Seventy-one years ago, silent cowboy star William S. Hart hosted a grand opening of the American Theater in downtown Newhall.
On May 23, 1941, townsfolk gathered at the corner of Spruce Street and 11th Street for the gala opening of the theater, where Hart himself welcomed visitors to the first theater built in the Santa Clarita Valley.
The actor donated the land and commissioned noted theater designer S. Charles Lee to design the building, (Lee was responsible for Glendale’s Alex Theatre, the ornate Los Angeles Theater in downtown LA and the Max Factor Building in Hollywood).
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The building was to be used not just as a place to show his Western films, but also as a meeting place for the American Legion, of which Hart was a member. Soon American Legion Post 507 was established and veterans made it their rallying point for fellowship and patriotic celebrations.
While it served as a movie palace for 24 years, in 1965 the American Theater closed its doors as an entertainment venue and became strictly a meeting place and event center for Post 507. Veterans still called it home, but the community stayed away.
In 2012, veterans hoping for a renaissance for the building, which is adjacent to the gleaming new Santa Clarita Library in Newhall, got their wish. As part of Habitat for Heroes service to veterans, more than 50 volunteers from the community, including several from the Southern California Gas Company and many members of the Post, worked side by side Saturday morning, cleaning, painting, rebuilding and restoring the Legion to a gathering place that the community will welcome.
Habitat For Humanity SFV-SCV Executive Director Donna Deutschman said that more than 30 volunteers worked the week before to refurbish the hall, replacing flooring, re-facing the bar in the Post’s tavern and unpacking new tables and chairs for the meeting room/performance space.
“Our goal is to give them self-sufficiency,” she explained. “Member of the American Legion Riders have come to every single build we’ve done. I wish we could do more, but the Post has no money. They asked us to help them fix their location.”
Deutchman brought Habitat For Heroes board member Jeri Seratti-Goldman to the post for a tour and the deal was sealed. Permit issues were resolved and construction was planned.
Being next door to the new library helped. Deutschman said that electrical work was made easer because of the new construction. Along with new wiring and lots of resurfacing, the Post now has a new heating/air conditioning unit, a commercial grade refrigerator and a small refrigerator for the non-catering staff.
As a mother herself, Deutschman said that she hopes the Post will soon host events like sweet 16 parties and quinceneras.
“Most of all it’s making them feel like they are loved in the community,” she said.
Members of the Post had a say in the new design, which is very streamlined. They chose neutral colors, insisting “nothing girly” – something even the women’s auxiliary members went along with.
Entrances to the Post on all sides of the building were refurbished so not all who attend an event have to go through the bar area, a concern of some people in the past. Two large, freshly-painted entrances to the meeting room now welcome visitors right off the 11th Street parking lot.
Along with a small stage and new tables and chairs (red, white and blue in color), the meeting room will have big screen TVs and a new sound system.
A fundraiser for the rehabilitation project was held Friday night, when “The Standup Guys” performed their comedy routines for a group of more than 800 people at Real Life Church in Valencia. The night raised $56,000, just $4,000 short of the project’s overall cost. Deutschman wasn’t worried about making up the difference.
Joe Shanley, a former soldier who served in the 95 Bravo Military Police at Fort Dix, New Jersey from 1987 to 1992, is also the vice president of the American Legion Riders. He arrived early Saturday to lend a hand, even though he’d been working earlier in the week on drywall and painting.
“This is a place where veterans get to come and relax and enjoy each others’ company,” he said. “You develop a bond with someone who knows what you went through. You can blow off steam where it’s safe.
“It’s a vets organization run by vets for vets,” he concluded.
Shanley said that the building may seem quiet, but it’s really a busy place with four groups calling it home – the American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary, the American Legion Riders and the Sons of the American Legion. He said that having a meeting place is good, but having a place nice enough to rent out and bring in some income to help the post was even better.
Reminded of William S. Hart’s contributions to the building, Shanley was quick to point out an area near one of the meeting room entrances where Hart’s picture would be hung, along with some plaques commemorating his donation.
“He’s a big part of this place,” Shanley said.
Corporate sponsors were among the workers making sure the job was done right, including Mark Figearo of Green Convergence and Mike Mizrahi, the Regional Public Affairs Officer for Southern California Gas Company, a founding sponsor of SCV Habitat For Heroes.
“The whole mission of Habitat for Heroes is to help us with the needs of our veterans,” Mizrahi said. “This is a gathering place for veterans of the Santa Clarita Valley and in rehabilitating this building, we’re serving them.”
He mused about the progress made by the nascent group, which was chartered less than a year ago.
“This is our fifth project and we have four more funded. Our original goal in 2012 was to do 10 projects. We’re on track,” he said, smiling.