A Brief History of the Tower Theater in Sacramento

Tower Theater, Sacramento, California
Tower Theater, Sacramento, California | © Kit Leong/Shutterstock
Sacramento’s Tower Theater remains one of the capital’s historic landmarks – operating since its construction more than 80 years ago. When the Tower opened its doors in 1938, cinemas and theaters were already popular across the country. The Tower Theater, however, carried on the legacy of these film palaces for eight decades and continues to bring pleasure into the lives of those who go to it.

In its first few years, the Tower Theater was a single-screen cinema that only played old films that the larger venues wouldn’t premiere. Emerging from humble beginnings, the tower’s development originated from the man building the surrounding Land Park neighborhood: Joseph Blumenfeld. Already a second-generation theater owner, Blumenfeld and a group of development partners bought the land of a former city dump at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive to build their theater on top of.

The Tower Theater opened in 1938 | © Andrew Zarivny / Shutterstock

On its opening night, the tower screened then recently released Algiers – a dramatic film about a notorious French thief who flees to Algeria to evade the law. Although the Tower showcased films circling in more prominent theaters in the city for at least a few months, business for this neighborhood theater continuously thrived. The theater offered perhaps the only release for Sacramentans during the Great Depression – a low-budget entertainment option for those who couldn’t afford big-name theater tickets. The Tower Theater served as a Depression-era escape, and a cinema indulgence accessible to all. Movie tickets at the city’s big-names like the Hippodrome (now known as the Crest Theater) would charge 50 cents for debuting films; the Tower would cost only 25 cents for the same movie a few weeks after its premiere.

Strict distribution laws of the 1940s kept small movie theaters from screening any top American films. A monopoly formed by Paramount Pictures Inc. allotted film studios that also owned and operated their own movie theaters to show screenings, outlawing any other theaters from profiting off of their films. This came to a halt in 1948 when the United States v Paramount Pictures Inc. case ruled in favor of the US. This ruling effectively allowed independent cinemas, like the Tower Theater in Sacramento, to screen whatever film they could afford without breaking any distribution laws.

With the law on their side, the Tower – still owned by Joseph Blumenfeld and his partners – became a neighborhood film staple. But changing times created another obstacle for the theater. While the country’s average weekly movie attendance in 1946 was at 90 million cinemagoers a week, audiences dropped by more than 50 percent by 1952 to an average of only 40 million, much of which resulted from the popularity of home televisions.

Strict distribution laws of the 1940s kept small movie theaters from screening any top American films | © Jeff Cleveland / Shutterstock

Despite the many Sacramentans who opted to stay home with their brand-new TVs, the Tower Theater continued to open its doors and roll tapes. But the standing problem weighed heavy on the small business – it would only take one lousy film choice at this single-screen theater to cause a substantial loss of sales. Eventually, both Sacramento cinemagoers and film exhibitors convinced Tower Theater to adapt to the demands of a changing era. The picture palace went under renovation in 1972, splitting the one-screen theater into three. With more than one screen, films were able to be moved around or taken off the marquee as new movies filtered in.

In 1998, the Reading International theater chain took over ownership of the Tower. Reading International owns movie cinemas and live theaters all over the world. Its decision to buy Tower Theater quite possibly saved it from becoming another small-time cinema being run out of business from industry demands and challenges. Further cementing the Tower’s place in Sacramento, in 2012 the theater installed digital projectors in all three of its auditoriums, fully embracing present film industry standards. The following year in 2013, Tower Theater reached the momentous milestone of becoming a National Historic Landmark.

The Reading International theater chain took over ownership of the Tower in 1998 | © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Despite numerous adaptations to changing economic and technical demands required to stay afloat, the Tower remained, and still remains, humble to its Depression-era beginnings. The Art Deco exterior and 100-foot tower survived times of change, big-name theaters running smaller venues out of business and the ever-changing film industry fluxes. The Tower Theater stands as Sacramento’s prized art house, playing independent and foreign films, as well as hosting premieres that honor local filmmakers.