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Escrow Closes on Novato Theater; More Funds Needed Before Revamping Begins

Novato City Council OK'd the sale of the long-shuttered theater on Grant Avenue back in December, and now plans can officially move forward.

Will it really happen? Will the Novato Theater actually reopen someday and become the destination for performing arts the city has needed for so long?

Naysayers might still have their doubts about whether it'll materialize — more than $2 million needs to be raised before the red-carpet grand opening takes place — but Wednesday marks a significant step: Escrow is closing on the long-shuttered movie house at 924 Grant Ave. Organizers believe transfer of ownership from the city to the nonprofit Novato Theater group clears the way for a new effort to attract closet philanthropists — sugar-daddies, funding angels, call them what you will — to finance the project.

Bernice Baeza, executive director of the Novato Theater group, announced Tuesday that fundraising efforts will go into high gear to raise $2.25 million necessary to complete the renovation of the theater, which was built in 1946 and closed in 1991.

More than $800,000 was raised over the past year to meet a goal set by the city, one that permitted the sale of the building for $50,000 to the nonprofit group. Peggy Hass of Ross, who grew up attending shows at the theater, to push the nonprofit over the $750,000 threshold set by the city.

The Novato City Council to approve the sale on Dec. 6.

"I am proud of the volunteers who worked so hard to get us to this point," said Baeza, who oversaw the renovation and reopening of the Lark Theater in Larkspur in 2004, just a year after it was slated for demolition. "A mission-based, community driven theater will bring excitement and interest to historic downtown Novato, supporting businesses, restaurants and raising the quality of life for Novato residents."

Henry Hautau, owner of , just across Grant Avenue from the theater, agreed on the quality-of-life factor.

"That's great. It's really one of the positive things everybody is waiting for in the downtown area," he said of escrow closing. "If we get this open, it's going to benefit everyone's lives in Novato and all the business owners as well. I think for a lot of businesses, especially restaurants, it will drastically help Sundays through Thursdays. Offering something downtown at those times would increase traffic and have a positive effect on everything."

Councilwoman Jeanne MacLeamy said recruiting Dietrich Stroeh to serve on the theater committee is a huge step for the effort. Stroeh, co-founder of Novato-based , joined about a month ago and brings decades of experience in contract negotiations, project management and engineering expertise to Baeza's volunteer team.

"It's great he's on board," MacLeamy said. "... He's a real driver. He really wants to see things happen in Novato."

Stroeh, a lifelong Novato resident, saw the first film ever shown at the theater in 1946 when he was 10 years old. Now, 75, he says he can't remember which film it was except that it was the worst movie he'd ever seen. He saw pictures there for many years before moving on to his professional life, in which he's earned a reputation as probably the most respected leader in the city.

Stroeh said closing escrow is a major milestone, but so much work still needs to be done.

"It's going to be a yearlong effort to acquire all the funds to make this happen," he said. "The next few weeks and months is about sitting down and coming up with a decent plan for fundraising because we're not going to do it with cake sales. It's going to be big players, going through our contacts and talking to people, hoping they become involved at least financially."

Stroeh said he plans to meet with Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, Mayor Denise Athas and Baeza in a planning summit, but he is particularly interested in seeing structural plans for the building.

MacLeamy said she can't help but be excited about everything going on with the Novato Theater renovation at this point.

"We've kind of all been waiting for this day, to allow the theater group to really proceed to bring the theater back to life," she said. "Downtown can really benefit from vibrant entertainment activity. I think it's outstanding that it's moving forward, and I can't wait until they actually open their doors. I'm really optimistic."

Chris Corbett February 02, 2012 at 03:22 AM
When I was a kid, I saw The Outsiders there, and that was when it just came out! I remember the olden days very well, like when Vintage Oaks was still a farm with real cows; Marion and West Novato Elementary schools; Partridge Knolls when it was just dirt; when all the houses on Ignacio Blvd were actually occupied by the active military, etc...boy, do I have stories!
Sylvia Barry February 02, 2012 at 05:52 AM
When I drive by Grant and Redwood after sundown now a days, I see the lit up Novato Theater's neon sign and that just makes me smile every time. Somehow it brightens up the area and makes a big difference to that area even from a distance! Bernice showed the film about the rebuilding of the Mill town of North Adams, MA; by, against all odds, building Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts in the defunct Sprague buildings. To me, it was an extremely inspiring movie which could have been shown to not just volunteers but donors, stakeholders and Novatans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Adams,_Massachusetts "Where there is a Will, there is a Way" - NEVER SAY NEVER!

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