“The Amazing And Even Dramatic History Of The Chester Theatre”
We are in the midst of speaking to several historians and long-term residents of Chester, Ca., like Joan Sayre, Marilyn Quadrio, Karen Kemp, and Annie Behmen (maiden–Ollerman), all of whom grew up here and Annie’s parents owned and operated the Chester Theatre from about 1961-1975.
The following is what we have learned about the history of the Chester Theatre and building (The below is “under construction” and represents only about half of the history that we have learned about the theatre from 1920s to 1961, but what an exciting and at times theatrical history it is! We are currently drafting the history for the period between 1961-1986 and will have it posted as soon as we can. Please write us if you know of any additional information).
The small town of Chester was actually blessed with its first theatre sometime in the 1920s. It was located near the corner of Main Street and Reynolds Road, near the laundromat and across the street from the present Pine Shack Frosty restaurant. It was a venue used mostly for movies but even accommodated talent shows, orchestras, and teen dances.
In 1945, a “Mr. Edwin Coleman,” who was “the manager of the theater,” held a World War II Fund Drive, during which there was “a short movie, a beauty contest, and two one-act plays.”
In 1997, Chester resident Della Bridges (1929-2012) wrote the editor of the Feather River Bulletin and described the first theater this way: “There aren’t too many of us who remember the old building. It was quite unique, as I was told that they used to have boxing and dances in teh 30’s or earlier. You see the first few rows of seats rolled out onto platforms on each of the building, leaving a fairly large area for the dances and boxing ring. As teenagers, the Blairs, who owned it in the mid-40s, would let us have Saturday night dances after the movie. We even had one of the summer visitors come in occasionally and teach us how to waltz, rumba, etc. We used to take turns bringing refreshments such as Kool-Aid and cookies. It was a fun time for us, as the war was still on and with gas rationing, we couldn’t travel far. It was located where the Tom Bower CPA building is now [to the immediate right of Burger Depot]–Della Bridges, Chester”
In 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Edmond and Vearl Blair moved to Chester from Larkspur, Ca. (just north of San Francisco, where his family resided) and purchased the Chester Theatre (It is presently unknown from whom outside of “Mr. Coleman” above). The Progressive reported that the Blairs “worked hard” to make it “the popular entertainment center of the area.” (Posted to the left is a Theatre ad in one of the first editions of the Chester Progressive newspaper with a list of movies playing on Mar. 6, 1947. And here are two more movie ad links from a year earlier on Aug. 22, 1946 and July 25, 1946.)
In fact, in 1947, Mr. Blair had “installed $3000 worth of new seats in the auditorium of the building, and he and Mrs. Blair had just finished completely renovating, modernizing and reconstructing their living quarters in the rear.”
Tragically, just months later on Tues. Dec. 30, 1947, the Chester Theater was completely destroyed by fire. On Jan.1, the Chester Progressive newspaper ran a bolded, front-page headline and article reporting on the tragedy, “Chester Theatre Razed by Fire Tuesday.”
The Progressive reported that the fire “completely demolished the Chester Theatre and the living quarters of Mr. and Mrs. L.E. Blair, the operators.” The fire started in the furnace room in the rear of the building and was discovered by Mrs. Blair shortly after 5:00pm on Dec. 30. Mr. Blair was “absent when the fire started.” A few items were saved by volunteer firemen but virtually everything was gone, including the new seats and film projection equipment. The newspaper estimated the damage around roughly $30,000. But Louis, who was roughly 32 years old at the time, told Boxoffice that the loss of about $20,000 was only partially covered by insurance, according to the Boxoffice magazine in January 1948.
We spoke to one Chester resident who is still alive today and actually went to the theatre the night it burned down. He was going to see a movie as a child, only to discover that the theatre was smoldering in ashes!
Mr. and Mrs. Blair temporarily relocated to a tent home in Tobin, Ca. (45 miles below Quincy on Hwy. 70), where they were also building another theatre. It opened to the public about May 15, 1948, just five months after the Chester Theatre fire. (In the pre-television era, theatres were very popular and populated nearly every city and town, including Greenville and Westwood). By August, the Blairs reconstructed a large six-room home “with the largest front porch in the community” on their same property in Chester and moved back (Is it possible this is the building on Main St. that houses the laundromat?).
