Buellton Mourns the Loss of Santa Ynez Valley’s Only Movie Theater

The Future of Parks Plaza Theatre Remains a Mystery

The “We will be back soon” marquee looms above the “For sale” sign out front. | Credit: Caitlin Kelley

When the movie Sideways came out, it kind of put Buellton on the map. While the invasion of Hollywood has long been felt across Santa Barbara proper, the 2004 film finally put the Santa Ynez Valley town on the big screen. Naturally, the locals congregated at the resident movie theater, Parks Plaza, to take in the Oscar-winning comedy upon release. 

The crowd roared when they saw familiar road signs and restaurants immortalized on film. “It was a lively experience,” said Buellton Chamber Executive Director Kathy Vreeland. “We’re all watching the movie, but we’re all looking out for our local destinations and places and people too.” Who knew the exit sign for Santa Rosa Road could bring down the house? 

Cut to: This spring, the valley’s only theater was quietly listed for $2.5 million amid the financial whiplash of the pandemic. These days, the “We will be back soon” marquee looms above the real estate sign out front. 

As the county reopens, the small-town community has felt the sting of losing the Cal-Gran institution. Not only is the closest operating theater nearly 20 miles outside of Buellton — but there’s plenty of nostalgia attached to the family-owned operation. 

“It’s been around for a long time; it’s very iconic to our area,” Vreeland said. “It’s kind of the end of a little era here for our community.”

That’s a sentiment echoed on the Facebook group called Buellton Talk Soup. “It felt like one of the last links to ‘the way things were,’ a piece of nostalgia that was truly small town and quaint,” Evie Tubbs Sweeney wrote. “I was heartbroken to hear it was not opening its doors again. I was so hoping my six year old could grow up going to see movies there the same way I did.”

Fred Fredericks was the original developer of the movie theater, which used to have its own ice cream parlor. The realtor is also responsible for the building that became the neighboring Marriott as well as the Chumash Resource Center, the latter of which used to be a Mexican restaurant called Federico’s. 

Here’s a trade secret: Ronald Reagan had a special viewing area at Parks Plaza. The former president would occasionally drop by the five-screener if he was in town at his nearby Rancho del Cielo. “They had an upstairs little room for him [where] he would sit in to watch the movies,” Vreeland said. “So he wasn’t in the actual theater himself, but he had his own private area to view a movie.” 

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Cal-Gran Theatres is a mini-theater empire operating out of the Central Coast for more than 56 years. The business still operates five theaters, and their drive-ins helped along with mid-pandemic events like a Metallica show at Santa Maria’s Hi-Way Drive-In last August. 

A lot of the Parks Plaza Theatre story is tied up with the late Shawn Gran, who passed away in 2016. Thomas Widroe, a Buellton resident who works as a consultant at The Widroe Group, recalls renting out the theater to screen The Lego Movie for his triplets’ birthday. The theater owner made it such a welcoming place, he personally gave out candies and popcorn to the kids. 

“He was very generous,” Widroe said. “You could feel it was a family-run operation by the Gran family. … They really didn’t feel corporate.” After all, Buellton is known as “Service Town, U.S.A.”

“It was one of those places where you could drop your kids off and they would be safe and have fun,” he continued. 

One of the major themes of the community reaction to the sale centers on one question: what can kids do in the SYV? The theater closure is underscored by the long-awaited bowling alley, dubbed the The Waypoint Family Entertainment Center, remaining a work in progress.

“I grew up having that theater be essentially the only unstructured but safe outlet for us to hang out with friends,” Stephanie Mapes wrote in the Buellton Talk Soup group on Facebook. “Since then, the valley has only become LESS kid/teen friendly. I have always felt, even as a teenager, that the whole valley values the drunk people wine tasting over their own local kids.”

Vreeland conceded a lack of family-friendly activities in wine country. “I mean, the theater is for all ages, right?” she noted. “We have some things to do. But we do lack activities for kids and families, and movies [are] something that we can all safely go do, which is nice. So I definitely think there’s a loss there.” 

The future of the 1.48-acre lot remains up in the air. Both the Cal-Gran team and the Lee & Associates office declined an interview. Here’s what we know: the listing states that the theater is “under contract,” which means that an “official offer has been accepted, but the sale isn’t yet final.” The future owner has not been publicly named. 

Parks Plaza is not the only local business to be put up for sale in the past year. Buellton’s well-known Pea Soup Andersen’s was listed for sale last August. However, the area welcomed newcomers like Eddie’s Grill, Wingstop, and The Tavern at Zaca Creek.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pea Soup Andersen’s closed last August.

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