Built in 1921, the Historic Hemet Theatre is one of the oldest surviving movie houses in the country, according to CEO Susan Carrier. The first movie house in Hemet was built in 1913 across the street from the current theater where the Strawberry Bike Shop building stands. The theater was a vibrant cultural center of the community, bringing sights and sounds from around the world to a small farming town.
Then in 1918, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake shook downtown Hemet, devastating the commercial district. Owner William Martin rebuilt his beloved theater on the north side of Florida Ave in 1921 — this time with reinforced concrete to protect it from another disaster.
Through the decades, movie houses across the country have fallen by the wayside, victims of an age where multiplex theaters, television and the internet battle for entertainment dollars. In the valley, the downtown movie house closed down for decades, then struggled as a discount ticket theater and survived a fire that destroyed the adjacent store fronts.
In 2012, a foundation attempted to revitalize the theater, but a board of directors scandal crushed the project, scattering the board members, volunteers and donors. Still, a small group of dedicated volunteers saw a unique opportunity to utilize this old movie house to put a spark back into the community with a performing arts center, while preserving a charming art deco piece of valley history.
Operating under a lease-to-purchase agreement, the foundation began hosting concerts, movies, educational programs and nonprofit fundraisers. The start was slow, but hopes were high. In 2015, the members of the Hemet San Jacinto Chamber awarded the theater its Nonprofit of the Year Award.
Since then, the foundation has hosted more than 500 events with more than 35,000 patrons. The regular Saturday night “Tribute Mania” concerts now draw fans from across Southern California. “Unexpectedly, this cozy little venue has gained a reputation as one of the best venues in the region. Patrons are thrilled by the great bands, wonderful acoustics and a big dance floor to rock the night away,” according to Carrier. “Visiting bands are stunned by the enthusiasm of the Hemet audiences — cheering, clapping and dancing more than anywhere else they perform.”
The HHT Foundation has now raised enough to purchase the venue, with an eight-year mortgage provided by the building’s owners. With the purchase begins a project to renovate the facility in time for its 100th birthday in 2021.
Renovation plans include a nostalgic auditorium, stylish art deco lobby and improved handicap facilities. The front of the building will include a pointed marquee similar to the 1940s facade, with classic neon lights. Updated lighting and sound equipment and a removable stage extension will broaden the programming that can be accommodated.
To fund the improvements, the foundation has created a “Century Club” fundraiser that hopes to raise more than a million dollars in donations/pledges by April 30. A permanent plaque in the lobby will commemorate those who made possible HHT’s transformation.
For more information on the theater, visit www.HistoricHemetTheatre.com. Information on the “Century Club” and all theater events are available there or by calling the ticket office, 951-658-5950.