Defending the Picture Palace 

After 80 years, the Wilma Theatre gets a new chance at reclaiming its old grandeur

Next time you go see a movie at the Wilma, show up a little early. Sit all alone in that floating space of vaudeville dreams and movie reveries and try to notice what’s new about the place—and not just the free popcorn, either.

The Wilma turns 80 this week—on May 11, to be exact, on which day in 1921 original owner W. A. “Billy” Simons christened the lavish 1400-seat theater with a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In many ways, the theater has never been healthier, but it’s not something you notice right away. In fact, if your access is limited to the cavernous upstairs auditorium, and if you haven’t been to a movie here in a while, you might not discern anything different at all. Or is it brighter? Does the air—that theater air, sweet and heady with age and generations of leached-out butter—feel somehow more salutary? Has that sprinkler head always been there?

Yes, yes, and no. After years of what essentially amounts to preventive maintenance, the theater has now entered a period of renewal. A committed group of caretakers have begun the long and expensive process of buying back the Wilma’s former grandeur piece by piece, and pretty soon it will really start to show. The first big investments, however, have been mostly systemic—not cosmetic.

“I never thought I’d see the Wilma fully sprinkled,” says theater manager Bill Emerson, squinting into the house lights. “Just never thought I’d live to see the day.”

A fully up-to-code sprinkler system is the most recently completed improvement for the Wilma. It’s been an arduous process, not to mention a teeth-clenchingly loud one at times in a concrete building where workmen often had to bore through several inches or more to install the sprinkler heads. But together with compliant exits recently added in the dressing rooms and residential tower, the new sprinkler system, completed late last year, represents the single biggest safety improvement made in the theater since it opened 80 years ago.

“The fire department is ecstatic,” says Barbara Bick, CEO of the theater’s vintage-sounding parent company, the Wilma Amusement Company, “They’ve hated this building since 1921. They get a call at the Wilma and they all go ‘Oh, my God.’ But now they love it— all the sprinklers, all the egresses, all the alarms. And they know we’re in it for the long haul.”

Comfort and performance come next. For starters, the house lights are brighter these days—thanks to about $200,000 in new wiring to completely replace the original, which could only handle 25-watt bulbs. Now the chandeliers can take 100-watt bulbs, all controlled by the rheostat in the projection booth. The new air (and, admittedly, this time of year maybe you only really notice the difference once they tell you) is the result of a sophisticated new HVAC system—heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Completed early last fall, the new system replaces a massive and demanding swamp cooler that used to be housed on the fourth floor. The new HVAC also requires a fraction of the power once needed to heat the building in colder months.

“With a big old theater like the Wilma,” Bick explains, “the cost of heating all the ambient air is just outrageous. But now, with this system, we actually use one-tenth of the power because it’s taking the air differently. It’s taking moisture out of the air, and moisture represents the biggest fluctuation in temperature.”

“And,” she adds, “Yanking the swamp cooler afforded us about 2,000 square feet we didn’t have before.”

The performance power of the Wilma has also been radically improved. Backstage, Emerson and Bick beam fondly at the pale green housing of a brand-new, 400-amp, three-phase electrical station—more than enough juice to power any road show that comes through town without having to fall back on an auxiliary generator, and without electrical interference between lights and sound.

The blocks and pulleys in the Wilma’s stage rigging are all original, although the original hemp ropes have long since been replaced with Dacron—some 15,000 feet of it, says Emerson, who has overseen all the improvements backstage. If all goes according to plan, the next acquisition will be a new screen to make what is already the biggest indoor projection surface in the state even bigger. An honest to goodness silver screen, and a curved one at that—as opposed to the flat, merely pearlescent one the theater has now. The main difference between the two, Emerson explains, is in the way each screen reflects light.

“A pearlescent screen you can bounce light off of anywhere,” he says. “The screen diffuses it. With a silver screen, the light comes right back at you.”

With the proper curvature, however, a silver screen is the most luminous; “It shines all the brighter,” Emerson says, clearly relishing this next big purchase.

There’s more, but you get the idea. The Wilma is being renovated from the inside out, starting with the infrastructure and working out toward the aesthetic details. For the time being, the most outward sign of new life is the exterior tower lights fitted over the winter—five on the trapezoidal building’s southern edifice, four on the marquee side and four on the side facing downtown—which brush up the brickwork and break in stark Gotham shadows over the vertebrate overhang of each cornice. The effect is spectacular.

Emerson and Bick say they wish there were more aesthetic triumphs for the public to appreciate at this stage, but so far most of the several million dollars that owner Tracy Blakeslee has put into the restoration have gone toward infrastructure. In some cases, Bick explains, the obvious places to start aren’t always smartest or the easiest. Consider, she says, the “sagging” apron under the yellow sign out front:

“It’s not really saggy,” she notes. “It’s designed like that to direct water. With paint, you can trick the eye. That’s what it really needs—not just to be painted navy blue, but to have the lines created again.”

“You can’t just touch something halfway,” she continues. “You don’t really know what’s under there, and in what kind of shape. If you go and touch something like that, you have to be ready to do something else.”

And sometimes the renovation can actually create new problems. Not long ago, workmen installing ducts for the heating and ventilation system inadvertently cut through a series of important cables, sending several hundred pounds of plaster loose in one chunk from the suspended plaster ceiling over the balcony. The company’s insurer paid for repairs with historically proper materials, but the naked white patch will remain on the Wilma’s hand-painted ceiling—the largest in the state—until the ceiling can be cleaned and the pigments matched properly so that the whole field will age together. Soon, the molded plaster of the gildwork on the proscenium arch will also be cleaned up and water-damaged pieces, like the battered eagle commanding the arch, fixed and regilded.

Restoring the Wilma has been and will continue to be a massive—and massively expensive—undertaking, but Emerson and Bick are clearly excited about the project and justifiably proud of the progress they’ve made so far. They also speak glowingly about the commitment and vision of owner Blakeslee, a Missoula native who took control of the Wilma in January 1994.

“He just put double-hung, highly insulated windows in every window in the Wilma tower,” Bick says. “You don’t do that if you’re just going to collect the rent and run. Having a piece of change always helps, but Tracy’s imagination and his willingness to take this place and go with it are what will see the process through.”

Meanwhile, work on the myriad details has already begun. The plaster ornaments in the lobby are once again in bloom where local artist Catherine Dixon moved in her scaffolding and went to work, Sistine Chapel-style. Four score years after her opulent debut, the Wilma is in safe and patient hands.

“The theater went to sleep,” says Bick, “And now we’re bringing it back to life again.”

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