Thursday, July 9, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 19

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 22nd, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 12

With Guadalupe revitalization efforts afoot, residents wonder what will become of the Royal Theater


Residents gather outside the Royal Theater in Guadalupe in 1940, a year after it was opened. The theater was built and originally owned by a Japanese-American family, residents who were later forced into a Japanaese internment camp during World War II.

If Steven Kawano ever wins the lottery, he’s going to buy the Royal Theater in Guadalupe. 

He was 9 years old when he and his family moved away from Guadalupe, but he’ll always have fond memories of the town he was raised in. The Royal is one he just can’t get out of his mind. 

Kawano has been a huge fan of movies for as long as he can remember, and he’s always loved old-school movie theaters. Their art deco decor, old-fashioned ticketing booths, and intricate neon signs all make him feel like whatever he’s about to see will be worth the money.  

He’s only actually been inside the Royal Theater once, and it was so long ago that he barely remembers why he was there or what it was like. 

The Royal shut down soon after that, and it’s been closed for most of Kawano’s life. Over the years, he’s heard many rumors about plans to refurbish and repurpose the building. Once it was going to be a venue for local bands; in 2006 there were stories about plans to turn it into a recording studio; and in 2015 the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center considered buying it. 

But nothing ever came of those proposals, so Kawano said he and other locals have grown skeptical of every announcement of renovation plans. 

Though Kawano lives in San Luis Obispo now, he visits Guadalupe often. He’s glad to see the city making efforts to revitalize downtown, but he said the closure of the Far Western Tavern in 2012 was “heartbreaking” for the community, and now two of Gudalupe’s most iconic buildings remain shuttered. 

“The Royal is basically all we have left,” he said. 

So if Kawano ever gets the money, he plans to buy the Royal and refurbish it himself. He’d open it up for mainstream and independent movies, he said, and maybe concerts. 

It’s in the perfect location—right in the center of Guadalupe’s downtown, among the local businesses along the Cabrillo Highway. For the first time in years, Kawano said Guadalupe residents could get dinner and see a movie without driving to Santa Maria or Arroyo Grande. 

“It would be a nice gathering spot for the whole community,” Kawano said.

While many residents have likely lost hope in the Royal’s ever opening again, Guadalupe does have a few downtown improvement efforts underway. Though the current projects are largely focused on biking and pedestrian pathways, it’s impossible for planners and involved community members to ignore buildings like the Royal and Far Western Tavern, which both need major improvements but have great potential. 

At an April 22 workshop dedicated to mobility and downtown revitalization projects, residents walked around Guadalupe with Josh Meyer of the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit that’s helping with Guadalupe’s projects. Attendees pointed out notorious problem spots and shared ideas for improvements, and when they made it to the Royal, they stopped. 

Standing outside the pale pink building, residents peered into the windows and up at its marquee, which now advertises city meetings and events rather than showtimes. 

Meyer said the theater would be a perfect way to bring more business to downtown Guadalupe. It’s a space his team could plan street and sidewalk changes around. When he asked if there were renovation plans in the works, community members scoffed.

The Royal’s history and reasons for its continued closure are complex, according to Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center. 

In early 2015, Jenzen said the Dunes Center had just finished a successful remodeling of its museum and an excavation in the dunes, where the set for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film, The Ten Commandments, was built and buried. 

The Dunes Center’s board wanted to get involved in Guadalupe’s revitalization efforts, and Jenzen said reopening the Royal seemed the ideal way to help improve Guadalupe’s economic standing. 

The Dunes Center presented a buyout proposal to Guadalupe City Council, and the following day, the owners of the emptied Far Western Tavern called Jenzen with a proposal of their own. They wanted to donate the Far Western to the Dunes Center so the building could remain a historical landmark. 

“So, suddenly we had these two large renovation projects on the table,” Jenzen said. 

The Dunes Center couldn’t do both at the same time. The organization surveyed residents all over Santa Barbara County, and found that community members wanted to see the Far Western’s renovation prioritized. 

Today, the Dunes Center is in the early stages of fundraising for construction on the Far Western Tavern, and Jenzen said if that project goes well, the Dunes Center will consider taking over the Royal as well. 

But for now, the theater is the city’s problem, although the city didn’t take ownership until fairly recently, according to interim City Administrator Robert Perrault. 

In 2001, trustees signed the Royal over to the Guadalupe Community Redevelopment Agency, one of the state’s many agencies of the same name that were dedicated to assisting cities in economic development. 

In 2008, the Guadalupe Community Redevelopment Agency made seismic retrofitting and other structural plans for the Royal, estimated to cost less than $300,000. 

There were plans for a bidding process, but Perrault said that never happened. It was supposed to go to bid again in 2012, but then the state dissolved its community redevelopment agencies in an effort to balance its budget. The Royal was left in the hands of a successor agency, which gave the theater to the city a few years later. 

While city staff would love to see the Royal open again, Perrault said Guadalupe is in a “tight financial situation.” While the retrofitting plans from 2008 could still be used, he said construction would now likely cost $500,000 or more. 

“Total cost of renovation would largely depend on what the ultimate use is. From the city’s perspective, I know the city would like to see it return to its former use or something very close to that,” Perrault said. “As a theater, it was a big draw downtown.”

The city gets calls about the theater all the time, he said, from people, organizations, and businesses expressing interest in fixing and opening it. To take these requests seriously, he said the proposed use would have to benefit the whole community. 

Although the issue is being handled slowly, Perrault said he does believe the Royal will be opened again someday. It’s just a matter of putting together the right team and getting funding. 

“From my perspective, the city is moving in a positive way,” he said. “Whether it happens today or tomorrow or some other time, that team will be put together and that building will be returned to a productive use.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at

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