Alhambra Theater: Travelers can find lost history in Sacramento
Once one of the renowned theaters and movie palaces in the 1920s and ’30s, the Alhambra Theater is an historic site in Sacramento that would be of interest to any traveler who is a movie buff. Unfortunately, the Alhambra, which opened in 1927, was lost to a wrecking ball in 1973. Only a nondescript national chain grocery store sits where the historic theater once stood.
Sadly, the one wall and a fountain that were maintained in the theater’s honor are now subject to vandalism. It is that wall and fountain that caught my eye one summer day as I traveled through Sacramento searching for a quick sandwich. I turned into a grocery store parking lot in the downtown area. I parked, got out, and then my eye was drawn to a wall, some steps, and a fountain that looked more historic than one would find at most national chain grocery stores.
That led me to some Internet research, which lead me to the story of the Alhambra Theater, an historic site that was on the National Register of Historic Places in Sacramento County (#73002250) and which once stood there.
If there was any good to come out of losing the beautiful and once grand Alhambra, the fight to keep the historic theater from being torn down to make room for a chain grocery store galvanized the area’s preservationist movement.
Lost history in Sacramento, Alhambra starts preservation movement
William Burg, a board member for the Preservation Sacramento group, lives not far from the theater, and shared the story with us: Although a baby at the time, he is strongly entrenched today in the city’s historic preservation movement. “The demolition of the Alhambra, and resulting outcry, were part of what pushed the city of Sacramento to pass a historic preservation ordinance in 1975, which gave some measure of protection to older buildings and allowed use of a ‘Historic Building Code’ to allow reuse of the old buildings.”
Grand Moorish architecture at Sacramento’s Alhambra
In its heyday, moviegoers entered the Alhambra Theater complex through a garden with fountains. The city even renamed the street it was on “Alhambra Boulevard,” and the theater was nicknamed the “Showplace of Sacramento.”
The Alhambra was designed by architect Leonard Starks with the firm of Nacht & Lewis (click here to find a page of its history on the company’s website). As noted on that page, the Alhambra Pipe Organ survived and is today at Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, Calif., where it was rebuilt to accommodate computerized operating systems.
You may enjoy discovering other hidden California history by reading What to do in Fresno on a Highway 99 road trip in California, Rose Hill Cemetery at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and Liberty Cemetery: A California ghost town burial ground.
Alhambra Theater: Sacramento’s grand ol’ movie palace
Today, the former movie showplace is not much of a show, as travelers will find. And not many folks seem to even be aware of the meaning of these palm trees, and non-functioning fountain as they dash in and out of the store for groceries. A plaque that was said to be placed there was nowhere to be found when I visited – other than a plaque with a quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Here, in the “Midtown Monthly,” Burg shares a short story he wrote in 2011, running a few old photographs by Doug Taggart of both the theater being demolished and some fundraising concerts – which unfortunately didn’t raise enough to save it.
“The fight to save the building was lost,’ he said, “but ‘Remember the Alhambra!’ became a rallying cry for local preservationists.”
Take a photo tour of the historic Alhambra Theater
Click here to see a photo of the interior at the Sacramento Public Library.
On the Nacht & Lewis architectural firm history page, you can see a series of photos and drawings if you click on the Gallery link below the main article.