The Nevada Theatre has been serving western Nevada County for 149 years.
Started in 1865, just a year later than this newspaper, the Nevada Theatre will be starting its 150th year just as we here at The Union finish ours.
It is the oldest original-use theater in California, opening in the fall of 1865 after a fire devastated the Bailey House Hotel two years earlier.
The newly formed Nevada Theatre Commission purchased the property and rebuilt.
“We built this theater in the year that Lincoln was shot,” said Dennis Kutch, a current member of the commission. “History happens here.”
The theater was built using bricks, many of which were salvaged from the razed hotel that once occupied the same location, to provide the community with a venue that would not burn to the ground so easily.
It was officially recognized as a historical landmark in 1973 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and as a point of historical interest, it acts as a significant draw for local tourism.
“We’re the oldest continuing live production theater west of the Mississippi, which means we can draw people interested in this from at least that region from the Mississippi westward,” Kutch added.
In a century and a half, the Nevada Theater has hosted performances by all kinds of talent, from the classic rock group Motley Crue to Emma Nevada and Jack London.
Mark Twain performed in Grass Valley and Nevada City in late 1866, delivering a humorous lecture on missionary work in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Then after two years of traveling the world and writing about it for newspapers in New York and San Francisco, he returned to the Nevada Theatre in April of 1868.
In Bob Wyckoff’s “The Way it Was: Looking Back at Nevada County,” he cites a review of that lecture that appeared in the Grass Valley Union.
“Mark arose … got behind his mustache and started in … he told, about a man who was miles from Marysville the way he was going, and only eight miles if he turned around … the mummy yarn brought down the house; but it being a small one, nobody was hurt.”
Today, the Nevada Theatre hosts productions by a variety of groups including Sierra Stages, The Community Asian Theater of the Sierra, LeGacy Productions and the annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival.
It’s been used for a variety of less formal community activities including music, poetry readings, high school graduations and weddings.
The space was remodeled to screen movies in the early 1900s, and it functioned as a movie house until closing in 1958.
During World War II, the theater was reportedly used as a storage facility for the military.
At the present time, the Nevada Theatre is undergoing another renovation. Construction started in late 2013, adding a new wing to the theater building on Spring Street.
The new facility will house KVMR-FM, Nevada County’s own community radio station. KVMR is essentially moving in downstairs, and they expect the move to be complete in fall of 2014.
David Levin, KVMR’s general manager, describes the place as where the theater of the stage meets the theater of the mind.
“We live in a world of partnerships, so the project is to strengthen the mission of each organization,” Levin told The Union.
“We think alike, we both celebrate the arts, we both give voice to the community,” Levin added.
“And KVMR is a global entity because of its streaming.”
Kutch and Ron Spiller, both sitting members of the theater’s commission, hope to combine their venue’s size and capacity with KVMR’s broadcast capabilities to air town-hall forums or political debates on the radio.
There has also been talk of producing a weekly entertainment program in the theater, which has been described in a fashion similar to National Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion.”
The project will also mitigate some structural problems in the theater’s rear wall, as well as add a room for storage and set construction behind the stage. It is hoped that the added space will facilitate faster transitions between theater productions.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.