When George Altamura was a young man in the late 1940s, he’d watch movies at the Uptown Theater with a cigarette in one hand, a girlfriend in the other.
Altamura, the moviegoer, was a busy man. He never looked up.
What Altamura failed to notice as a young man should delight future audiences when he makes good on a pledge to restore the Uptown as a star attraction in downtown Napa. Restoration work, which lagged after Altamura and a team of investors bought the Third Street movie house in 2000, is now going gangbusters.
On Monday, Altamura unveiled the restored Art Deco ceiling, an expanse of ornamentation covering nearly a fifth of an acre and featuring a bevy of semi-nude women in classical poses.
“The ceiling is the wow,” said Altamura, who recruited a team of artisans to restore original decorations from the theater’s 1937 opening. Restoration took two months, with painters working from scaffolding 38 feet above the theater floor.
Anyone who patronized the Uptown in the decades before its closure would have seen only a blue ceiling. The female figures, the gold stars and the bands of decorative patterns had been buried under coats of paint.
Altamura originally planned to apply a fresh coat of paint that would have further obscured the original designs. “I could have sprayed it out in two days,” he said.
The treasure that lay beneath only came to light when he tore down a wall built in the 1970s to divide the 1,350-seat theater into two spaces, Altamura said.
Resolving to do right by the Uptown, Altamura said he spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to restore the ceiling. Erecting wall-to-wall scaffolding for the artists was nearly a $50,000 item, he said.
Restoration was done by a four-person team headed by Philip Slagter, who recently produced a 250,000-square-foot sky mural for the Venetian Casino in Macau, China.
The Uptown mural, at more than 8,000 square feet, involved hand-stenciling decorative bands and repainting the Art Deco ladies.
Altamura made some sentimental adjustments to the ceiling, which featured cameos of generic women. The eight cameos now reflect the likenesses of Altamura’s daughter, Lori, his four granddaughters and the daughters of two of his partners, Tim Herman and Bob Vogt.
With the completion of the ceiling, Altamura said workers would now restore decorative trim on the walls, creating a finished shell lacking only “cosmetic” touches.
The seats, a top-quality sound system and velvet drapes are on order, as are replicas of the original chandeliers. The restrooms and the lobby, with three bars, can be finished in relatively short order, he said.
The stage has been tripled in size. A green room for performers will be located in an adjacent building.
Altamura is reluctant to say when the Uptown will reopen for live entertainment and perhaps movies — previous predictions turned out to be far too optimistic — but that date is drawing near, he said Monday.
It could happen later this year, Altamura said.
“It’s coming. Napa’s time is coming,” he said. “If I’d gotten it done five years ago, I’d have lost my butt.”
But now, with several new hotels downtown and a riverfront promenade with stores and restaurants soon to debut, there should be enough tourists for a “soft opening,” he said.
Altamura declined to say exactly what kinds of entertainment will be showcased. He is in talks with concert promoters. A booking director will be hired.
The original Uptown hosted live acts as well as movies.
While he would not reveal the cost of the Uptown restoration, Altamura said it is substantial. “It behooves us to start recapping some of our investment,” he said.
The finished Uptown will have between 850 and 900 seats, some 400 fewer than in the original theater. Capacity shrank when Altamura ordered seats seven inches wider than the originals, reflecting the girth of people today, and added more leg room.
The Uptown will be bigger than the Napa Valley Opera House, six blocks away, which has nearly 500 seats, but smaller than Yountville’s Lincoln Theater, with 1,216 seats.
Both the Opera House and the Lincoln Theater, venues for live shows, are run by nonprofit organizations, while the Uptown will be a for-profit operation, Altamura said.
“I’m a businessman. I’m not going to build something that loses money,” he said. Given the magnificence of the restored Uptown, “I know it will be a money-maker.”
Soon after buying the Uptown, Altamura stripped off metal cladding and replastered the exterior. The marquee was restored to its original glory.
The project then lagged for several years. The economic times weren’t right, Altamura said at the time. Downtown didn’t yet have the tourism stream to make the theater successful.
Although the Napa Valley is suffering economically at the start of 2009, conditions here aren’t as bad as elsewhere, Altamura said. Even if the approved Ritz-Carlton resort doesn’t begin construction this year, downtown has enough going for it to justify reopening the Uptown, he said.
Fully restored Art Deco movie houses are a rare thing in America, said Altamura, who is pleased with how things are turning out. “I never remembered it being this beautiful,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified two of the individuals in the individuals in the cameos.