OROVILLE – The front doors at the State Theatre are locked, covered with paper and signs that read: “Watch our transformation. Renovations underway.”
Inside the historic theater’s lobby scaffolding rises up to the ceiling where restoration artist Beate Brühl works to restore the original paint scheme on the ceiling as well as medallions that separate the lobby columns.
Brühl studied art and design at San Francisco State University, and Syracuse University, where she received her MFA. She also trained at various trade schools in her native Germany.
A resident of Benicia, Brühl has done restoration work in theaters, churches, hotels, and civic buildings around the country. Together with an architecture team she has received the Governor’s Preservation Award, and the California Preservation Foundation Award for the California Theater in Pittsburg, Contra Costa County, and the New Mission Theater, San Francisco.
Last summer Brühl restored the mural on lobby wall. While it is currently blocked by scaffolding it’s possible to see the scene depicting a waterfall flowing into a pool, a lady sitting with a basket of fruit and an olive branch. In the center is another figure of a woman with her arms lifted and three doves flying above. In the bottom right hand corner is a miner panning for gold.
“Judging by its style I would say it was originally painted sometime in the late 1930s. We don’t really know, but it has that F. Scott Fitzgerald feel to it with that sort of Zelda figure in the center. I am not sure what all the images mean. I would like to have been able to talk to the original artist,” said Brühl.
While she did the mural restoration a year ago, the project started in 2002 when a Vallejo architect who “had contact” with State Theatre officials reached out to Brühl.
“They were pretty certain there was a painting on the wall. I was called to strip away the paint to confirm that there really was a mural. There were 25 layers of paint in every conceivable color — black, red, pink, green, beige. I had to be very careful that I didn’t erase the mural underneath,” said Brühl. “Eighteen years later I actually got to come back and do the restoration.”
In January, Brühl returned and, working from old photographs as well as executing some more delicate paint stripping, she restored the lobby hallway including repainting designs in “composition leaf,” a composition of copper and zinc that looks like gold leaf.
Brühl is spending this summer restoring the original pattern she uncovered on the lobby ceiling. She believes the complex pattern of leaves and flowers that covers the ceiling and beams in alternating “mirror” patterns was originally painted in the late 1920s. Brühl created stencils of the original patterns that she is using to repaint the original design. Once all the stenciling is done, she will go back over the entire ceiling to finish the work by hand.
Brühl’s approach to restoring the 16 medallions that separate the columns near the ceiling was to recreate each one on canvas then apply them like wallpaper.
“There is nothing easy about this project. The building didn’t want to give up its secrets. It was a wrestling match with all the layers of paint. I just needed to be persistent, tenacious and keep going and looking at different areas until I found something. I wanted to find something special of the former movie palace that would make people say ‘wow’ and feel transported away. That was the whole point of these old theaters, that not just the films took you someplace else but just by walking in you feel like you are stepping into another world,” said Brühl.
The restoration work Brühl is doing is funded through the State Theatre Arts Guild, a grant from the Oroville Arts Commission and a donation from the Chamberlain family of Oroville.