Don’t let the barricades and “Do Not Cross” signs in front of the old Lompoc Theatre fool you. The 88-year-old building, with its dusty stucco exterior, falling marquee and abandoned box office, appears to be a demolition prospect—and some residents of this wind-swept farming town, pointing to the kit of pigeons that has taken up inside, will even argue in favor of this reality.
But things are not always as they seem, and this is never more the case than in the theater. With a little imagination, the theater’s allies say, it’s easy to see this tumble-down structure as it was in the 1930s and 40s, when it was the heart of Lompoc’s social and cultural life—the place residents experienced their first movie, had their first date and kiss. This is what a growing number of Lompoc Theatre loyalists, many of them born and raised here, see when they look at the barricaded structure at the corner of North H and Ocean—a resurrected, spiffed-up version of itself, crowded with people reveling in the arts.
Fortunately for Lompoc, these people are also organized. Their Lompoc Theatre Project, a nonprofit, began meeting in 2012, and since then members have methodically cut through a sticky mound of red tape that was a prerequisite to obtaining the building’s title. Now they have turned to raising the five million dollars required to restore the theater to its former self and add a courtyard, along with some new spaces for dressing rooms and offices. The goal, according to the group’s president, Mark Herrier, is not only to return film, live music and theater to Lompoc’s old town, but also to support the passel of arts groups that have struggled with substandard lighting and acoustics for years, performing in gyms and community centers. Having a bona fide theater in which to perform (free of charge) will “raise their game,” says Herrier.
He would know. It was seeing his first musical, The Music Man, at Lompoc Theatre when he was 10 that convinced him to pursue acting, a decision that led to dozens of major roles on Broadway, on television and in film, including, most notably, the “Porky’s” series.
“We’re doing this [project] for the town, and for the kids in town,” Herrier says. “There is no art in the schools anymore, and for the sensitive kid who isn’t going to be an athlete, there’s no outlet for them here. This is going to change that.”
Lompoc Theatre was built in 1927 by the Knights of Pythias. A Santa Barbara theater company approached them a year earlier with an offer to lease such a theater if they could build one on the three semi-vacant lots they owned. But Walter Calvert, a businessman, violinist and arts enthusiast who was running Lompoc Opera House, joined with his brother-in-law to outbid the Santa Barbara troupe and won the lease. The Calvert family continued to run, and subsequently own, the theater until the mid-70s, when the advent of multiplexes and shopping malls built north of town pulled Lompoc residents away from downtown and the old theater closed. It remained closed for more than a decade, but then two groups made consecutive attempts at reopening it. The first group failed, and the second one flopped—leaving three liens attached.
Lompoc Historical Society volunteer Myra Manfrina, 94, was celebrating her sixth birthday the night in 1927 that Lompoc Theatre opened. She barely remembers the inaugural gala her parents brought her to (which featured the premiere of the wartime farce Lost at the Front and an Andy Gump cartoon). Her memories of the Saturday afternoon Mickey Mouse Club meetings and the tap dancing lessons that led to her performing during intermissions are more vivid. “I used to tell my kids, ‘I danced on that stage.’”
Herrier said that when (not if) the theater is restored, it will return to offering an array of performing arts–not just films. It also will be available for events.
The theater’s advocates explain that because the Knights did not stint on construction material or process, the reinforced concrete walls don’t need earthquake retrofitting and the acoustics are naturally superb. (The ability to record live performances will help attract top performers and ideally tie in with other Lompoc attractions, like the Wine Ghetto, to spur economic development.)
Representatives from Theatre Projects Consultants, which has provided concept, programming and equipment designs for such projects as Oslo Opera House and Singapore’s 80,500-square-foot Esplanade, will guide the new design. “We are going to be historically sensitive and bring it back to what it was,” says Theatre Projects’ Michael Ferguson, who is also on Lompoc Theatre Project’s board. “I’ve spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to create a theater with a sense of place and character, so to have a place with both of these things already sitting there is great.”
For more info about Lompoc Theatre Project, visit lompoctheatre.org.
Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.