The Historic Yuba Theatre

The Yuba Theatre, Downieville

Yuba Theatre, Downieville

For a list of events coming to the Yuba Theatre and all Sierra County Arts Council venues, see the Coming Events page.

The Yuba Theatre is located in Downieville, the county seat of Sierra County. Originally a movie house, the theater has been operated as an arts venue by the Sierra County Arts Council since 1996. Using volunteer labor exclusively, the Arts Council has added a fully functional stage and tech booth, as well as a number of other amenities.

With its 184 seats, the Yuba Theatre is the only fixed-seat theater in Sierra County. Many community events, including movies, film festivals, musical presentations, dance classes, school drama and community theater productions, book signings, slide shows, lectures, conferences, and meetings have been held there in its long history.

The Yuba Theatre is located at 212 Main St, Downieville. See map.

History of the Yuba Theatre
(based on interviews by Karen Donaldson with Ray Brett and Betty Smart)

The Yuba Theatre was built in 1940 by a Mr. Vern Shattuck and originally had 272 seats and a 9 by 12 foot screen. It was constructed with 2 by 6 clear heart timber and the roof had a snow load of 16 feet. Mr. Shattuck was a traveling movie projectionist who first showed movies in Downieville at the Memorial Hall, located near the current school buildings, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Yuba Theatre was part of a series of movie theaters built and sold by Mr. Shattuck in surrounding communities, beginning with one in Truckee, then Downieville, then Alleghany, Folsom, Colfax, Calpine, Feather River Inn, Loyalton, Carson City and North Shore Lake Tahoe at Kings Beach. Mr. Shattuck married Ina Tamlin, whose brother was Bill Tamlin, Nevada County Assessor. The first film shown at the Yuba Theatre was on August 1, 1940. The lobby was beautifully decorated with flowers for opening night. Anne Costa as a teenager, later to become Mrs. Ray Brett, ushered at the Yuba Theatre during the summers for the price of admission.

Yuba Theatre, Banff 2008

Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, 2008

Ray Brett’s father was in the hotel business in San Francisco and wanted to make a change. Ray had been in the military during WW II but contracted hepatitis in North Africa and was discharged. They came up to Sierra County and first stayed at Bassetts Station for five weeks. Sierra Shangri-La became available and was purchased by the senior Mr. Brett. It was only a lodge and two cabins at the time. Ray worked there during the summers and also for the Forest Service. Ray remembers a lot of social activities in Downieville, and Saturday dances that would last all night. Ray Herrera, the pharmacist, was also a piano player who would accompany the dances from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The dancers would often take up a collection and he would continue playing until 7 the next morning. Ray Brett met Anne Costa at such a dance near Christmas of 1943, and they were married in June of 1944.

Yuba Theatre, Downieville

Yuba Theatre, Highway 49, Downieville

On October 1, 1946, Ray and Anne Brett bought the Yuba Theatre from Mr. Shattuck. Mr. Brett was the shop and equipment supervisor for Sierra County at the time and would come home from work, eat a quick supper, and then head down to the theater to run the projector. Mrs. Brett was a teacher’s aide at the school and shared in running the theater by selling tickets. They raised two daughters, Karen and Kim Elizabeth. During the summer months, films were shown 7 nights per week, and were much appreciated by the tourists. All seats were $1 and popcorn was 25 cents or “two bits”. Sometime later, they found that television hurt the year round business and so the season was primarily mid-June through Labor Day. In the late 1950s, Mr. Brett changed the exits and put in a big screen: 12 by 30 feet and the best he could buy at the time. This required special Cinemascope lenses for the wider screen and the removal of 20 rows of seating. At the same time, the seats were moved to allow for more legroom and thus made the seating more comfortable. The screen was perforated with many tiny holes that allowed the sound to project from the speaker room at the back of the building, through the screen, to the audience for a natural sound. Mr. Brett also changed from carbon arc lamps in the projectors to “mazda” lamps, as they were much safer since many early projectionists suffered from silicosis from the carbon arc lamps. Mr. Brett found that subsequent-run films were less expensive and avoided the percentage arrangements from the distributors. They would show two films per week like any larger theater, and he remembers that the Clint Eastwood series was especially popular, one being “Fistful of Dollars”. Most movies cost $12.50 to $17.50 to rent, 40% of box office sales for the newer ones. The Bretts had a lot of fun with the Yuba Theatre, and really enjoyed all the families that would come to see the featured movie and have some popcorn. They operated the theater for nearly 29 years. Ray had purchased a new sound system for the theater and when his eyesight began to fail, ended up selling it uninstalled, along with the building and the business, to Eben and Betty Smart of Sacramento on August 8, 1974.

