It is December 1954 at the Lompoc Theater on H Street, and a pretty young woman in a cardigan sweater and prim scalloped collar sits in the ticket booth, her eyes demurely downcast. The theater is owned and operated by Earl Calvert, a colorful Lompoc entrepreneur, and this week’s featured movie is The Last Time I Saw Paris. The girl’s name is Frances Flores, and she doesn’t know it yet, but a serviceman named Terry Goyer is about to take on a part-time job as a doorman here. It won’t be love at first sight, but the two will find they look forward to their chats in the lobby, and that’s a good place to start. Before long they will marry, move away, and raise a family in the Midwest.
Today, more than 50 years later, the couple-Frances and Terry-live in Lompoc in the house in which Frances Flores, now Frances Goyer, was raised, just a few blocks from the theater that, despite a long abandonment, still stands. Currently undergoing restoration, the classic old building will reopen next year as the Calvert Center for the Performing Arts, and the original neon theater sign will be lit again.
Photographer Kam Jacoby came upon the image of the wistful young Frances Flores while doing preservation work in the archives of the Lompoc Historical Society. He transposed it over a contemporary photograph of the theater to create the oddly haunting composite, erasing the boundaries between then and now.
Jacoby has always been fascinated by the stories old images contain and by the layers of the past that live within the present. As a child he heard a family friend talking about an imaginary recording instrument that would be sensitive enough to read the sounds etched into the walls by the impacts of sound waves. It was science fiction, but Jacoby could not quite shake the concept.
“The idea of being able to listen to the history of a space or play back the echo of the past has had a tremendous impact on the way I think about photographs,” he said. “I have always imagined that photographs provide proof of a moment in time but also, by inference, evidence that all other moments exist.”
The movie theater picture is just one in a series that Jacoby has recently produced. First, he makes high resolution scans of historic photographs, then takes new pictures in the exact same locations, standing precisely where the previous photographer may have been when he or she tripped the shutter. Finally Jacoby makes digital composites of the prints, meticulously layering them in perfect alignment, thus lovingly merging present and past.
A native of Lompoc, Jacoby feels a sense of his own personal history in this work, and he never runs out of inspiration. “I have so many photos to work with now, and each one has stories that fan out and circle in interesting and surprising ways,” he said. “I want to wake up in the morning, toss my camera in the car, and go treasure hunting.”
I first saw Jacoby’s layered photographs at an exhibit in the downstairs gallery of the Lompoc Museum. The images within some pictures span a century, so people in 19th-century attire appear like ghosts on a modern street or posed in front of a house that’s still there, coexisting with the present like fading memories, poignant and ethereal. The Lompoc Theater picture, with its solitary and mysterious young woman, was especially compelling. When I learned that the subject still lives in the area, I decided to give her a call.
“I was 17,” Frances Goyer told me, “and judging by my clothing, I wasn’t on duty when that picture was taken. Mr. Calvert was strict about us wearing our uniforms when we worked. He wanted a certain atmosphere. Working at the theater was a good opportunity, and it wasn’t just high school kids; the wives of servicemen worked there, and other people, too; there were a lot of us. I still run into people today who remember working for Mr. Calvert.
“The theater was a community place. At Christmas the workers from the diatomaceous earth mine held a party there for the children. A Russian dance troupe performed there once, and there were Spanish-speaking films, and concerts, too. My favorite movies were the musicals. A lot of people enjoyed going on movie dates. Some of the women just brought their knitting.”
Goyer continued, “In Lompoc we had everything we needed. You could walk downtown for bread, milk, clothing, hardware, everything. Where the museum is now, that was our library, and there was a bowling alley nearby. After dinner and dishes were done, folks walked into town, like a promenade, an after-dinner walk. No one does that anymore.”
But Jacoby can picture it. “Thousands of others have lived, loved, triumphed, and struggled on these same streets that hold my memories,” he said. “Looking through old photographs of Lompoc, particularly those in which people are an essential element, has reawakened my interest in this place I call my hometown.”
As for Goyer, she’s not prone to excessive nostalgia. “My daughter asked me once if I ever feel melancholy living right here in the house I grew up in, passing that old theater, remembering how things used to be. I tell her, ‘Not at all-I found the most important part of my life in that theater, and he’s still with me.'”
A selection of Kam Jacoby’s photographs will be on exhibit through July 31 at Carina Cellars wine tasting room in Los Olivos. Artist Reception: June 7, 5:30-7 p.m. For more information and directions, call 688-2459 or visit carinacellars.com.