When the shaking stopped, the Uptown Theatre still stood.
Its mural did not.
The Art Deco edifice and downtown concert hall had held fast after an earthquake rocked Napa before dawn on Aug. 24. Its 77-year-old walls remained straight, the marquee still hung over the Third Street sidewalk, and its twin banks of speakers stayed suspended over the stage, though sprinkled with plaster crumbled by the magnitude-6.0 shock.
Below the speakers, however, lay what had been the painted images of women in flowing hair and robes, of a piper, of trees with leaves stylized into cottony puffs. Above, all that remained were cavities in the ceiling framework, with a few ribbons of insulation hanging like torn sheets.
This pastoral scene in sunset-orange hues — created in the late 1930s, then painstakingly restored five years ago — had become an inch-deep layer of debris, like so much other debris the temblor had left throughout the city.
Restoring lost glory
Two days after the earthquake, George Altamura stepped inside the cinema building he had helped buy and restore starting in 2000.
Outside, the Uptown seemingly weathered the quake better than other downtown landmarks — the fissured post office, the cracked historic courthouse, the tower knocked askew on one corner of the Alexandria building.
Inside, Altamura saw a 680-seat auditorium that had withstood the shocks — until he reached the row behind the front.
“Right up to the (stage), all of this went down, right to the ground,” Altamura recalled Wednesday morning, pointing upward from the left aisle. “It also wiped out the first two rows of seats — four hours after they were occupied.
“I came in, I saw the damage and immediately ordered scaffolds, then ordered new chairs right away,” he said.
There was one more item on Altamura’s to-do list: call the trio of artists who had rescued the mural from coats of paint and decades of obscurity. Still, he held out little hope, at first, that the canopy over the stage would ever quite be the same.
“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.”
After a thorough vacuuming and wiping of the gray dust that coated seats, carpet and sconces, workers filled practically the whole performance space with the scaffolding needed to bring artists up close to the shredded ceiling landscape.
About a month after the quake, Altamura phoned Philip Slagter, the artist who led the restoration of the Uptown ceiling before it reopened as a live-music venue in May 2010. Slagter agreed to return from his Montana home to reconstruct the mural, and persuaded the Los Angeles-based artists Pablo Sison and Jimi Vieira — television and movie set painters by trade — to set their work aside to revive the artwork they had rediscovered five years earlier.
During the removal of partitions that had sliced the original single-screen design into four parts, they had brought to light a visual flourish long forgotten. Concealed by several layers of acrylic paint were the sunlit images of bare-breasted, flowing-haired nymphs, once a crowning touch on an Art Deco movie palace then glamorous enough to attract guests such as the husband-and-wife acting dynamo of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Through years of redecoration and neglect, however, the mural had drifted from memory, until Slagter, Sison and Vieira uncovered and restored it using old photographs as guides.
As the painters readied for their Napa trip, Vieira and Sison came into a stroke of luck in their own studio — the templates for many of the leaf and diamond patterns framing the Uptown’s ceiling art.
Having found the stencils, “we were always confident about doing it,” said Sison. “The first restoration was pretty painstaking; everything had been done in our own hand so (redoing) it was like riding a bike. In our minds we’d painted it five or six times already.”
Much of the repainting of human figures, however, still depended on photos and memories, according to Vieira. They would have to re-create the mural’s most distinctive parts by hand — and do it soon enough for the shuttered Uptown to stop the loss of concert dates and ticket revenue.
“We started with 10-hour days, but with the time crunch and (the need) to get the theater open, the days got longer and longer as time passed,” said Vieira. “I worked 14 hours one day; George gave us the keys and we were free to stay as late as we wanted to.”
“As an artist, when you’re in the zone you totally forget about time,” Sison said. “There were portions where you didn’t want to go home because your hand is hot. Those are the times when you just have to keep going.”
By the end of October, after more than two weeks, the artists’ work was finished. The result finally became visible on the night of Nov. 9, when the Uptown opened its doors for a sold-out concert by the reggae star Ziggy Marley — the theater’s first performer since the earthquake.
“I enjoyed Sunday’s show more than I’ve loved any show here, ever, because it was like a rebirth,” Altamura said of that Sunday evening.
“I’ve learned that being old, nothing bothers me now. You go through so many things in life, you just pick yourself up and do it.”
For Sison and Vieira, whose daily work usually is designed to last for only one film or TV episode, part of their satisfaction has been to ensure an artwork’s permanence — twice.
“We’re used to doing stuff for TV and film where everything is in the trash by Sunday,” said Sison. “This time we were doing something permanent, which feels good.”
“It’s a lot on your shoulders and a lot on your back,” Vieira said. “But the fact we got to do restoration work where generations will see it is satisfying.”