Soledad Theatre

Front Street & Encinal Street,
Soledad, CA 93960

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Circa 1922 Les and Valeeta Johnson opened the Soledad Theatre. With portable seating, the theatre showed silent films on the weekend and hosted roller skating during the week.

Mr. Johnson installed a style 25 American Photoplayer to accompany the silent films.<pThe large piano also contained two side cabinets filled with silent film sound effects and limited compass organ pipes.

Valeeta Johnson played violin and piano, presumably playing once in a while for the silent films. The roll-playing Photoplayer piano had a large collection of FilMusic rolls to accompany the silent films. This author has two FilMusic rolls from this Soledad Theatre roll collection.

The Johnsons also owned a garage in Soledad and in nearby Gonzales, CA. Each Johnson brother owned garages in the Salinas Valley towns of King City, Soledad, Gonzales, and Salinas.

The Soledad Theatre lasted through the 1920’s, but the Johnsons eventually closed the theatre and went into the automobile business full time. The Soledad Theatre was always a “side business” for the Johnsons.

The large American Photoplayer piano was brought to the Johnson home. The quartered-oak pit swell boxes that housed the percussions and organ pipes were cut up and converted into a china cabinet as well as bedroom headboards. As “gifts” to his friends in Soledad, Mr. Johnson gave Xylophone bars for folks to use as front door knockers!

A single chime tube from the Photoplayer still exists in the collection of a local Salinas theatre organ enthusiast. Eventually, even the large Photoplayer piano was taken in on trade for a new piano for the Johnson family. It is not known what became of the piano or remainder of the large collection of FilMusic rolls.

Much later, a Quonset hut style theatre was built in Soledad, but this building had nothing to do with the much earlier Soledad Theatre.

The Quonset hut theatre building still stands in Soledad, but has been converted to office use.

Contributed by Tom DeLay

Recent comments (view all 15 comments)

tomdelay on October 23, 2005 at 7:12 pm

Indeed, Mike. I have never seen any numbers to back this up, but I would suspect there were far more photoplayer style instruments than there were theatre organs. The theatre organ suffered badly enough, but, there are still a remarkable few of them still around and many of them going BACK into theatres were they belong. However, the photoplayer instrument was highly disposable when their use was no longer needed and out they went. I came across the piano portion of a Wurlitzer style YO photoplayer in a church in Porterville, California. The instrument had been in the Crystal Theatre in P-ville and was well-remembered by locals for the great music the instrument’s roll player produced on the tiny piano/organ. The pipe and percussion swell boxes were long gone, but the huge upright piano was pumping out church music in one of the Sunday school classrooms. What a waste.

deleted user
[Deleted] on October 23, 2005 at 7:56 pm

Well, there is at least one consolation prize in my area, Tom. Were you familiar with Harvey Roehl, who owned the Vestal Press? As part of his mechanical musical instrument collection, he owned a style 25 American Photoplayer Co. “Fotoplayer”, which he sold to a friend of mine. This friend wants to start a museum in the Binghamton, N.Y. area filled with automatic musical instruments, including having the photoplayer in a nickelodeon theater type setting.

GaryParks on January 4, 2007 at 8:48 pm

The Quonset style structure which still stands was also named the Soledad. I remember being able to read the neon on the vertical sign from 101 in the early 1980s. I wish I’d photographed it then. The vertical sign structure, poster cases, and box office remain.

tomdelay on July 30, 2007 at 6:34 pm

Here is a great example of an operating American Photoplayer style 20. The owner is Joe ??? in Southern California. Joe runs a business of expertly crafted reproduction light fixtures and other 1920s era hardware. Perhaps another viewer/contributor can come up with Joe’s last name.

This is a style 20 2-rank American Photoplayer. Thousands of these things were in small theatres across the country. Now there are probably less than 2 dozen of them left. The Wurlitzer versions were much easier to play using electricity or pneumatic power to runnthe effects. Here, the piano and organ parts are played by the roll, it is up to the human “operator” to work the sound effects for the silent films.

This guy is NOT putting on an act. It takes that much work to play one of these things!

