundation began hosting concerts, movies, educational programs and nonprofit fundraisers. In 2015, the members of the Hemet San Jacinto Chamber awarded the theater its Nonprofit of the Year Award. The following year, the theater won the Chamber’s Business of the Year Award.  And in 2017, Inland Empire Magazine designated the theater as the Inland Empire’s “Best Live Theatre Venue.” Not bad for a nonprofit that had nearly died, is volunteer run, and in 2015, according to its Form 990, had a budget of $120,000.

Since the foundation’s formation, the 397-seat theater has hosted more than 500 events with a total audience of more than 35,000 patrons. Saturday night “Tribute Mania” concerts now draw fans from across Southern California. “Unexpectedly, this cozy little venue has gained a reputation as one of the best venues in the region. Patrons are thrilled by the great bands, wonderful acoustics and a big dance floor to rock the night away,” according to Carrier.

The Town Crier adds that the nonprofit “has now raised enough to purchase the venue.” Last month, Craig Shultz of the Press Enterprise reported that the nonprofit “will pay $414,000 for the theater. Current owners David Bernal and Emerson Bixby will carry the eight-year mortgage.” The theater has also won accolades from local politicians. “It’s another example of downtown renaissance and establishment of the arts,” said Councilwoman Linda Krupa to Shultz of the Press-Enterprise.

“With the purchase begins a project to renovate the facility in time for its 100th birthday in 2021,” the Town Crier notes. “Renovation plans include a nostalgic auditorium, stylish art deco lobby and improved handicap facilities. The front of the building will include a pointed marquee similar to the 1940s facade, with classic neon lights. Updated lighting and sound equipment and a removable stage extension will broaden the programming that can be accommodated.”

Of course, while the building has been purchased, funds for the renovations still need to be raised. A capital campaign to raise the funds is already under way. Still, the little nonprofit that stumbled spectacularly at the starting gate has come a long way.—Steve Dubb

Correction: This article has been altered from its original form. The Hemet ceased to be an active movie theatre in 1995, not “the 1980s.” NPQ regrets the error.