Just think: Warnors could have been turned into a parking lot. Happy 90th birthday!
The celebration: Fresno’s glorious Warnors Theatre turned 90 years old on Saturday. A jaunty crowd gathered at the historic building — looking mighty spiffy these days, by the way — to mark the occasion. Even “Marilyn Monroe” was there as celebrants walked beforehand along Fulton Street into the theater, white dress and all, as she duplicated her famed subway grate updraft moment in photo ops.
The pomp: Congressman Jim Costa was on hand with a proclamation. And it wasn’t just a generic moment with a politician parachuting in for an event with which he had absolutely no connection. Costa remembers going to the Warnors as a kid. In the 1960s, he saw “The Sound of Music” there with his mother. (“I miss her,” he said, sweetly.) He also saw some big-name concerts there, too, including Electric Light Orchestra, Steve Perry and Supertramp.
The program: Chuck Carson was the master of ceremonies, and he shared some movie memories, too. He remembers sitting in the balcony watching “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (“The smoke was so heavy you couldn’t see the screen,” he said with a laugh.) After a tribute to longtime organist Richard Cencibaugh, the audience settled in for a screening of the Laurel and Hardy silent film “Habeas Corpus,” followed by the big-screen premiere of the documentary “Warnors: A Legacy.”
The interesting tidbits. I loved learning more about the rich history of the Warnors, from its construction by Alex Pantages in 1928 to its semi-destruction in the 1960s when the theater was converted to Cinerama, which was a process that involved a huge curved screen upon which images which projected simultaneously from three synchronized 35mm projectors. (It’s kind of unfathomable today to think that someone would want to destroy much of the proscenium of such a historic building to fit in that screen, but that was progress, right?) Along the way, lots of big movies played there, and big stars, too, from pianist Arthur Rubinstein and opera singer Leontyne Price to jazz legend Miles Davis and hometown star Audra McDonald.
The documentary: Speaking of McDonald, I got to talk about her big concert in “Warnors: A Legacy.” I also got to talk in the film about the theater’s glorious domed ceiling, which I have always loved crane my neck and gaze upon.
The people. I bumped into Roger Christensen, a local actor well known to Good Company Players audiences, who worked at the theater as an usher for a few months after graduating from Fresno State. He wore a maroon tuxedo as he seated patrons for the long run of “Paint Your Wagon” (and still has the button from the movie that he wore at work).
The man of the hour: Above all, the 90th birthday of the Warnors was a tribute to the Caglia family — and particularly Frank Caglia, who saved the theater from demolition in the 1970s by buying it and then lovingly getting it back into shape. (In the documentary, you learn that Frank asked his workers to use small chisels instead of jackhammers in the restoration work in order not to risk disturbing the structural integrity.) Frank is gone now, but as one speaker at Saturday’s event put it, you could certainly feel his presence. Thanks to him, and to the generation of Caglias following him, we still have this wonderful theater to admire and treasure. And to think: It was slated to be torn down by the city and turned into a parking lot. Thank you, Frank. Thank you.