Dinuba prepares for Strand Theater’s last act

The old Strand Theater stands on the corner of Fresno Street and North L Street in downtown Dinuba, April 24, 2024. The theater is set to be demolished after a fire in February left it structurally compromised.(Serena Bettis)

Dinuba’s Alta District Historical Society keeps memories of the historic downtown theater alive as the city prepares to tear it down

DINUBA – On the corner of Fresno and North L Street in downtown Dinuba sits the Strand Theater, an architectural marvel of white brick and stone that has held the memories and stories of Dinuba families for the last century.

This spring, the theater will be torn down, not to make way for new development, but because a February fire ravaged its interior, causing structural damage that has put the building at risk of collapse. Despite the impending demolition, the theater will remain in the minds of all who call Dinuba their home, and will hold a particularly special place in the hearts of those who may have experienced their first job, first date or first movie at the theater.

“I think the people of Dinuba are gonna miss seeing it there,” resident Danny Delgado said. “Our downtown area is not the downtown area I remember it being … and it was nice to grow up in that time.”

Delgado recalled working at the theater shortly after he graduated from high school in the mid 1970s. Part of his job was to pick up the films in their canisters and take them out to the Midway Drive-In on Alta and Manning Avenue, where he actually spent most of his time working. More than anything else, Delgado remembered how much he enjoyed the job, and how it allowed him to spend time with friends.

“It was so much fun when we worked out there,” Delgado said. “A lot of the girls that worked the snack bar were friends of mine from high school. We would take the tickets and change the billboard out front; it was a real nice time to grow up in that era.”

Back in town, Terry Davis also has fond memories of time spent with friends while going to the theater — although Davis, writing for the Alta District Historical Society newsletter, said it was never “the theater,” it was always “the show.”

As kids in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Davis and his friends would regularly make the trek on foot to the show, stopping to buy candy, talking about the shops they passed and playing games with each other to make it a true adventure. Davis said the theater was the place that showed all of the “big” films, and often targeted Saturdays to kids, running The Three Stooges and Disney films.

“Still, I assert it was far more than just a place that showed films,” Davis said. “A part of a lot of kids’ growing up years were shared there, on the burgundy red, embossed carpet.”

On those special Saturdays, Valyn Kandarian, current office manager for the historical society, remembered that weekend chores were done at home without arguing in the mornings because then they got to go to the show in the afternoon.

A theater right downtown

Historical society member Richard Hachigian, who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, said they were spoiled having the theater “right there in town, just a bike ride from home.”

The Strand Theater, known to most who frequented it in their youth as the State Theater, was built in 1922 and opened in either 1923 or 1924, according to varying accounts. The theater was commissioned by the Strand Theater Company of San Francisco in 1922, when the company’s owner approached J.F. Williams about building a theater in Dinuba, according to the 2006 book “Dinuba: A Place of New Beginnings” by Ron Dial.

Fresno-based architect Ernest Kump Sr. was assigned as the building’s architect; Kump also designed dozens of schools around the Central Valley, including many schools in Dinuba, according to the Ernest J. Kump Sr. Collection held by the University of California, Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

At that time, the theater was the largest in the San Joaquin Valley and could seat more than 1,200 people. When it opened, the theater put on live performances, before mostly showing movies later on. Even once live shows were less common, present-day Dinubians recall there still being a stage and dressing rooms in the theater.

Kandarian said that it is unclear what happened to the interest of the Strand Theater Company, but shortly after the theater opened, Clarence Wilson, the stepson of J.F. Williams, assumed ownership, and the name was changed to the State Theater.

Wilson’s grandson, Greg Olson, is still a Dinuba resident, and said he often wonders if the building’s brick inspired other brick buildings around the city, “because this brick thing is a big deal.”

Many residents who have memories of the theater in their teenage years were unsure of when exactly it closed down; however, it is known that the Calvary Apostolic Church bought the building in 1999, and it eventually landed in the hands of the city.

The cause of the Feb. 11 fire is still being investigated. The Dinuba Fire Department received a call about the fire at 1:20 a.m. on Feb. 11 and arrived on scene to find that the fire was going through the roof of the building. While there was not a lot of materials or furniture inside the theater, the fire consumed most of the material within the center area.

The city plans to save as many pieces of the historic building as possible, and will be retaining bricks from the building to give to the Alta District Historical Society. The historical society museum has the old sign from the State Theater on display, as well as the opening night program from the Strand Theater and pictures of usherettes who worked there.

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