This week Riverwalk Jazz salutes the historic Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento, California—home base for our series of broadcasts from the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. Joining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band are special guests vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, trombonist Bill Allred, and acoustic guitarist Paul Mehling with his Hot Club of San Francisco.
The Crest is a fascinating and remarkable showplace with a long and venerable history, and it’s a favorite stop when the Riverwalk crew takes to the road. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band travels across the United States, often playing historic theaters like the Crest. Listeners thrill to hear the Band restore to its former glory the music popular during the heyday of these landmarks of American entertainment.
The city of Sacramento sits at the meeting point of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the former boomtown of the great California Gold Rush of 1849. By 1913, it was a bustling city of two hundred thousand, but there wasn't much available in the way of entertainment. The successful golden state impresarios Sullivan and Considine decided the time was right to build a vaudeville theater in Sacramento. When The Empress opened its doors on January 19, 1913, it was Sacramento's largest and most elegant theater. The California State Capitol built in 1874 was only a block away, and just down the street stood the Cathedral. Over the course of a century, this elegant old theater would undergo several transformations. In 1918 the theater was transformed as The Hippodrome, and by the late 1920s motion pictures swept aside live entertainment and it became a movie house. In the 40s, with much fanfare, the venue was re-built in an art deco style and christened The Crest Theatre.
Our tribute to The Crest Theatre begins with a set of three tunes from the 1930s. The Great Depression was in full swing and so was the heyday of the Hollywood Movie Musical. Like the rest of the country, folks in Sacramento spent their spare time in movie palaces like The Crest, hoping to lose their troubles in the glitter of big-screen fantasy—and the swinging pop songs of the era.
“Got a Bran' New Suit” was a pop tune from a 1935 stage show "At Home Abroad" by the songwriting team of Dietz and Schwartz and introduced by Ethel Waters. A classic swinging recording by Louis Armstrong is uppermost in the minds of Jim Cullum and his Band in their version heard here.
The Portland Oregon-based jazz singer and series favorite Rebecca Kilgore joins Jim and the Band for another Armstrong classic, “You’re A Lucky Guy,” with music by Saul Chaplin and the lyric by Sammy Cahn, originally written for a 1939 revue, "Cotton Club Parade.”
The Hot Club of San Francisco, led by the brilliant acoustic jazz guitarist Paul Mehling, is always a crowd-pleaser at The Crest Theater. The Hot Club’s specialty is the 1930s continental swing of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli with the Hot Club of France. Mehling and company play one of the Django-Grapelli classics from 1937, “Minor Swing.”
In 1946 the old Hippodrome Theater was taken over by Fox West Coast Theaters and the interior was completely demolished. The new Crest Theater was built inside the shell of the old Hippodrome. As seen here, the art deco decor of The Crest was spectacular with a ceiling gleaming with gold leaf. Audiences also enjoyed the more practical amenities of up-to-the-minute heating and cooling systems.
On opening night, October 6, 1949, the picture was That Midnight Kiss from MGM. Searchlights roamed the sky over downtown Sacramento. The film’s stars Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza were on hand to greet the crowds. In 1955 Pete Kelly's Blues starring Jack Webb was one of the big pictures of the year at the Crest as elsewhere around the country. Filmgoers would have heard Peggy Lee sing a sultry love song called “Sugar,” heard here in an interpretation by New-York-based trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, backed by the Cullum Band rhythm section.
Jim Cullum Jazz Band pianist John Sheridan is a lifelong student of the music of Jazz Age genius Bix Beiderbecke. Bix composed the instrumental “Davenport Blues” in tribute to his Iowa hometown, and John gives us his solo version, as Jim Cullum notes, “unencumbered” by the other musicians on the program. Then, Jon-Erik Kellso returns to the bandstand to join the full ensemble with the iconic Al Jolson hit from 1924, “California Here I Come.”
Central Florida-based trombonist and bandleader Bill Allred and Cullum Band trombonist Mike Pittsley are both longtime disciples of the fiery Jazz Age trombonist Abram “Abe” Abe Lincoln. Born in 1907, Lincoln began his recording career with groups the California Ramblers, Roger Wolfe Kahn and Paul Whiteman. By the 40s he was a well-established California studio man. With the onset of the Traditional Jazz Revival, he recorded with Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden and Matty Matlock's Paducah Patrol. Pittsley and Allred play “Ida (Sweet As Apple Cider)” in Abe’s “hot” style. Our concert wraps up with a spirited version of another Louis Armstrong favorite, “Hear Me Talkin' To Ya” with Jon-Erik re-joining Jim and the Band.
After 30 years as a first-run movie house, The Crest Theater closed its doors in 1979, but it was to have yet another life. The historic theater was re-opened in 1986 by a group of dedicated civic and community leaders. A decade later, The Crest received a one million dollar restoration. Sacramento's last picture palace was brought back to its 1940s decor with a fabulous gold leaf art deco interior. In recent years, The Crest has been host to comedy shows, film screenings and live music events including the annual Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.
Photo credit for Home Page. The Crest Theatre. Photo courtesy of Crest.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick © 2000