Grim news for Sierra Theatre if performing arts center proposal fails

Old theaters from the early days of film possess a magic charm that reminds us all of the good old days of yesteryear.

Sierra Theatre, 819 Main St. in Susanville, opened March 15, 1935, with “The Whole Town’s Talking,” starring Edward G. Robinson on the big screen.

Hard times have come, and the grand old lady’s owner says she may have to “shutter” the building if a proposal to convert it to a performing arts center managed by the Susanville Symphony Society fails. The symphony seeks $1 million from the city of Susanville in unused American Rescue Plan Act funding. The symphony says it can purchase the building for $400,000 and the additional $600,000 would be used for renovations and operating expenses.

Carolyn Smith said she and her family own both the Sierra Theatre and Uptown Cinemas. She said she looked online and was excited to see the Susanville City Council considering purchasing Sierra Theatre as a performing arts center.

“We just really cannot afford to operate Sierra Theatre anymore,” Smith told the council, “and if the sale does not go through, then we already know that we will shutter the building, and it will sit there like Mt. Lassen and the Saint Francis and other historic places. You know what’s happening with the Mt. Lassen — the pipes froze, it flooded, it’s a big mess, nobody wants to deal with it. We see across the street all the time at the Saint Francis. More broken windows. We see people in there, we call the police, we call Dow from the city to try and help out with that. Homeless people are living in there now, and it’s really a shame.”

She said some of the equipment in Sierra Theatre could be used at Uptown Cinemas, but biggest concern is the family has a $357,000 loan on the building at an 11 percent interest rate, and due to COVID, the payment has gone from $5,700 per month to $8,200 per month.

“Honestly, the business has not been able to make that payment for a year and a half,” Smith said. “We’ve done it because we had rental properties for 34 years that we sold. We can’t do that very much longer … If we do have the funds left over from that (the sale of the theatre), they could be used to keep the Uptown Cinemas viable, and to see that go away would be a crime.”

Symphony board member Phil Fetterman expressed his concern about a suggestion at the last city council meeting that the city could purchase the building and then lease it to the symphony.

He said, “The negotiation process to purchase Sierra Theatre began about a year ago and was conducted personally between the owners of the theatre and the board members of the Susanville Symphony Society. The price that was agreed upon was only reached after a lengthy process of negotiations that resulted in a price well below the market value. There are many reasons why the owners agreed to such a price. If the city is under the assumption that it can simply step in and offer the owners the same price, that would serve to discredit all of the work that’s been done to get the price that we have now. It’s safe to say the negotiations would have to begin all over again the price would have to be adjusted … “