SAN DIEGO — The Carlsbad Theatre was designed to be the cultural hub of North County. Representatives from Del Mar, Vista, Fallbrook, Oceanside, Encinitas, Escondido and Carlsbad participated in the gala 1927 opening, unveiling 10 murals of scenes from their communities painted on the interior walls of the silent-film, stage and vaudeville house.
But the theater failed to achieve its lofty cultural aspirations, becoming instead a well-used second-run American film and Spanish-language movie house. Today, however, the intimate theater may be on the verge of realizing its original goal.
A sequence of events has suddenly propelled the venerable, two-story Spanish-colonial building into the spotlight. The theater's pending revival has become something of a drama with its own cast of characters.
The chief players include Raymond and Celestine Normandin and their son, Michael, who manages the property, Carlsbad's ambitious downtown redevelopment project and Jake Schmidt, alias Jacob Henry, a former FBI agent and investment banker who is now a private eye and a theater producer. Schmidt leased the old hall with the thought of its becoming a performing arts center.
On Thursday, live theater returns to the Carlsbad Theatre with "The Lady Cries Murder," a surreal spoof of detective novels. Long-range plans include the possibility of a regular art film series and a complete restoration of the theater. For now, Schmidt is giving it a partial face lift with new carpet and paint.
In the wings, the Carlsbad city fathers are murmuring their approval.
"I think it would be an addition . . . a real tourist attraction," Carlsbad Mayor Buddy Lewis said. "And not only that, I think it'll be a real draw for the North County. Everyone I've talked to wants the thing. In my mind it will be a plus for us."
The landlords also favor reviving the theater. Two years ago, Raymond and Celestine Normandin bought the theater, intending to convert it into office or retail space. But according to their son Michael, who manages the property, the Normandins discovered the theater's history and now encourage its use as a performing arts center.
The cultural use does pose a problem.
"That puts it in a less profit-oriented category . . . . moves it into a realm of public interest," Michael Normandin said.
Normandin said that restoring the theater is too costly for his family and, although he has no specific plan, he thinks that a public or joint public-private venture is probably the only way the theater can be fully restored and operated.
Enter Jake Schmidt, whose role is to find out if the public wants a legitimate theater company in Carlsbad.
By day, the 38-year-old Schmidt plays the role of private eye, working with his father, Jake Schmidt Sr., in San Diego. At night, he is running a theater whose first play is about a private eye called Phillip Diamond, who is searching for Raymond Chandler's missing manuscript.
Both Schmidts are former G-men. Both are actors. To avoid confusion, Jake Jr. adopted the stage name of Jacob Henry.
Schmidt left the Federal Bureau of Investigation after six years to become an investment banker with Shearson American Express. Despite his law enforcement and business background, his excursion into theater is not out of character. Schmidt acted in high school and college plays and majored in stage directing at USC. Later, he performed extensively in summer stock in Kansas City.
Eventually, at his father's urging, Schmidt went to law school and won an appointment to the FBI academy. During his years with the bureau, he specialized in trademark and copyright violations in the recording and motion picture industries. At Shearson, he analyzed entertainment stocks.
"It was extremely educational to learn how the economic system works, the role stock brokers play, of takeovers and mergers," he said.
But the allure of the theater never died. Schmidt worked as an assistant director in a couple of productions at the La Jolla Stage Company. He sought approval to convert the vacant Fire Station No. 13 in La Jolla into a theater a few years ago, but the San Diego City Council turned him down.
He discovered the Carlsbad Theatre when he drove to Carlsbad to see his niece and nephew performing in the theater last school year. It was, he said, a transcendent experience.
When Schmidt walked into the theater, it looked like a scene straight out of Woody Allen's film, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," starring Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniel, about characters that come off the screen to become involved with the audience.
Schmidt negotiated a lease with the Normandins and created the nonprofit Carlsbad Theatre Company. He plans to produce three plays this season. John William See's "The Lady Cries Murder" is being directed by Christopher "R" Rose, a founding member of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Rose directed "The Lady Cries Murder" at the Rep several years ago.