Rock the Alhambra!

Posted on September 30, 2011 – 9:20 PM | by Admin
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By William Burg  Photos by Doug Taggart

The story of the Alhambra Theatre, the 1927 Moorish Revival picture palace demolished to make way for a Safeway, is familiar to most Sacramentans, but the work by Sacramento’s rock musicians to save the theater is little-known. The struggle to save the Alhambra galvanized the community and bridged the “generation gap,” with a series of rock & roll shows and a vaudeville gala, the last events held at the Alhambra before the wrecking ball struck. Sacramento State student Doug Taggart documented the stories for the State Hornet, capturing the last days of the Alhambra, including its destruction.

The story began in early 1972, after Safeway purchased the theater from United Artists for $485,000. After hearing community objections, Safeway offered to sell the theater to the city for the same price. An early fundraising effort failed, but on September 20, the “Save the Alhambra Committee” obtained a 90 day court injunction against demolition. This gave them three more months to generate attention and funds. The benefit shows at the Alhambra were intended to do both.

From November 9 to December 1 a series of benefit concerts were held at the theater, featuring acts as diverse as Van Morrison, Vince Guaraldi and Sally Rand.  Local musician Jack Traylor used his connections with Jefferson Airplane’s Grunt Records label, drawing well-known Sacramento and Bay Area acts to play the theater. The Alhambra may have gone out of business as a theater due to competition from suburban drive-ins and multiplexes, but its 100 foot stage, large capacity and excellent acoustics made it an ideal concert hall. Since Sacramento lacked mid-sized venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore, the Alhambra was ideal for rock concerts.

Despite these community efforts, the funds raised were not enough to pay Safeway’s asking price. The Sacramento city council was unwilling to provide the funds, having recently authorized $17.9 million in municipal bonds to pay for a new convention center. Some city council members claimed that using the Alhambra as a city-owned theater would compete with the convention center’s planned community theater. A final effort was made on April 17, 1973 to put the matter to public vote, asking the citizens of Sacramento to back a bond for $1.5 million to purchase and restore the Alhambra. County supervisor Pat Melarkey attempted to submit a persuasive argument supporting the bond in the voter information booklet, but was rejected because it was submitted minutes past the filing deadline.

In a letter printed by the Hornet a week before the vote, Melarkey wrote:

“There was a time when we all said Sacramento was a swell place to live, because it was close to everything. Right? Because we could live here, and go there…the mountains…the City…the oceans. Right…We just lived here. Right. Now people are thinking about really living here. Enjoying what Sacramento has. What we all have. That’s called emerging community pride. We’re starting to care about our town—making it a city—something to be proud of. Getting together to give our place focus—and meaning. That’s what we’re trying to do—the Committee to Save the Alhambra—save a building, a beautiful building, to remain a part of our heritage—to make it a continuing part of what our city is becoming. We want to save the Alhambra, because it belongs here—that it’s something we can all enjoy, something to be proud of. That’s why we’re asking for your help.”

The vote to save the Alhambra lost, with 55% opposing the bond. Demolition took months, but by September of 1974 the new Safeway had opened in the Alhambra’s place. A fountain at the southern end of the parking lot and a few palm trees are all that remain. The fight to save the Alhambra spurred historic preservation efforts; today it serves as a symbol of both our lost architectural heritage, and a lost opportunity for Sacramento’s musical community. Doug Taggart’s photography captured the last days of a Sacramento masterpiece, and a rallying point for our creative community. 

  1. 3 Responses to “Rock the Alhambra!”

  2. avatar

    By Jack Traylor on Feb 3, 2013 | Reply

    The loss of the Alhambra was a cultural tragedy of epic proportions.Having been on stage and a member of the audience, I can attest to its excellence. Additionally it was an architectural piece of art Perhaps Joni Mitchell was prescient when she penned ” They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot” What did we lose and what did we gain? I leave you to answer that question.

    Be at Peace,

  3. avatar

    By Zelda on Nov 14, 2014 | Reply

    Fuck Sacramento, and Fuck Safeway. It didn’t end with the demolition of the Alhambra, countless elegant and historic buildings went under the axe during Sacramento’s money drunk 1980’s city council days. And if anyone really cared they would boycott Safeway to this day.

  4. avatar

    By Doug Messenger on Feb 5, 2015 | Reply

    Does anybody have pics of the Van Morrison bit in the Save the Alhambra concerts? Please…

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