The Grande Dame Returns

Debra Liddell and Chuck Gomez light up the historic Granada theatre in The Dalles

By Kathy Ursprung

Vintage cars line the streets outside
Vintage cars line the streets outside the Granada Theatre on November 10, 2017, to celebrate the grand reopening of the historic theater. Photo courtesy of Scott McMullen

For three days in November, folks in The Dalles had a taste of 1920s Hollywood glamour as the Granada Theatre and its new owners revived the theater’s glory days, including a re-creation of the original vaudeville act that opened the theater in 1929.

More than 1,000 people attended the grand opening. The three-day event featured belly dancers, the Lindy hop, a barbershop quartet, cowboy poetry, a klezmer band, and a drum line. Musical acts included headliner Cash and King, and local veterans’ band Got Your Six.

It was a glimpse of things to come.

The theater is black now as owners Chuck Gomez and Debra Liddell focus on reviving the Moorish-style building that sits at the heart of downtown The Dalles. The Granada is reputed to be the first theater built west of the Mississippi to house “new” talking pictures.

The couple are aiming for a February 14 launch for the 2018 season.

“We want an exceptional, national act to really set things off,” Debra says.

“They’ve seen what we can do producing our own shows. Now we want to bring in an act everyone will enjoy for the evening. We’ll have dinner food and a special night for all the people.”

Oregon artist Glenn Ness
Oregon artist Glenn Ness works on a new mural in the Granada’s auditorium.

Before Chuck and Debra bought the theater, several other people had tried to bring it back to life, including an artist, a nonprofit group, and the most recent owner, who stripped the theater of many original artifacts before leaving town.

While those efforts had limited success, the couple from Watseka, Illinois, are confident they can make it work.

“If you want to revive a theater, you bring in theater people,” Debra says.

Chuck worked for the city of Chicago in the mayor’s office of special events. In that role, he produced many concerts and events. He and Debra are also musicians: he on the saxophone, she on the flute. Chuck is also the main offsite producer for the Columbia College of Chicago, a school known for its performing arts programs.

“He is used to putting together things from nothing,” Debra says. “He also worked in theater doing set design. He has a lot of good skills coming together.”

Debra’s skills complement Chuck’s, including ticket sales, culinary arts, business, and computer work.

They also have a track record in theater revival. Ten years ago, Debra and Chuck raised the 1931 theater in Watseka from near death.

Chuck has had a passion for vintage theaters since the 1980s. He had long wanted to buy the Watseka, but before he could do it, the building became tied up in red tape after the owner’s death. Many years later, Chuck found the next owner and bought the building.

Debra Liddell
With the help of her husband, Chuck Gomez, Debra Liddell is renovating the historic Granada Theatre.

“The roof was leaking,” Debra says. “From the upstairs floor, you could see from the main floor down to the basement. That’s how much disrepair it was in.”

Debra was dismayed from the get-go.

“At first, when I walked in I thought, ‘Honey, you’re crazy’,” she says. “He said, ‘Trust me. It’s OK.’”

A retired dentist, Debra was thinking about getting licensed to practice in Illinois. Then, as she describes it, something kicked in.

“Obviously, it was going to be a team effort,” she says.

Chuck’s vision drove the project. He went to the theater in the evening and came up with new projects designed to restore its grandeur. The Watseka Theatre celebrated its grand opening on New Year’s Eve 2006 with a big gala.

Now, Chuck and Debra are working to do the same with the Granada.

A roof put on the Granada in 2002 has kept the interior intact. Unfortunately, the exterior didn’t fare as well. The couple put a great deal of their initial time and effort into painstakingly restoring the old plaster, the marquee, and the copper tower caps.

Three years ago, they found the Granada through mutual friends Ray and Marcia Spooner, who are regular visitors to The Dalles. At the time, the building was under an option to a development group. Eventually, that arrangement dissolved.

“We were here the next day,” Debra says.

Since they bought the theater from the City of The Dalles, Debra and Chuck have sunk a sizable part of their savings into the building. As a result, some folks mistakenly think they are wealthy.

“We’re just regular people like them, who have put all of our savings into this building and here we go,” Debra says. “It’s scary and exciting, and it’s what we like to do. And it’s certainly better odds than playing video poker!”

The theater now includes the Gorge-us Gallery, which features the work of local artisans, including Debra’s own fiber and bead art. Artist Glenn Ness is creating images for the theater walls.

In December, the Spotlight Cafe opened under the management of Ashley Oedell, offering a Chicago-style menu. That means a Chicago-style hotdog and a variety of individual thin-crust pizzas.

As the 2018 season opens, the community will see more of what the Granada will have to offer, including national acts, community theater and school performances.

“We want to have weddings,” Debra says. “We want to have conventions. We’re good at that. We’re good at putting together all that stuff. We want to use the facility to its maximum capability.”

But the grand opening will be a tough act to follow, especially the grand finale. After 33 years together, Chuck and Debra got married on stage opening night.