Staff photo by Guinda Reeves
On a recent overcast morning, the burned-out Old Town Palace Theater remained boarded up. However, the structure is slated to rise from its ashes, beginning with a new façade.
The historic building – its original walls having withstood the 1998 fire – will be restored, according to Old Town businessman Patrick Scanlon. He also owns Kiva Arts across the street from the old theater.
"I've owned the theater (building) one year and about a month or less," he said Friday.
Jerry Owen, the city's community development director, said the city's Planning and Building Department has issued a building permit to Scanlon "to renovate the façade."
Referring to the façade and marquee, Scanlon said, "I'm going to put it back the way it was originally."
"Work has begun, and it's all sorts of things," he said. "It's just slowed down now because of the winter."
With warmer weather, said Scanlon, other work – such as painting, stucco and plaster – can be done inside the building.
"Everything's hard work, but it's going OK," he said, referring to the overall structure.
Asked about the statue visible on the top front of the old theater building, the entrepreneur confirmed it is a religious statue of Our Mother of Perpetual Hope.
Once refurbished, Scanlon said the theater building will house a coffee shop, serving fruit drinks; a community theater with an expanded stage, including occasional low-key film festivals and children's films; an art gallery in back, featuring local artists; and an accommodating seating arrangement.
Also welcome will be local musicians, he said, adding that he hopes to provide "an eclectic mix of music and entertainment on a low-key basis."
However, Scanlon said, "The building will not be turned into a shopping mall." All the activity areas will be in one big open area inside, he said.
Scanlon has been a Verde Valley resident for 17 years.
Owens also said Scanlon has been "very helpful" to the community at various events on the parking lot adjacent to the burned theater building.
That help has included purchasing and providing a large canopy, set up at special events, for relief from the sun and heat. With the canopy, those who normally avoid some events – such as mothers with babies and small children, or the elderly or those with medical conditions – have a chance to attend.
Scanlon said, "The way for us to help Old Town is to provide fun things to do for the people who live here."
The Old Town businessman is involved in the Farmers Market, beginning in mid-June; Festival in the Square, with music and refreshments (but over by 10 p.m.), to be announced on Friday nights; and Sizzlin' Salsa, scheduled for the weekend of May 3-5.
Scanlon unabashedly loves Old Town. "The mentality is changing from Old Town being a needy thing that needs to be saved, to Old Town is a pretty neat place for the community to save," he said.
The businessman said he doesn't focus on just tourists. "I came here because I know this community can support what I want to do here – and that's my customers," he said. "I believe in the community."
"We're going to get a dedicated fire line down here," said Scanlon, adding that fund-raising is ongoing in that effort. He previously has donated large oriental rugs for raffles to benefit the Cottonwood Fire Department.
The 1998 theater fire was a major occasion in the city's recent history.
It just happened to start during a meeting of the Cottonwood City Council on the next block. According to Cottonwood Fire Chief Mike Casson, all the valley's fire agencies assisted.
It reportedly took most of the night and approximately 70 emergency personnel to put out the conflagration.
Casson said Jerome, Clarkdale and Cornville-Page Springs fire departments sent tender trucks and personnel; Camp Verde sent an engine and firefighters; and Sedona sent two investigators.
Sedona also sent an engine and crew to man Verde Rural, while its personnel were in Old Town Cottonwood, said Casson. He also said he understood that Montezuma-Rimrock covered Camp Verde, while its crew was helping Cottonwood.
Ambulance crews provided warmth and food and drink to other emergency personnel during the long battle with the flames.
As temperatures that night fell to 22, Cottonwood Public Works Department employees assisted with ice management, while city police controlled traffic.
Firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to the rest of Old Town. News accounts quoted Casson as saying the adjacent business, The Leaf Line, had minor water and smoke damage.
One firefighter, working on The Leaf Line's roof, nearly suffered frostbite. He had cleared gutters to relieve the pressure of three feet of standing water on the roof, which was in danger of collapsing.
The fire took what was said to be a mind-boggling amount of water to fight. Firefighters immediately tapped three hydrants in Old Town, using approximately 50,000 gallons of water within a half-hour, Casson said.
As the hydrants began to run dry, three portable holding tanks – with up to 4,000 gallons of water – were set up. The portable tanks were steadily replenished every seven to 10 minutes through the night by tender trucks.
Those tender trucks, said Casson, got up to 150,000 gallons of water from hydrants on Arizona 89A at West Mingus Avenue and Black Hills Drive. He said another 70,000 gallons of water were pulled from lines set up to extract water from the Cottonwood Ditch Association.
The building reportedly suffered an estimated $300,000 in damages from the fire, news reports stated immediately after the blaze.
When it burned in 1998, the Old Town Palace Theater was the oldest single-screen theater in continuous operation in the United States, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
The building housing the theater was built in 1916, according to old news articles. However, the theater started in 1920, owned by Joe Becchetti, a native of Sassoferrato, Italy. First known as the Rialto, the theater was used for films and vaudeville shows passing through town.
The Rialto and other buildings in that block were destroyed by fire in 1923, but Becchetti quickly rebuilt, opening the new Rialto slightly south of its original location.
The legendary Rialto enjoyed a 54-year history, its matinees a social highlight for many Cottonwood residents. Its balcony reportedly was the beginning of romance for many local couples, who later took their children and grandchildren to the theater.
The theater's silver screen reportedly had shown everything from silent westerns to Greta Garbo and Fredric March, to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
The Rialto had the first U.S. screening of the British film Queen Elizabeth, said Helen Killibrew, of the Clemenceau Heritage Museum, immediately after the 1998 fire.
The Becchetti family sold the theater in 1974, and it was renamed Old Town Cinema. Changing owners reportedly kept the theater operating.
In early 1985, Dave and Carolee Austin bought the theater, reopening it in the spring as the Old Town Palace Theater, which it remained until the 1998 fire.
The theater's lobby reportedly had contained a popcorn maker from 1916 and cash registers from the 1950s.