From Barnes to Towne, Story of Fillmore's Theater
In January 1912, the citizens of Fillmore waited impatiently to find out who would win the contest to name the new moving picture theater opening on Central Avenue. The winner would receive a coveted six month pass to theater. The manager of the theater, Merton Barnes, had been overwhelmed by entries. Some of them included “Fillmorine” (Elsie Sallee), “El Favorito” (E. A. Pyle), and “Citrus Valley Opera House” (Mrs. Olive Hickey Snow). The winner was decided by a group of Fillmore luminaries, F. L. Fairbanks W. E. McCampbell, and John B. McNab. The winner entry was “The Empire” with Ralph Guerrant winning the pass.
This theater was in the Brinley Building, where 341/343 Central would be in 2021. The manager, Merton Barnes, had been in theater stock companies traveling around the United States before coming to Fillmore and opening The Empire. Besides managing the theater, in 1912 he was chosen as the Judge for Fillmore township and would serve as Judge for the City of Fillmore until 1928. He also coined the promotional slogan, “Fortune Favored Fillmore.”
The Empire Theater operated until 1916 presenting a mixture of movies, vaudeville acts, and speakers on a variety of subjects.
In 1916, Leon Hammond built a commercial building where his home had previously stood. He was the son of a British surgeon and French mother and had arrived in Fillmore about 1905. His father served in the Confederate Army in the “War Between the States” and later emigrated to Brazil where Leon was born. They returned to the United States when Leon was a young child.
The building Hammond built was to Merton Barnes’ specifications. According to his daughter, Barbara Barnes Jones, the stage was very modern with its equipment for scenery, a large door at the rear to bring scenery in and out and a trap door on stage. It had an orchestra pit which was later taken over by a large electric organ played by Mr. Sallee, Barbara Barnes or Pauline Irwin. There was also a steep pitch to the seating area about 5 feet, unusual for the time. There was a large lobby which had large picture frames in which photos of coming events were placed. Colors of cream and soft green were selected for the interior.
As with the Empire, this was a multiuse facility. Besides motion pictures there were piano recitals, plays, public lectures and “Country Store” nights when groceries were given away at the movies. On November 2, 1917, there was a “RAH, RAH” night for high school students. According to the paper, students held a rally in front of the Barnes Theater to boost the Fillmore-Ventura football game to be held the next day. Afterward they were guests of Judge Barnes at the Theater. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Stephens hosted all the town’s children to a special Christmas movie, a tradition they had begun in 1912 at the Empire Theater.
In April 1920, to please the public, Judge Barnes ran a coupon in the paper asking people to send in their preferred time for weekday shows.
By 1931, the theater changed hands again and became the “Fillmore Theatre”. The name was kept as the management of the theater changed hands several times through the next decades.
Connie Victoria told the Museum in a 2009 interview of the seating segregation in the theater. She and her husband, Manuel (still in uniform from World War II), went to the theater one night and asked to be seated in the loges. They were told there was no room so were seated on the main floor almost directly in front of the screen. Later in the evening, they looked up and saw the loges almost empty. When they confronted the assistant manager, he told them he was told not to seat Mexicans there. Connie escalated the issue to the county district attorney. Shortly thereafter, the theater contacted them saying it was a misunderstanding and provided them free passes. From then on, they could sit wherever they wanted.
By 1989, the building, by now the Towne Theater and owned by Dale Larson, was deteriorating. The City Council allocated redevelopment funds to help in restoring the theater, especially the marquee and lobby.
Merton Barnes sold the theater in October 1926, to H. C. Stearns and the name of the theater was changed to the Stearns Theater. In 1930, Mr. Stearns added the new marquee changing the look of the front of the theater completely. If you look carefully today you can still see the top of the original arch behind the marquee. He also upgraded the sound equipment and added new lounge seats in the balcony.