By Jim Cifford
Movie lovers in Redwood City have plenty of choices at the Century 21 Theater, which lures them with multiscreen offerings. Decades ago, the cinema “menu” was pretty well limited to what was shown a block away on a single screen at the Fox, which today features live productions. Both theaters are on busy Broadway, but there was a time when all the action was on adjacent Main Street.
The Alhambra Theater opened on Main in 1896 with stage shows upstairs, a debut that came shortly before motion pictures revolutionized the entertainment industry. The building designed by noted architect A. Page Brown, whose resume included the Ferry Building in San Francisco, was billed as the finest entertainment site between San Francisco and San Jose. On the street level below the stage was a popular restaurant and bar where the patrons included Western legend Wyatt Earp could meet and eat. Today a photo of Earp standing at the bar and gazing into the camera adorns the wall at Martin’s West, a popular dining spot that occupies the same space where the famed lawman tossed back a few while his actress wife performed in plays upstairs.
The first movie house in Redwood City was the Bell Theater, which opened in 1910 a few doors down from the Alhambra, according to researchers at the Redwood City Library’s history room. Newspaper clippings of the time said the Bell was little more than “a corrugated building with a stucco front.” The advertisements for the opening promised “continuous performance. Latest Eastern and European novelties. Moving pictures and illustrated songs.”
In 1914 the Bell was bought by a dynamo of an entrepreneur named Ellis J. Arkush, whose name would become linked to most entertainment offerings on the Peninsula. Arkush remodeled the Bell by adding a lobby and bringing in 150 chairs. A year later the Bell was showing films that starred such luminaries as Theda Bara, known as “the most beautiful wicked face in the world.”
The Bell wasn’t enough for Arkush. In a few years he joined forces with West Coast Theaters to form a new corporation called West Coast Peninsula Theaters that embraced movies houses in Burlingame, San Mateo, Palo Alto and Redwood City. The Redwood City showplace was the Sequoia on Broadway, just a block or so from today’s Fox and Century 21.
Both the Alhambra and the Bell were located in what would be today’s Main Street Historic District, which takes in several pioneer buildings, among them the Sequoia Hotel on the corner of Main and Broadway and a brick building at 726 Main that was the Diller-Chamberlain Store when it opened in 1859. Still standing, it is San Mateo County’s oldest commercial building.
The Masonic Order bought the Alhambra building in 1921 and used the upper part for meetings. The bottom was leased out for retail stores. At one time there were so many antique stores on Main Street the area was dubbed “antique row.” In 2001 a fire gutted the upstairs but the building was saved and today serves as office space. Recently, The Acclaim Companies announced plans to add nearly 80,000 more square feet of office space in the 800 block of Main Street. The company hopes to revitalize a street it called “the birthplace of Redwood City.”
The numbering system for buildings on Main Street can get tricky because the original address numbers changed over the years. For instance, the Alhambra address today is 831-835 Main, but the 1912 City Directory lists it at 235 Main. The 1916 directory shows the Bell at 263-265 Main, the location of today’s Angelica’s Restaurant, which boasts dinner theatre – but no movies.