The Uptown Theatre opened in an era of glimmering movie houses and served as one of Napa’s premier venues for the silver screen. It hosted lavish Hollywood style premiers, but by the 1980s it had the unfortunate reputation of being one of Napa’s seediest theaters.
Native Napan Thomas Malloy was the theater’s first manager, and oversaw the construction of the Art Deco style building. Built in 1937, the Uptown opened to much fanfare, screening the romantic comedy Ever Since Eve on opening night. Early in the theater’s history, vaudeville acts shared the stage with the silver screen in live performances. Cinemascope made its Napa debut at the Uptown, introducing a new wide-screen format to moviegoers.
The Uptown had celebrity sightings as well. It hosted premiers for the star-studded film Say One for Me starring Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner, and Rock Hudson’s film This Earth Is Mine, both filmed partially in the Napa Valley. Clark Gable and Carol Lombard were also spotted at the theater during Lombard’s filming of They Knew What They Wanted.
In 1945 the building was sold by then owner Lawrence Borg to the Blumenfeld Theatre chain which once ran a number of landmark movie theaters throughout the Bay Area. While the Blumenfeld chain operated the theater successfully for many years, by the 1970s the Uptown had slid into decline. With the advent of multiplexes, the theater was pressured to subdivide into multiple screens to remain profitable. In 1973 the theater was split in two and later into four screens in 1991.
In 1984, on the opposite edge of downtown, Napa’s now defunct Cinedome Theater was in the process of expanding from four to seven screens. The Uptown's owner Bill Blair saw the expansion as a direct threat to his ability to turn a profit at Napa’s only other downtown theater. In a bid to bring in customers Blair began screening late night X-rated films at the Uptown. With a church and a school across the street from the theater these screenings did not go down well. Napa’s City Council called the screenings illegal, but conflicts between zoning regulations and first amendment rights kept the ban tied up in council chambers for months.
With all this controversy in tow Blair sold the historic theater to Corey and Roberta Tocchini, ushering in a calmer chapter of the theater as a showcase for second-run features. Even though only a dollar was charged for entry during this era, the Uptown found itself sidelined by the more popular Cinedome. Parts of the theater fell into disrepair. At one notorious screening of the English Patient in 1996 the projector broke down twelve times. Dubbed the “Endless Patient,” the film, with interruptions, lasted six hours.
As Napa’s downtown renaissance picked up speed the Uptown made an attempt at showing art films, an idea that was, perhaps, before its time. In 2000 the Uptown turned off its sign and shut its doors.
In 2010, after a ten year closure, the Uptown returned in all its Art Deco glory as a live music venue. The reopening was met with excitement among Napans who were happy to have a new music venue to lure major acts to town. Led by local developer George Altamura the Uptown project is considered one of the most notable and successful restoration projects in recent history.
When George Altamura walked into the Uptown Theatre after the August 24 South Napa Earthquake he was, at first, very relieved. The building seemed to be intact, and it seemed to be entirely undamaged, that is until he looked up and realized the building's historic ceiling mural had crumbled to the floor. “I thought I’d lost it forever; we were going to paint it blue and make it look like the sky. I really thought it was the end of my beautiful ceiling,” mused Altamura to the Napa Valley Register. A stroke of luck, however, set the mural on the path to repair. Artists Pablo Sison and Jimi Vieira discovered the stencils used for the mural's restoration in 2010 in their studio. By November 2104 the mural had once again risen from the dead to grace the Art Deco monument.