I never had the pleasure of watching a movie in Manteca’s grand dame of entertainment that was known as the El Rey Theatre.
I was 19 and living 70 miles away in Placer County when the El Rey Theatre became part of Trivia Pursuit folklore that includes the question “What was playing at the El Rey Theatre in Manteca, Calif., when it burned on Aug. 6, 1975.”
Any movie buff worth their salt could easily guess “The Towering Inferno.”
There are plenty of interesting stories associated with the El Rey. One of my favorite involved George Quaresma who as a teenager showed up late for a movie date with his high school sweetheart Diane who was destined to become his bride on the final night the El Rey was in business. He was the last person ever to buy a ticket to an El Rey movie. Quaresma ultimately became Manteca’s fire chief.
“The Towering Inferno” movie poster that survived the fire is on display at the Manteca Museum at 600 W. Yosemite Ave.
It is also where Dennis Weaver as a grammar school kid spent several years pushing brooms and other tasks to earn his keep while leaving near the old Summer Home School with a Manteca family while his tried their luck making a living elsewhere during the Great Depression.
The $110,000 state-of-the-art 900-seat air conditioned theatre with gold leaf ceiling accents whose shell eventually housed the now shuttered Kelly Brothers Brewing Co. was opened by Bill Peters with much fanfare on April 15, 1937.
It was a big risk. The Depression was still going strong. Big-name films cost $500 to rent. Ticket prices were going from 35 cents for adults — 40 cents if they wanted a rocking chair in the loges.
One of his two sons — George — happened to have built the house Cynthia and I bought. George’s son told of how his mother would not move into the classic California ranch-style redwood-framed house built by Ed Pine and Antone Raymus until carpet was laid over the hardwood floors. It was 1954 and the hottest trend was carpet in homes. Lucky for us when we took the carpet up 46 years later we had hardwood floors that had never been walked on.
Bill Peters was a true American success story.
He was born in Petri Bazil in Albania and came to the United States at age 15 to live with family in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Peters got his start by selling the San Francisco Examiner down by the beach. By age 17, he was working in a glue factory in the Bay View District. He eventually saved enough to buy a small theater off Third Street on Oakdale Avenue in San Francisco. He named the movie showcase “Home Theater” and settled into an apartment above the theater. In 1922, he made arrangements for his future bride Olympia (Eleano) to come to San Francisco from Albania as a 16-year-old and promptly married her.
George was born in 1924 and brother Chris followed in 1926. Their father thought the prospects for a better future could be found in the growing San Joaquin Valley town of Manteca. They moved here in 1927 when they purchased the Lyric Theater and the entire building that now houses American Furniture right across the street from the future home of the El Rey.
Ticket prices at the Lyric started at 5 cents for kids and 15 cents for adults.
To find out what was playing at the Lyric if you didn’t have a handbill, it was a simple call to 55.
The El Rey was built on property purchased from Joshua Cowell’s descendants. It sat virtually next door to the house that Cowell — Manteca’s first settler and landowner — built in the 1860s where Bank of America is located today.
The Peters theater empire eventually included the Del Rio that they built and opened in 1947 in Riverbank, the Rio in Ripon, the Lyric in Escalon (using the old sign from the Lyric Theater in Manteca) and the Del Mar in Salida plus two movie houses in Los Banos.
Back in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, the El Rey served not just as the entertainment center of the community but also as the social hub.
Once a week, Portuguese films were shown luring members of the Portuguese community from as far away as Salida and Stockton.
A Catholic priest always came. Many of the moviegoers would stay around for hours afterwards and talk with the priest in the lobby.
Tuesdays for the longest time was dish night. Women would receive a saucer the first Tuesday of the promotion. The next week it was the cup. It would go on that way until a woman eventually could collect a whole set of dinnerware.
In a sense, it is better that the El Rey met its fate the way that it did. It went out with a splash and just didn’t linger to die a slow death as so many similar grand movie houses have over the years.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail email@example.com