It was the grand dame of Manteca.
Built at a cost of $110,000 at the height of the Depression, the El Rey Theatre opened in the 100 block of East Yosemite Avenue in downtown Manteca with great fanfare on April 15, 1937.
The 900-seat, air-conditioned theatre dubbed “The House of Courtesy” was complete with tiled bathroom floors and art on the walls and ceilings accented with gold leaf. Its marquee was crowded with big name, first-run movies.
It was virtually a carbon copy of a Salinas theater owned by a relative of owner Bill Peters. With tickets going for 35 cents for adults — 40 cents if they wanted a rocking chair in the loges — and big-name films costing $500 to rent, the $110,000 investment was made at a considerable risk.
The El Rey Theatre had a 48-year run as Manteca’s major source of commercial entertainment until it was gutted by fire on Aug. 6, 1975 after the screening of “The Towering Inferno.”
The story of Bill Peters is 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.
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.
To find out what was playing at the Lyric if you didn’t have a handbill, it was a simple call to 55.
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.
The Peters’ theaters were the center of Manteca’s entertainment.
Seven days a week, different films, serials such as “Zorro” cartoons and shorts graced its screens.
Handbills advertising the week’s offerings were mailed to postal customers throughout the Manteca area.
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.
Many in the community planned their lives around what was playing at the El Rey including their businesses such as The Creamery, which was a popular ice cream fountain and diner.
Tuesdays for the longest time was dish night. Women would receive a saucer the first Tuesday of the promotion. The next week the cup. It would go on that way until a woman eventually could collect a whole set of dinnerware.
Oftentimes businessmen and physicians would drop by the lobby, order refreshments and stand for several minutes at the movie house’s doors that led from the lobby to the darkened theatre.
Eventually, 100 of the 900 seats at the El Rey were removed to accommodate a more dynamic sound system that allowed the Manteca movie house to keep pace with changing technology.
The El Rey was still humming along on Aug. 6,1975 when fire gutted the building following a screening of “The Towering Inferno.”
The loss was total. Only a few items, including the poster display at the El Rey promoting “The Towering Inferno” was saved.
The poster is now on display at the Manteca Historical Museum. The day Aug. 6, 1975 is forever locked in trivia history thanks to an edition of Trivial Pursuit that includes the question, “What was playing at the El Rey Theatre in Manteca, Calif., when it burned on Aug. 6, 1975?”
The El Rey sat gutted for more than 20 years before it was converted into Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. and Brickyard Oven Restaurant. Kelley Brothers closed its doors in 2011.