Features & Columns

Retro Dome: Century
Theater Landmarks

The Retro Dome leads the effort to save the Century theaters as mid-century landmarks
Century theaters as mid-century landmarks IN THIS CENTURY: In 1965, San Joseans could catch blockbusters 'Doctor Zhivago' and 'The Sound of Music' at the Century 21 and 22 theaters, which were just a few years old. Courtesy History San Jose

This Weekendthe folks at the Retro Dome and Guggenheim Entertainment, who so elegantly repurposed the old Century 25 theater near Westgate, have cosmic events in store.

As of a few weeks ago, the Retro Dome now operates out of Century 21 on Winchester for a special limited series of film-based entertainment. Since this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Century 21 in 1963, the Retro Dome will screen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the film that originally opened the theater. Also screening this weekend will be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ran for an unprecedented 87 weeks when it premiered at Century 21 in 1968, making it the longest running U.S. engagement of the film.

Since the property owners presiding over each and every one of the Century theaters want them destroyed in favor of lifelessly uniform housing and/or retail, an effort has emerged to save at least one of the domes. The Retro Dome, along with the folks at the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, have a wondrous petition that everyone should consider. (More information can be found at theretrodome.com.)

When the Retro Dome and its successful live theater operation was booted out of its former home at Century 25, the landlord, Federal Realty Trust (of Santana Row infamy), was able to grease all the skids at City Hall, allowing them to bulldoze the dome. That hasn't happened yet because the city now wants at least one of the domes preserved, so long as the building can be successfully used for something afterward. Therein lies the rub. The property owners for Century theaters 21, 22, 23 and 24 have also put in requests to demolish the domes sitting on their properties, but the city is waiting until a decision has been made as to what will happen with all five of them.

Scott Guggenheim of Guggenheim Entertainment says he would love to permanently move the Retro Dome operation into the old Century 22 building, the best equipped of the five domes, should that possibility emerge. That is, a creative architect should be able to incorporate the facility into any new development for that swath of land.

It makes me think of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. One of the best and most hysterical scenes in that film is when Jonathan Winters demolishes an entire gas station all by himself. To this day, it is considered by many to be his finest five minutes on film. This whole scenario with the Century theaters makes me want to track down Ray Farris, the owner of record for the property on which the Century 21, 22 and 23 all sit, and "go Jonathan Winters" at Farris' office.

But that's just my creative take, of course. While the land is obviously underutilized, there should be a way to pay tribute to the history of these domes by saving one of them and giving a great home to Retro Dome, a fantastic live theater operation.

Landlord-tenant issues aside—and this is indeed a landlord-tenant issue—perhaps the best aspect of Retro Dome's efforts is its genuine attempt to reinvent the live film-viewing experience, especially in the rapidly changing distribution landscape. These old films were not meant to be experienced with Netflix on a smartphone while riding the bus and texting your girlfriend at the same time. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I mean, what would HAL from 2001 think of that? I can probably guess what Jonathan Winters would think. Guggenheim says Retro Dome's "cinephilosophy," above all else, is to encourage group discussion and bring people out of their isolation.

"We're taking our mission in live theater back to film," Guggenheim said. "And the idea that art is not supposed to be an insular experience. It's supposed to be shared. You're supposed to talk about it. The community is supposed to involve each other and have the opportunity to explore the issues and share the laughs. And that doesn't happen when you watch a movie on your iPhone."

Century 21 50th Anniversary screenings

'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'

Nov 22-23

'2001: A Space Odyssey'

Nov 23-24