GaryParks on September 11, 2009 at 10:18 pm

I should mention that the later Soledad, which has been described by myself and others on this page as a Quonset style structure is NOT an actual surplus Quonset, as some postwar theatres were. It is a purpose built barrel-vaulted structure, like others one finds in California and other areas, like the Capitola in Capitola, the Park in Menlo Park, Delta in Brentwood, Cerrito in El Cerrito, and a number designed by S. Charles Lee in the Southern part of the state. Incidentally, I just posted some clarification about the Rio Theatre in Soledad on its page, as there was some confusion by others as to where this was, or if it was misidentified. The Rio and Soledad (#2) were separate theatres, and both buildings still stand. All I know about the original Soledad Theatre is what I’ve read on this page, posted by Tom DeLay. I guess to be truly organized, this Soledad #2 should have its own page. One of the perils of documenting theatres…name changes, and the carrying of names to newer buildings.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 11, 2009 at 11:59 pm

As the original Soledad and the second Soledad were at different locations, they should certainly have separate pages at Cinema Treasures. Pages can only accommodate one address. The 1947 Soledad at 177 Kidder Street needs to be added.

The original Soledad Theatre on Front Street burned to the ground in 1946, according to an item in the October 5 issue of Boxoffice that year. The second Soledad on Kidder Street was a replacement for it. The owners of the original Soledad, Ernest Gnesa and Edward Franscioni, bought the lot on which the second Soledad was built, but sold it to A. Blanco, Ralph Martin and Frank Jaimes who completed the project and opened the new theater in mid-1947.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 19, 2009 at 12:37 am

No sooner is one mystery solved than another arises. It has taken me a few months to realize that there’s another mystery, though. Boxoffice of October 5, 1946, said: “The Soledad Theatre in Soledad burned to the ground recently. Owners are Gnesa and Franscioni.” But, in the absence of addresses, there’s no confirmation that the burned Soledad Theatre was the same one that was run by the Johnsons in the 1920s.

If the information in the October 6, 2005, comment by Tom DeLay above is correct, and the building the Johnsons' Soledad Theatre occupied is still standing, then the theater that burned to the ground in 1946 must have been a second Soledad Theatre, and the building on Kidder Street that was built to replace it would be the third house of the name.

Andres on November 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I’m trying to keep up, but it seems a lot of the information on these theatres has been mixed up somehow. I would love have seen these places in their heyday. My parents remember a functioning theatre in Soledad well into the late 80s.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 13, 2011 at 3:23 am

Andres: Yes, different theaters have been conflated on this page. The page is supposed to be about the Soledad Theatre that closed in 1946, following a fire. Boxoffice Magazine reported that the theater burned to the ground, but that might or might not have been the case. The photos linked in Chuck’s comments actually depict the newer Soledad Theatre on Kidder Street. So far nobody has posted any photos of the earlier Soledad Theatre.

To add to the mysteries, I’ve found a single reference to a theater in Soledad called the Mission, being operated by Ernest Gnesa and Edward Franscioni in 1933. This might have been another name for the Soledad Theatre which opened around 1922, or it might have been a different theater as yet unlisted at Cinema Treasures.

The 1947 Soledad Theatre doesn’t have a Cinema Treasures page yet. I think I have enough information about it to submit it now, so a page might show up later today or tomorrow. Look for it under the “New Theatres” heading on the site’s home page.

YaledMot on February 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm

The information on the original Soledad Theatre is correct. The building only recently burned. I have no idea who owned it when it burned. The theate space was eventually turned into Johnson’s Automotive. They had shops in Gonzales and Soledad. The last remaining Johnson, Bette, died a few years ago in Salinas. The later Soledad Theatre (building was still standing a few years ago) should be on its own page as Soledad Theatre #2 or some such. It has no bearing on the orgiginal Soledad Theatre. Once closed, the Johnson’s stayed out of the theatre business and stuck to automotive matters. Now it is entirely possible as the Johnsons' tired of the theatre/skating rink operation, they passed the theatre to the Franscioni Familiy. This could play out—Johnson tore up the Photoplayer when it was no longer needed when talking pictures came in and the operation went to Franscioni.

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