Friday, May 27, 2011

El Rey Theatre, Manteca, CA

A once-beautiful example of Art-Deco architecture and interior design, and one of the truly grand movie houses of the 1930s, the El Rey Theatre in Merced California opened it's doors in 1937. It functioned for 38 years, finally closing due to a fire that essentially gutted the interior. Ironically, on the night that it burned, the film that it was showing was The Towering Inferno.

The building stood empty, a burned-out shell, for over two decades until the Kelly Brothers purchased it and turned it into a restaurant and micro-brewery. But, of course, that's not the end of the story.

Since the Kelly Brothers establishment opened in the late 1990s, stories have begun circulating that spirits left from the old theatre days haunt the building. Customers claim to have seen people in clothing from earlier decades walking about, only to inexplicably vanish. Firefighters, in gear and uniforms from the 1970s, are sometimes seen wandering the building. It is said that hot spots appear in different spots around the building, as if in memory of the fire that destroyed the theatre. When a grease fire erupted in the kitchen in 2003, many people developed the belief that this was a result of the ghostly hot spots igniting the grease*.

*And not, oh, say the fact that there was flammable grease being heated ON A STOVE.

Discussion: I grew up about 15 miles south of Manteca. When I was a kid, it was little more than a small town near a sugar refinery that caused the downtown area to smell pretty horrible most of the time (earning it the nick-name "Man-Stinka'"). During the 1980s, and accelerating in the 1990s, a large number of people who worked in the Bay Area decided to purchase house in the Central Valley, and towns such as Manteca, Salida, Modesto, Stockton, and Dublin grew rapidly. While far from a thriving metropolis, Manteca has grown to be a small city with a more diverse population than it once had.

The growth of these Central Valley towns and cities has had numerous effects, both positive and negative. On the one hand, it has resulted in more money being available for local development and has made them nicer places to live, on the whole. At the same time, the fact that so many of the new residents spent much of their day commuting meant that they had less loyalty to local businesses, and often served as absentee-parents, both of which created their own set of problems. However, as the urban centers have grown, more people have found local work, and a greater commitment to the community has formed.

And that's part of what I like about this story. The construction of micro-breweries in the Central Valley is very much a result of the arrival of more affluent people from the Bay Area, the yuppification of the Central Valley, if you get what I mean. It is a very definite break in both character and culture with the Central Valley's past, which has its up side and its down side. This story, though, symbolically connects the old with the new. By having the ghosts of the past literally show up in a new type of business, it provides a folkloric continuity that I think is needed in much of the Valley.

Sources: Weird Fresno,,, Shadowlands, Cinema Treasures, Local Newspaper

No comments:

Post a Comment