'Grease' at the Yuba Theatre

'Grease', Yuba Theatre, May 2007

The Smarts set about to remodel the theater, but retain the historic fabric of the building – exterior and interior. A partial second story room was built for the projection equipment with a wall and glass window. A sound engineer installed a new sound system and new/used projectors were purchased along with a new light system for the projectors, and rewiring of much of the theater. The theater at the time had 220 seats and the picture and sound system were superb. In 1975, an 1860s rosewood square piano was brought from a family home in Dutch Flat, CA to the theater. From time to time, the piano was played while people were waiting for the show to start. Rett (Everett Allen) Smart and Knight (Eben Knight IV) Smart and their father Eben were projectionists. Betty operated the popcorn machine and sold tickets. The film was sent by a San Francisco film delivery service to Marysville, and the mailman would bring the film from Marysville to Downieville. The mailman had a key to the theater and would place the heavy cans of film inside the theater. Movies would run for two nights at a time, usually Friday and Saturday. The theater was open in the summer only, although attempts were made to show movies during holidays. The advertising of coming attractions was primarily through posters on the outside of the theater and posters that were delivered once a month to all of the resorts and bulletin boards from Indian Valley to Sardine Lake.

Main St, Downieville

Main Street, Downieville, Yuba Theatre in Background

In the early 1980s, VCRs came to Downieville. Since affordable movies were usually second run, they were often already out on VCR tape. VCRs had a negative impact on the theater business. 1984 was the last summer that the Yuba Theatre operated as a movie theater.

In 1996, the Sierra County Arts Council approached the Smarts to see if they would lease the theater to the Arts Council as a venue for performing arts. Since the theater was originally built and operated as a movie theater, it again underwent changes, and again has become a very important part of the community. It is the only fixed-seat theater in Sierra County. The Yuba Theatre remains a vital part of Sierra County’s cultural life.

Arts Council Objectives for the Yuba Theatre

Interior of the Yuba Theatre

Interior of The Yuba Theatre

Sierra County has acquired the Yuba Theatre and surrounding property in Downieville from its private owners using a obtained a grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The Sierra County Arts Council considers it a privilege to operate its activities from the Yuba Theatre and is grateful to the Smart Family and the Sierra County Board of Supervisors for their generous support of the arts in Sierra County. The Arts Council intends to use the theater to bring a diversity of cultural experiences into the community:

  • As a professional performing arts venue to encourage presentations of drama, music, dance, and the visual arts for both adults and children;
  • By providing a variety of accessible cultural experiences for local audiences;
  • By expanding cultural diversity and experience for residents and visitors;
  • By supporting local businesses through enhanced cultural tourism;
  • By ensuring that events do not conflict with other calendared programs, and are scheduled to enhance community events; and
  • By encouraging community support through volunteer opportunities.
  • Californians will once again have the opportunity to support the California Arts Council and its arts programs for children through their state individual tax refund. Sept. 2013, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed Senate Bill 571 (Senator Carol Liu, La Canada Flintridge), returning the arts to the voluntary contribution portion of California tax return forms through the new "Keep Arts in Schools Fund." Donations are tax deductible and support Arts Council programs throughout the state.

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