Despite the Blairs being devastated by the loss of their newly renovated first theatre and home, Ed immediately sought to build a new “thoroughly fireproofed” Chester theatre “closer to downtown” (now, Old Town Chester). The new location was described then as “adjacent to the bridge just south of town,” reflecting just how much Old Town Chester was the center of town then. (It is believed–though we could not verify–that Blair acquired the relatively small strip of land for the new theatre from the Young family, who ran Young’s Market next door–the present location of the Sports Nut. sporting goods store. Incidentally, the land where the first theatre sat and their new six-room home, which included 200 feet of highway frontage, were sold to a Greenville resident in Nov. 1949.)
In Feb. 1948, just one month after the inferno, the Chester Progressive reported Blair as saying that “a site has been secured and a building arranged for to provide a new theatre for Chester which will be ready for the public of this community by June 1948.” Blair added that the new theatre “will be almost as large as the one recently destroyed by fire and will of definitely superior construction.” If true, the first theatre house had to be quite large in comparison. The Chester Progressive boasted then that “the new building promises to be most attractive in appearance both inside and out, and will be a definite credit and attraction to the town.”
Here’s how the Chester Progressive described the details of the new, then-extravagant Chester Theatre in 1949: “The new structure will seat approximately 300 persons, is fitted with modern heating and air conditioning, and is equipped with latest in projection machines and seating. …. Children will be admitted for 20 cents. General Admission is 55 cents.”
Blair hoped this beautiful new theatre would be completed for a grand re-opening by June 1948, but it took six months longer than expected. Even when asked about an opening date in an August interview of that year, Blair pitched, “Just tell them it’ll be open before Christmas.” But it was on January 28, 1949, the new theatre opened for business at its present location. Click here to see May 1949 and July 1949 Chester Theatre ads with lists of movies playing.
Despite enduring the fiery annihilation of their newly renovated first theatre and home, and experiencing the joys of a resurrected and improved theatre, three years later the Blairs would encounter the strangest and most grievous moment of their lives. In 1952, Louis was arrested for suspicion of involvement in the robbery and murder of the local grocer, Gard Young and his three daughters. Law enforcement initially believed that Louis fit the description given by the grocer’s youngest (3-year old) daughter, who had barely survived the slaying and described a few characteristics of the killers to detectives, according to a report in the Lodi Sentinel and San Mateo Times on Mon., Oct. 20, 1952.
Blair was held six days by Reno law enforcement, interrogated, given two lie detector tests, despite they conceded that there was “no direct evidence” linking him to the crime. Blair was afterward released on account of insufficient evidence, and left Reno to his hometown of Larkspur, Ca., north of San Francisco, where he stayed with his father. A petition circulated with 185 of 850 residents in Chester signing it and encouraging Blair to return to his mountain home and reopen his theatre. Unfortunately, the accusations and public pressure had taken their toll on Ed, and, having returned home to Chester just one day, he immediately put the theater up for sale. The ad taken out in a newspaper read: “For sale, theater. Best buy in California. $10,000 will handle. Priced for quick sale. Must be seen to be appreciated.” At the time, the Blairs did not know where they were going, though they vowed to leave Chester forever.
In Dec. 1952, Blair sold the Chester Theater to Walter Finn and his wife of Redding, Ca., and the Blairs left the area. The Finns turned around and sold it to Frank and Sue Adcock in a very short period of time, since they are called “former owner of Chester Theater” in 1955, when they acquired the Greenville Theater. In 1955, Ed and Vearl Blair were visiting some friends in Chester, about which the Chester Progressive newspaper (Fri., Jan. 28, 1955) reported: “Mr. and Mrs. Ed Blair, former residents of Chester, were visitors in Chester Tuesday. They now live in Anderson and operate the Valley Theater there.” According to the testimony of one person, the Valley Theater building was abandoned a few decades later. In Blair’s father’s 1975 obituary (Louis Blair, Sr., May 1975), it was noted that his only son, Louis E. Blair, was then a resident of San Lorenzo, Calif. From there, we have no idea what happened to Ed and Vearl Blair. If anyone knows anything, please let us know.
Frank and Sue Adcocks lived in a small, old Quonset hut near the rear of the new Chester Theatre building. In 1953, they took over ownership of the Chester Theatre, and a new wide Cinemascope screen was added to the theater in 1955, with other compatible projector equipment soon to follow. This was the era during which newsreels ran at theaters, such as this one from March of 1955: “United Nations Urged to Abolish [Korean] War by MacArthur.” The Adcocks ran the theater for another five years until Aug. of 1960, when they sold it to John and Emma Ollerman.
