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Grand Lompoc Theatre once a showcase
The Opera House offered little opera, but it was the only public gathering spot the tiny community of Lompoc offered its residents. Most of the entertainment revolved around silent movies and dances. //Contributed

The Lompoc Theatre, which has reigned like an empress over H and Ocean for 80 years, will soon be reborn as the Calvert Center for the Performing Arts.

It will be renamed by its new owner, the nonprofit Lompoc Housing & Community Development Corporation, in honor of Earl and Anne Calvert, and the entire Calvert family, who have been stewards of the institution since its inception in 1927.

On Sunday, when ceremonial groundbreaking will herald renovation of the grand dame, it will have been 80 years since the 450-seat showplace opened, but the name Calvert has been associated with show business in Lompoc for nearly a century.

It was no later than 1911 when Walter Calvert tucked a violin under his chin at the Lompoc Opera House to perform with the Walling family orchestra. &#8220DadC Walling operated the establishment at South H Street at Cypress, where a newer building now houses a bedding retailer.

The Opera House offered little opera, but it was the only public gathering spot the tiny community of Lompoc offered. Mostly it had silent movies and Saturday night dances, but it was little used.

&#8220Renting for the sum of ,10 nightly and seldom being in demand, it is doubtful if the building ever paid dividends to the group of pioneers who fathered the enterprise,C local historian Myra Huyck Manfrina wrote in the Record in 1959.

&#8220At one time during its history Henry Ryon held a ,1,500 mortgage on the property and often expressed his intention of foreclosing with the idea of making a hay barn of the structure. He maintained that he could see no better use for it.C

In 1912, management of the place was put up for bid. Calvert, a bicycle and automobile mechanic at the time, and his brother-in-law, William Baker, won and took over.

Under the enterprising direction of Baker and Calvert, silent movies and an array of local events began to draw more people to the old barn. After a year the partners bought it.

Business continued so well that in 1926, when the local chapter of the Knights of Pythias received an offer from a Santa Barbara company to lease a proposed theater building on the group/s lot on North H Street, Baker and Calvert matched the offer with a 10-year commitment.

A Knights of Pythias building committee then raised the staggering sum of ,100,000, ,22,000 of which went for the organ alone. The committee pruned down the architect/s plan by delaying the Knights/ meeting room but retained four rentable storefronts and several second story offices in addition to the theater. Construction was completed in 1927, but the Knights of Pythias lodge room was never built.

On Friday night, May 27, 1927, Baker and Calvert pulled out all the stops for the grand opening of the new Lompoc Theatre. The facility had a snack bar and even a &#8220crying room.C Ushers were outfitted in red satin tops and black pants. Howard McBride, publicity director of Universal Film, was imported to serve as the event/s master of ceremonies.

The show included an organ solo by blind Justice of the Peace Charles L. Poulsen, music by an orchestra, and song and dance as well as introduction of as many stage and screen celebrities as Baker and Calvert could convince to drive to this village of 2,000.

Famed producer Cecil B. De Mille passed on the trip but sent greetings. Finally, on film, a newsreel appeared followed by a double bill of &#8220Lost at the FrontC and &#8220Circus DazeC featuring comedy star Andy Gump. The house was packed.

The theater became home to more than film. Days later, on Memorial Day, the theater hosted the American Legion Auxiliary for the annual remembrance ceremony. On June 6, the Alpha Club staged the venue/s first play. &#8220The Dream WifeC featured Jennie Dimock in the starring role of Mother Hogan.

The theater thrived. By 1929 &#8220talkiesC had become the rage and Calvert/s son, Earl, returned from college to assist his father.

Earl Calvert was a showman. He formed Lompoc/s Mickey Mouse Club within a year after Walt Disney unveiled the concept in 1930. He had local talent perform during intermissions. He formed a youth band. &#8220That/s how we got to go to the show,C recalled former youth band member Maida Ratcliff. &#8220We got in free because we played.C

He staged parades for premieres. He held Bank Night every week with cash giveaways. Concerts, lectures, and traveling vaudeville acts kept the venue continually active through the hard times of the Depression.

As World War II dawned and Camp Cooke opened, the theater boomed bigger than ever. As part of the wartime rubber collection, Calvert gave free admission to anyone bringing an old tire. In 1944, Calvert opened a second theater, La Mesa, on the south side of Ocean between I and J which lasted for 12 years before a fire destroyed it.

After the war Calvert/ s promotional genius continued unabated. In 1948, when the theater showed &#8220Rusty Leads the Way,C featuring German Shepherd star Flame, Calvert held a dog show with prizes. Also that decade, Calvert, instead of signing a third 10-year lease, purchased the Lompoc Theatre building. He also bought out Baker/s share of the partnership. Walter Calvert had died earlier.

In 1954, in competition with television, Calvert upgraded the theater with a triangle marquee, Cinemascope screen, new sound system, new seats and carpeting, new box office, and a new and enlarged lobby. In 1959, he added the Lompoc Drive-in Theater to his holdings.

While other theaters were carved into multiplexes, Calvert fiercely resisted and kept Lompoc Theatre showing single movies into the 1970s despite declining revenues. He also served the community. He led the campaign to save the Carnegie Library from demolition and then co-founded the Lompoc Museum Association with the Carnegie as the headquarters. He served as president of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society for 20 years. He was Lompoc/s Man of the Year in 1978 and Grand Marshal of the Flower Festival Parade in 1985.

He died on Christmas Eve 1997 at age 92, followed months later by his wife Anne.

Before sale of the theater to the LHCDC the Calvert family searched for years for a buyer for their landmark. Daughter-in-law Carol Calvert wandered the dusty aisles with a reporter one day during those trying times and inevitably thought of her in-laws. &#8220They/re still here,C she said.

Now they will appear on the marquee.

Correspondent John McReynolds can be reached at 736-6352 or johnny544@verizon.net

May 27, 2007

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