The Grand Dame of State Street Turns 100

Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre celebrates its centennial year

By Misty Hall
All photos courtesy Granada Theatre

For much of early adulthood, State Street in Santa Barbara was THE place to go. This was back in the early 2000s, when we spent long nights dancing in very cool clubs (and very short dresses).

The 1954 premiere of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s The Long, Long Trailer featured the film’s third star — the trailer itself!

I remember that we almost always had to walk past the Granada Theatre to get back to the parking structure. It stood out to me because it was not only the tallest building in town, by far, but it also just felt … steeped in mystery, somehow. And history. What the heck went on in there? And would they ever actually reopen it?

At the time, the Granada was still deep in renovation mode, several years away from its grand reopening in March 2008. To restore and bring it to its current state took more than a quarter of a century of painstaking effort from passionate (not to mention creative, and patient, and innovative) locals and philanthropists. They were determined to bring this historic landmark back — not only to its former glory, but to modify it to fit the needs of several different performing arts groups, and to attract the world-class artists that now fill its rich, diverse calendar.

The stage, as seen from the balcony.

This year, the Granada Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary. The festivities kick off this spring and will celebrate the incredible part it has played, and will continue to play, in the history of Santa Barbara.

Interestingly enough, this stunning historic landmark wasn’t built by a famous architect. In fact, when builder Charles Urton took on the project, he’d never constructed anything taller than two stories before. But armed with the confidence his wife inspired in him — and a how-to book on building high rises — he made it happen.

Inside the Granada features Spanish Moorish architecture.

As it turned out, that confidence was well-placed. Just a year after the Granada’s grand opening in 1924, much of the town was destroyed in a 6.3 earthquake; but Urton’s eight-story building stood tall.

Today, “it remains the tallest building in Santa Barbara,” said Caren Rager, the Chrisman executive director and president at The Granada Theatre. “That’s partly because they didn’t want Santa Barbara to become a New York.” Thus, the building stands sentinel on State Street, between Victoria and Anapamu streets.

The building was named after Granada, Spain, the “city of dreams,” Rager said. It featured a dazzling 500-light marquee, a re-creation of which graces the building today. Its elaborate decor and 1,553 seat theater wowed visitors — and despite its size, its Spanish-Moorish-inspired architecture helped it fit into the character of State Street. The grand theater occupied the lower two floors, and office buildings took up the rest.

Within a short period of time, the Granada began making its mark on the Golden Age of film — even though it was a good 90 miles from Hollywood. Gone With the Wind was tested there before its official opening. Same with Guys and Dolls. In the 1930s, the building was purchased by Warner Brothers, which continued attracting big premieres, and big stars, such as Fred Astaire, Doris Day, and Charlie Chaplin.

At the Granada, stunning details can be found everywhere, including the ceiling.

As the decades rolled by, the Granada was bought and sold a few times. As multiplex theaters became popular, the interior was chopped up into three theater spaces, dramatically changing the original layout.

In the mid-1980s, a new kind of star hit the main stage: the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. It brought in some big Broadway productions, including Hello, Dolly!, The Music Man, and many others.

Around that time, several performing arts companies came together to form one big nonprofit group: the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts (SBCPA). It was comprised of eight resident companies: Community Arts Music Association of Santa Barbara (CAMA), the Music Academy of the West (now the Music Academy), Opera Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the Santa Barbara Symphony, the State Street Ballet, UCSB Arts & Lectures, and the American Theatre Guild (ATG). All except the ATG are local to Santa Barbara.

“Their mission was to study how to create a world-class performing arts center in Santa Barbara, that they would then own and operate,” Rager said. Each company had different needs for their venue. And, as they would discover, no existing building had everything they needed. So, would they build from scratch? Or retrofit something existing?

More than a decade went by without much movement, other than some feasibility studies. But, in 1997, “Two women involved in performing arts in Santa Barbara — Joan Rutkowski and Susan Gulbransen — got together and said, ‘We HAVE to make this happen!’” The two local movers and shakers recruited several friends, professionals, and philanthropists to help revive the SBCPA’s original efforts. More soon joined the mix.

The mission was back in action. But still, the challenge remained of the right location to fit all the companies’ needs. There would need to be just-right (yet flexible) acoustics, special flooring on the stage (which would need to be quite large), ample space to fit a large orchestra, exceptional lighting, up-to-date technology, the ability to show films, excellent dressing rooms, and myriad other things (not the least of which would be accessibility for artists and visitors with disabilities).

Ultimately, the group turned its eyes to the Granada Theatre. Yes, it needed work — a lot of work. Which would require a lot of money. But the bones were solid, and the location was ideal. This, coupled with the Granada’s history, were too good to pass up. It would take several years, a monumental effort, and a retrofitting to bring it up to earthquake codes, but in March 2008, it finally reopened its doors to the public.

A premiere at the Granada circa 1929.

“We had a grand reopening event, an open house for the community to come see the theatre,” recalled Rager. “Literally thousands of people came through, in lines and lines!”

“The Granada is undoubtedly the most spectacular building in the city of Santa Barbara for performing arts space,” said Celesta Billeci, the Miller McCune executive director at UCSB Arts & Lectures, in a mini-documentary on the building. “I mean, when we bring world-class performers to this community and they walk into the building, their jaw drops, they look at it, and say, ‘wow!’”

Of course, having such a space helps tremendously in the attraction of those world-class performers. Over the years since its reopening, the Granada has hosted some of the biggest names in performing arts.

Musicians of all varieties have played here — think Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, Boz Skaggs, the Beach Boys, Itzhak Perlman, and the L.A. Philharmonic. UCSB Arts & Lectures brought in author and humorist David Sedaris. Comedian Nate Bargatze (who recently released a Netflix special) performed in 2022. The American Theatre Guild brought in The Book of Mormon (which, not surprisingly, sold out each of its three shows almost instantly). Last fall, they brought in Samara Joy, three-time Grammy winner for her jazz performances. And in a first, Opera Santa Barbara, the State Street Ballet, and the Santa Barbara Choral Society teamed up for Carmina Burana, which put more than 150 performers on the stage for the epic show.

Last season, the Granada’s 19 shows (some of which included multiple performances), were at least 90 percent sold out. “Many were 100 percent sold out!” said Rager. There’s more to come at the Granada — and thankfully, great backers behind it. “We have an amazing Board of Directors,” Rager said, “and an amazingly generous community that helps to support the financial needs of the theatre.”

This spring, the Granada comes full circle to celebrate its centennial. And, in true Granada style, it’s going to be a year-long bash. The kick-off begins in early April, but additional events will continue to be added throughout the year.

The Marquee Today.

The Centennial anniversary weekend runs April 12 to 14. In the line-up:

  • April 12: Double feature with Sherlock Jr. and Star Wars: A New Hope
  • April 13: Special Guest (check the website for details, but this one is not to be missed!)
  • April 14: A special night featuring Santa Barbara’s up-and-coming solo artists and talented high school performers
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Additional events include:

  • April 20-21: Mahler Meets Klezmer: Titans of Sound presented by the Santa Barbara Symphony
  • April 30-May 1: Come From Away, presented by the American Theatre Guild
  • May 18-19: Rhapsody in Blue, presented by The Santa Barbara Symphony
  • May 24: Sérgio Mendes, Grammy award-winning artist and international music legend
  • Oct. 1: Momix Alice, presented by the American Theatre Guild
  • Nov. 30: You Should be Dancing, presented by Bay Area Bee Gees

For a full list of events, visit ticketing.granadasb.org/events

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