1961-1976 THEATRE HISTORY of the Ollerman ownership is UNDER CONSTRUCTION and will be posted here SOON.
In July and Aug. 1980, the Chester Theater was listed for sale at $175,000. On Mar. 4, 1981, the Chester Theater was listed for sale at $150,000 (“Reduced $25,000”). By 1981-1984, the Chester Theater appeared to be showing only one film each week for the entire weekend. From June 28-30, 1983, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” played at the Chester Theater. On July 20, 1983, “Dr. Detroit” played at the Chester Theater. “Flashdance” and “Snow White” played in August 1983. “National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation” played in October 1983. “Friday the 13th Part IV” played in June 1984. In August 1985 and March 1986, the Chester Theater was still showing movies.
In summer 1986, the Chester Christian Fellowship obtained the building and conducted their first church service on Sun., Aug. 10. The building was used as a church until 2013, when it was given to the former Chaplain for Chuck Norris, Todd DuBord, and Mt. Lassen Community Church. Todd and his wife, Tracy, who were 20 year residents of Chester and raised their family here, went out on the mission field of America for seven years as the Norrises’ chaplain, and returned after Tracy suffered a near-death hospitalization due to two brain disorders, followed by a 16-month recovery and a total life change. After starting Mt. Lassen Community Church with 17 others leaders and friends, they gifted the theater back to the community again as Mt. Lassen Theater, with a future expanded venue for movies, dramas and concerts.
Mt. Lassen Community Church and Mt. Lassen Theater are two distinct 501(C)(3) non-profit organizations. While renovating and using the building as a theater, the Church and Pastor Todd will continue to meet in it on Sunday mornings and offer the community non-denominational church services at 8:30 & 10:30AM.
DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT CHESTER THEATRE HISTORY OR EVER SEE A MOVIE THERE?
If you have any theatre history to add, please write us. If you ever saw a movie in the old Chester theatre, please share your experience with others by posting your story here on Mt. Lassen Theatre Blog. Also, please email us any old photos of Chester Theatre at email@example.com. And if you have or know the location of any old items from the Chester Theatre, please let us know via our Contact page. In the new renovation, we would like to include a museum-like display of items from the old theatre.
How did the building turn back into a theatre?…
In short, Chester Theatre occupied the present building from 1949 to 1986. From 1986-2013, Chester Christian Fellowship Church (including Chester Vineyard Church) occupied the theatre building. The Church closed its doors in early 2013. The former board members of the closed church heard that Pastor Todd DuBord (former Senior Pastor at Lake Almanor Community Church for 13 years) had returned to the area after spending the seven years in Texas as the Chaplain for the Chuck Norris Enterprises. He and 17 other friends and community leaders started Mt. Lassen Community Church (MLCC) on Easter Sunday 2014, which meets in the theatre on Sunday mornings. The former church board members who oversaw the old theatre building asked to meet with Todd and his board members for the sole purpose to give them (free and clear) the building. Todd and his board members not only accepted the gracious gift of the old Chester Theatre building but also returned the blessing back to the mountain communities they love, lived in for roughly 20 years, and raised their families. In previous years, Todd actually encouraged past pastors at the theatre to return the building to its former theatre use. With the lack of entertainment in the area as well as a way to help boost the economic engine and neighboring businesses, MLCC gifted the primary use of the building back to the community for a year-round theatre with the eventual expanded venue of films, dramas and concerts. With that expanded venue comes an expanded name: Mt. Lassen Theatre! Mt. Lassen Theatre is its own independent 501(C)3 non-profit organization. Once renovated, the theatre will be governed and operated by its own board and personnel. It will also have a board of advisors made up of other community leaders, business people, and experts in various fields. Together, the theatre will utilize its venue and leadership to collaborate with various community leaders and organizations to help build up our community and youth via the liberal arts. Hence, Mt. Lassen Theatre’s mission to entertain, educate and engage!
In November 2014, Mt. Lassen Theatre’s Steering Committee was honored to hire a new Executive Director, Gwen Meinhardt (bio below), a former principal and educator who is passionate for the arts and using them to build up youth and our community, as well as offer an expanded entertainment venue through the theatre. Together with the Steering Committee, Gwen will lead the theatre forward in its renovation towards a bright future.
Mt. Lassen Theatre was granted its official non-profit status by the Internal Revenue Service in Nov. 2014, so that all donations made to it for its renovation (including engraved theatre seats and foundation bricks) and future operations are now tax-deductible.