Flickering images…



The item is not news. More nostalgia.

What had been the Century Theater in Pleasant Hill, CA is no more. The large dome gave way to demolition.

Call me lucky enough to have enjoyed more than a good number of films there over the years. Some moments in the dark that stand out include the full cannon barrage from “Gettysburg”, the revival of the HAL 9000 computer in “2010” and the classic model porn of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

Looking back, when I lived in central Contra Costa County, there were so many theaters where one could enjoy film. Long before cable tv and home video made their dents into how we view motion pictures. So, pardon me if I list them as I recall the years of flickering images on screens.

Walnut Creek was where I moved with my family in the summer of 1970. At that time, the city had one theater, the El Rey. It had definitely seen better days and better films, but it still had good times ahead. Especially as it became an art house and discovered late night films, in particular “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. A memorable double bill in the early 80’s offered “The Wicker Man” and “The Last Wave”. The El Rey gave way to just another office building, valuable real estate at a major intersection in downtown.

The Festival Cinemas came to town in the guise of a cinder block multiplex in the early 70’s, taking first run films away from the El Rey. It had one large theater and a collection of smaller rooms – five, if I recall correctly. As theaters go, not particularly memorable. But it was where I saw a number of memorable films for the first time including Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien and more. Festival was the upstart theater chain. Taking on the older and more established Syufy theaters. Both were family owned at one time.

Syufy had it’s Century Theaters with many having the unique dome theaters offering a big screen experience. Pleasant Hill had one (as noted to start today’s effort). I know that I saw at least one film in 70mm there in the dome, but can’t recall a name. Yet in the smaller theaters of the multiplex, there was “Deliverance”, “American Graffitti” and “Papillion” to name a few.

Pleasant Hill had a several other theaters of note. Where once had been Sherman Field (a World War II Army Air Corp training field) was what formed the core of downtown as this city grew. The Century Theater was part of a shopping mall that was anchored by Montgomery Wards. Across the Interstate 680 freeway once was the base theater. But it was also the home to the Pleasant Hill Motor Movies. And later on, another cinderblock multiplex from Festival, the Regency Theater was further up Contra Costa Blvd. It also had a video game arcade in a adjacent strip mall and did a good business until Festival was swallowed up by a larger chain of theaters.

I had friends who worked for both chains. And yes, I can admit to having enjoyed more than a few freebies along the way. Oddly enough, with the passing of the dome, all of these theaters are now gone.  Today’s Century Theater in the new downtown Pleasant Hill took the name and the dome complex became CineArts. Festival Cinemas gave way to a variety of shops and restaurants. The Motor Movies became a shopping center with a Safeway as it’s anchor. The Regency became a Lamps Plus store.

Pleasant Hill also has the movie theater at Diablo Valley College. While attending the school, there were plenty of great films shown on 16mm prints, all for free. I took in as many of those as time and work allowed.

Other theaters in the area included Concord’s collection – The Capri Theater, a large one screen house (eventually multiplexed and showing second and third run films for reduced prices) on the second floor of a former department store; The Enea, where I saw “The Hot Rock” before it became a porn theater eventually purchased by an adjoining church (and yes, the church did make money from porn until the buildings lease ran out); The Fox, another cinder block big screen house, now a 24 hour fitness location; The Sun Valley Cinema, part of the shopping mall with the same name that featured one large screen, eventually broken into two, where Saturday matinees of Disney films like “Snowball Express”, “The Boatniks’ and “The Black Hole” held kids during Mom’s shopping expeditions, now a sporting goods store; The Concord Motor Movies, right across a flood control channel, where one could watch the film for free, especially good for date nights when you really were not paying attention to the soundtrack anyway; The Solano Drive In, part of the Syufy chain, still with us and more known for it’s weekend flea markets under the flight path of nearby Buchanan Field (another WW II training base, now the major airport for general aviation in the county). Today, Concord has a new theater complex downtown, the Brenden 14.

Others included the Orinda Theater, which had “Casablanca” shown when it was revived/restored to it’s art deco glory; the Park Theater in Lafayette and the Rheem Theater in Moraga. The Park tried to hold on but closed it’s doors. The Rheem became more of a performing arts venue with an occasional film shown. Danville had likewise with the Village theater, now with a similar fate. It has been home to a Children’s Film Festival from time to time. San Ramon saw it’s first theater with an expansion from Festival in another cinder block wonder, and is still in business today. Blackhawk has a multiplex there by the same name. Martinez has another one of the Festival cinder block structures, The Contra Costa Cinema’s. At one time, that city was home to the State Theater, but that was before my time.

Overall, I would have to say I was extremely lucky to have so many theaters to chose from over the years. None of them were movie palaces such as the Oakland Paramount, but they all were great times. Places where flickering images in the dark brought enjoyment.

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