By Jon Hammond
Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
It was a joyful day in Tehachapi on Saturday, December 6 when several hundred residents gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a variety of performances celebrating the grand re-opening of the BeeKay Theater at 110 South Green Street.
It has been a long and winding process to get the old structure back and restored but I can honestly say without exaggeration that the results are amazing. What was for many years a burnt-out shell of a building, roofless and open to the elements, is now a classy and beautiful venue for local theater, concerts, lectures and live performances of all kinds.
“We now have restored another jewel in the crown of Tehachapi,” said City Manager Greg Garrett at Saturday’s festivities. “This is a wonderful addition to our downtown.”
The story of the old movie house and its incredible journey is as unlikely and heart-warming as any Hollywood film. It began during the Great Depression when two Tehachapi businessmen, Frank Baumgart and Leo Kanstein, decided to build a movie theater to entertain the local population.
The two entrepreneurs combined the initials of their last names and spelled them out to form the name BeeKay and opened the doors in 1936. Local residents streamed in to watch double features of black-and-white movies and animated shorts. The BeeKay was a hit.
“The movie marquis outside was the only neon sign in the valley and people would drive by just to marvel at the lighted sign,” explained Pat Gracey, a longtime Tehachapi resident and local historian who spoke at the Saturday ceremony.
The movie theater soon became a landmark of the downtown. The years went by and while other businesses came and went, the BeeKay persisted — the solid building even withstood the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake with very little damage, though most of downtown was destroyed.
Through it all, the BeeKay continued to show movies, which of course changed with the times and became colored (both the film and the language used). By the time I was growing up in Tehachapi in the 1970s, the BeeKay was showing signs of her age with sticky floors and tattered curtains but it was still the movie theater where we all went to watch movies. It might take a few months for the first-run movies to make it to our little mountain town, but sooner or later most of them did.
I remember watching many films that would become classics: The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, John Wayne and the Cowboys and every Disney movie released in those years. I can still recall myself and the entire theater audience recoiling in shock at the scary parts of Jaws.
Those of us who grew up going to the BeeKay have all the small-town memories you’d expect from the local theater, like holding hands or kissing and making out for the first time, getting to stay up past your usual bedtime because they always showed double features and the Saturday night shows could last until late, etc.
By about 1980 the BeeKay had fallen on hard times, finding it difficult to compete with multiplexes in Bakersfield and Lancaster with giant screens and many movie choices. After nearly 50 years, the screen went dark.
Les Duplan then bought the building and totally refurbished it as an indoor retail space or mini-mall called the Old Theatre Plaza. The exterior was completely changed, including the addition of a Victorian-style turret. The Old Theatre Plaza was home to about a half-dozen small businesses, including Billie Rocket’s Intermission Cafe, serving great teas, desserts and conversation. There was also a dress shop, Dan and Becky Wilkinson’s candy and flower business and a jewelry store.
With the Tehachapi downtown on a downward slide, however, it was hard for small businesses to be viable. After several years, the building was rented for use as the local Moose Lodge.
Then in 1994 disaster struck: a fire gutted the building and burned off all the added ornamentation on the outside. The sturdy BeeKay, once the pride of downtown Tehachapi, was reduced to a empty shell with no roof.
Years passed and nothing changed. A peach tree actually got started growing inside the structure and grew long enough to start bearing fruit. Demolition was muttered about but ruled out as too costly. No one but birds and rain and snow visited the inside of the boarded-up hulk.
Though different proposals were suggested for the old building, it was former City Manager Jason Caudle who thought that perhaps it should be made back into a theater, only this time primarily for use in live shows. He contacted members of the Tehachapi Community Theater group with an idea: the city would use mostly grant money to rebuild the battered structure, and TCT would purchase everything necessary to make it a theater on the inside. It would become a perfect example of a public/private partnership.
Against the odds, it happened. TCT raised an impressive $60,000 to buy seats, lighting, fixtures, interior decorations, etc. Using $5,000 from the late Zella Young and another $10,000 bequeathed by deceased Tehachapi dentist Roger LeValley, the theater group raised the necessary funds, almost all of which came from individuals.
“The city gave us a vanilla box, and we made it into a theater,” explained David Reed of the TCT. Reed, who was raised in Tehachapi, had worked at the classic Fox Theater in Bakersfield for 8 years and earned a wealth of experience in managing a vintage theater. He and TCT board vice president Doug Jockinsen were the two people most responsible for designing the interior, including the physical layout and all the complex electrical service and lighting designed by Doug. David did all of the decorating, color selections, and added the beauty. “Without Doug’s complete theatrical redesign, we’d have never been able to make this the incredible Theatre it is today,” said Karl Schuck, President of the TCT.
So now as improbable as it seems, the BeeKay Theater is reborn, a shining landmark for downtown once again. TCT will be the primary user, but it is the community’s venue and will be used for a wide variety of performances. Last Saturday assorted local groups of dancers, gymnasts, musicians and singers entertained those who stopped in to admire the rebuilt theater.
It was a triumphant day for Tehachapi and those who love this place. It has been said that failure is an orphan and success has many parents, and the BeeKay definitely has many parents who assisted in its renewal. Thanks to all who worked together for the good of our community.