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Culture and Identity

The Guadalupe Royal Theater could become a National Historic Site

royal theater guadalupe
City of Guadalupe
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Community messages are displayed on the marquee of Guadalupe's Royal Theater.

The Royal Theater in Guadalupe’s Japantown opened in 1940. It was, and still is, the only movie theater building in the Central Coast town.

The theater has a long history of cultural significance in the local Japanese American community. This month, the State Historic Preservation Office is set to decide whether it will be listed as a National Historic Site.

For more than a year, the city of Guadalupe has been working to get the Royal Theater listed as a historic site. The building was built, owned and managed by Japanese Americans. According to a press release, the city considers the theater a tribute to the past and present Japanese American citizens who helped shape Guadalupe’s history.

Carole Denardo is the owner and principal of Provenience Group, an archeological and architectural history company. She was contracted by the city of Guadalupe to create a report detailing the historical significance of the theater so that it could be nominated to the National Register of Historic Sites.

Denardo said many Japanese immigrants came to the Central Coast in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to work in agriculture — mainly sugar beet fields.

A small Japantown began to form in downtown Guadalupe, where the Royal Theater was eventually built.

“In doing my research, I found a strong connection between the theater and Japanese American individuals,” Denardo said.

guadalupe royal theater
City of Guadalupe
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War bonds advertised for sale at Guadalupe's Royal Theater

In 1903, locals formed the Guadalupe Japanese Association to help provide assistance for Japanese laborers. The group also established the town’s Buddhist Church in 1908. Denardo said the Japanese immigrant population grew to more than 500 by 1909.

But, Denardo said, as more and more Japanese immigrants began to succeed in business, an anti-Japanese movement developed.

“As a result, the Anti-Alien Land Law of 1914 was enacted and it prevented Japanese individuals from owning land in California,” Denardo said.

Legislators tightened the law further in 1920, prohibiting land leases by Japanese immigrants. Denardo said there were also documented acts of violence toward the Japanese community in the 1920s and 30s.

“There were a lot of suspicious fires in Guadalupe that targeted Japanese businesses,” Denardo said.

Still, construction began on the Royal Theater in Guadalupe in 1939 and it was completed by 1940. It quickly became one of the area’s important landmarks, along with the army training site, Camp Cooke, now known as Vandenberg Space Force Base.

“When they opened the theater, it was a really welcome addition to Guadalupe for the Japanese immigrants and the soldiers that served at Camp Cooke,” Denardo said.

The theater was built by an immigrant named Arthur Shogo Fukuda. He was a member of the Japanese American community, remembered as an enterprising entrepreneur who helped establish several movie theaters across Central California.

The Royal Theater was his last one.

Ben Pease is a cartographer who developed a California Japantown Atlas. He mapped 24 Japantowns across the state, including Guadalupe’s. The maps highlight the Japanese American communities built up over decades and their brick and mortar businesses operating in 1940.

Pease said the northern part of Guadalupe was mainly residential. But further south — in the center of Japanese American residences and businesses — is where the Royal Theater was built.

japantown map.jpg
Ben Pease
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This composite map shows the Royal Theater in the center of other Japanese-owned businesses in Guadalupe's Japantown.

“There’s some Japanese uses north of town, like up around 11th street was the Guadalupe Buddhist Church and the Japanese school," Pease said. "But most of it was sort of central and south and the theater sits in the middle of that.”

Denardo said the theater brought the Japanese American community together. It showed Japanese language films and feature films. She said during World War II, the theater was used to advertise for war bond sales, and it was also a meeting place for Japanese immigrants during that period.

But in 1942, after the theater had been open for just two years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, resulting in people of Japanese descent — even U.S. citizens — being incarcerated in internment camps.

Arthur Fukuda was forced to sell the Royal Theater immediately.

“Mr. Fukuda, his family, the individuals who managed the royal theater, many other residents from Guadalupe and the entire surrounding area who were Japanese Americans, were sent to Jerome Arkansas Detention Center,” Denardo said.

They remained there until the end of World War II in 1945. Denardo said when they were released, most were unable to get their businesses back, and Mr. Fukuda began working in the agricultural fields.

“This poor immigrant really made a mark by being able to open theaters," Denardo said. "I think at one time he had up to five or six theaters at the same time and then lost it all.”

The Royal Theater continued to operate under different ownership after the war until it eventually closed in 2001. It’s now owned by the City of Guadalupe and has sat unused since its closure — although its marquee is still used for announcements and community events.

Dawn Kamiya is a Japanese American who partially grew up in Guadalupe, post-World War II. She has lived on the Central Coast almost her whole life.

“In the 50s, we lived three doors left, down from the theater. So Snappy Lunch was to the exact left. That was a restaurant owned by the Nakanos. Next to them, the name was Hanasaki and they had a boarding house," Kamiya said. "We were the Guadalupe Fish Market and we lived in the back of a three story building.”

Kamiya said, growing up, she saw mostly Japanese American people in her neighborhood. Although, she said, there were likely fewer than before the war. Kamiya said she used to go to the theater as a child.

“[I] used to skate on the sidewalk back and forth to the theater and back to our store,” Kamiya said.

She said she saw movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Peyton Place and a lot of John Wayne movies, too.

Tom Brandeberry is the president of Los Amigos de Guadalupe, a nonprofit working to develop the city and its community. He’s involved with getting the theater designated. He said the building also functioned as more than a movie theater and that residents associate it as a venue for past local events.

Kamiya remembers that from her childhood, as well. She said the theater truly was a community gathering place for people in Guadalupe.

“Saturday nights, on the screen, there was a giant circle, like a clock, with numbers and a hand that would go round and stop and you would win a prize," Kamiya said. "On Sundays, matinees.”

The City of Guadalupe is currently collecting letters of support from community members to help the theater’s historic designation application.

The State Historic Preservation Office will meet January 21 to decide whether to list Guadalupe’s Royal Theater on the National Register of Historic Places.

If approved by the preservation office, the Royal Theater will be the first building in the City of Guadalupe to be listed on the National Register.

The city also plans to renovate the building into a modernized functional performing arts center. The upgrades will be done within the requirements of the California Historical Building Codes, assuming the historical designation is approved.