“Showtime!” exhibit at Martinez Museum

MARTINEZ, Calif. – “Showtime!” a look at theatrical arts in Martinez, is the current exhibit at the Martinez Museum.

The exhibit opened Sunday and will be on display for three months, said Debbie Zamaria, secretary of the Martinez Historical Society.

Visitors will see photographs, histories and artifacts from several of Martinez area theaters, including the Novelty Theatre, the Peoples’ Theatre, the Royal, the Avalon and the State Theatre.

In addition, they’ll see highlights about the Martinez Opera and Papinta, the Flame Dancer, said Andrea Blachman, the museum’s director.

“The citizens of Martinez have a long history of theater in their lovely town,” Zamaria said. “As early as 1858, Phoebe Alley wrote home to Nantucket, describing a grand ball with orchestra that raised funds for the Martinez Education Society.”

Another figure who influenced Martinez performing arts was Professor Walter Bartlett, who came to California in 1889 to visit his sister, she said.

“He was a music teacher and brought his knowledge and experience to Martinez,” Zamaria said. “Once here, he fell in love not only with Martinez, but with Margaret McMahon, a school teacher and member of the most prominent singing family in Martinez.”

McMahon introduced Bartlett to the Martinez Choral Society, a small singing group. He gave them voice and piano lessons, she said. Under his direction they became a professional opera company that toured the country and performed in Martinez at the Martinez Opera House.

“The exact location of the opera house has not been determined, only that it was on lower Estudillo Street,” Zamaria said.

At that time, Martinez had a population of 1,500 and was not only the county seat, but the cultural center of Contra Costa County, she said.

Martinez was known not only for its opera performances but also for its several theaters, she said.

The People’s Theater operated at the current site of La Tapatia Restaurant on Main Street, and was built in 1915 by John Maloche, a former blacksmith. It was one of the first motion picture theaters in Martinez, she said.

The Royal Theater, another of the early theaters in downtown Martinez, attracted residents and visitors in the 1910s and 1920s, Zamaria said. It was upstairs in Henry J. Curry’s building, also known as the McMahon-Telfer Building, on Ferry Street, she said.

Where Bar Cava is now on Main Street once was home to the Novelty Theater. It offered musical comedies and silent motion pictures.

The Avalon Movie House, which operated where the College District building stands on Escobar Street, opened in 1931.

The State Theater building, at 800 Ferry St., now is home to the Public Defender’s Offices. The State first opened in 1926 and was remodeled in 1932 after a fire, Zamaria said.

This theater became the entertainment center for Contra Costa County, she said. It initially offered vaudeville shows. But it changed with the times, switching to motion pictures, first the silent films and then offering “talkies.” “Audiences came from the entire Bay Area in the 1930s to this Art Deco building with floor to ceiling mirrors and 15-foot-high murals,” Zamaria said.

“Although those theaters and the opera house are long gone, Martinez continues to appreciate and celebrate the arts,” she said. “The Campbell Theater features many excellent local plays and our schools celebrate the arts as well with music and theater productions for the community to enjoy.”

“Showtime!” continues through the end of June. The Martinez Museum, 1005 Escobar St., is open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Those interested in special tours may call Blachman at 925-387-5385 or the Museum at 925-228-8160 or may visit the website at https://www.martinezhistory.org/.

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