Premier Theater
VIEW FROM THE PAST - The Premier Theater, shown here in 1935, operated under a pay-what-you-can basis during the Great Depression. (Discover LOST Gatos)

The imminent reopening of the Los Gatos Theater is the perfect time to take a look back at the history of this major downtown site.

The Los Gatos Canning Company occupied most of the block for 30 years before the construction of a movie theater. The cannery, established in 1882 to serve the growing number of local orchardists, was staffed by what the Los Gatos Weekly News described as “labor which is not in demand in other business, namely women, boys, and girls.” The workday started at 6am and continued until 9pm six days a week. A female “expert hand” was paid $3.50 for a 15-hour day while children were paid $2 or less per day.

After the cannery was sold, the building was torn down and replaced by several retail storefronts and the town’s first movie theater. It was called The Strand and it opened with great fanfare on Nov. 18, 1916 as one of the first Bay Area motion picture theaters outside of San Francisco. A Wurlitzer organ was installed to play the musical score which accompanied silent films of the era. Tickets were 11 cents for children and 25 cents for adults. The film industry was still in its infancy, and moviegoing was such a novelty that an estimated 900 people showed up for 600 seats.

Mrs. R. M. Black, lessee of the new theater, announced that she would operate “an up-to-the-minute picture house, showing films of the highest and cleanest type.” I wonder if the romantic comedy “It” featuring silent film star Clara Bow would’ve been a bit too risqué for Mrs. Black when it opened at The Strand years later. According to ads for the 1927 film, the actress was the “Irrepressible Irresistible It Girl” who pursued a “Virile, Masterful Lover” played by actor Antonio Moreno, who also had “it.” The word “sex” was taboo back then, so “it” was a common euphemism for “sex appeal.”

After a September 1929 fire, the neoclassical building was remodeled and reopened as The Premier. Silent films were giving way to “talkies” and the owners replaced the Wurlitzer with a synchronized sound system. An ornate vertical sign and marquee were also added. But the redesigned façade didn’t last long. It was shattered in the early morning hours of Feb. 21, 1933, when a bomb was shoved through a slot in the box office. The roar of the blast startled residents all over town, and bricks and plaster were hurled 50 feet. Police thought the bombing might be due to labor troubles, but the motive was never determined and no arrests were made.

The theater was renamed The Los Gatos in the 1940s, and the iconic “knife blade” neon sign was added soon thereafter. It was converted into a twin theater in the 1980s, badly damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake, and didn’t reopen until 1993. The building was purchased by the Goetz family in 2012 and was completely rebuilt from the ground up as a replica of a classic Art Deco movie palace. According to the family, multiple layers of discarded tin cans were uncovered during excavation. Before routine trash collection, the cannery just buried everything on site.

The Goetz family generously donated the property to the town in 2021, and the theater will now be operated by CineLux. We’re fortunate to have this majestic new landmark to grace our downtown historic district.

Content and photos from “Discover LOST Gatos” historical walking tours by Alan Feinberg, Peggy Conaway-Bergtold and Sandy Decker. Download the free mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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Alan Feinberg is a Los Gatos town historian and founder of the LOST Gatos Project. His mission is to generate enthusiasm among Los Gatos residents for remembering and preserving our town’s unique character and historic treasures before they’re lost forever.

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