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Auburn’s Viola Wrigley pays homage to early employer with State Theater donation

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The roots of Viola Wrigley’s gift of $125,000 to Auburn’s State Theater restoration fund lie in her own first experiences at a Central Valley movie theater. Wrigley, 93, worked at the Tulare County city of Exeter’s movie house as a girl during the Depression era. Jobs were hard to come by and Wrigley started out as a flashlight-wielding usherette before graduating to trusted cashier at the family owned enterprise. The money she earned helped put her through college in Visalia and sent her on her way into a successful design and business career that continues to this day. Wrigley recalled that the theater owners helped her in small ways, like teaching her how to drive. “The people who did so much for me were theater people,” Wrigley said. “They took me in, gave me a job and watched over me.” Wrigley, who has lived in Auburn for the past 45 years, initially was reluctant to shine the light on her donation. “I’m not a publicity seeker,” Wrigley said. “I’m a doer. I’ve been that all my life.” Wrigley’s donation is by far the largest that has been given to the Downtown Auburn theater’s restoration fund, said Paul Ogden, Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center president. With the non-profit organization about to embark on a capital campaign, Ogden said the gift from Wrigley is a signal to others that the project is one worthy of wide support. The $125,000 gift began as a loan to the Lincoln Way theater to help buy and install the three-sided marquee and distinctive neon “blade” sign erected in 2008. The loan allowed the group to obtain a matching grant from the city’s redevelopment agency to complete the sign project. Ogden said that the loan – which has now turned into a donation – played a critical role in moving the theater project forward. The signage became a beacon for the work the theater group is doing to eventually build a performing arts center within the State footprint. “That has made our success possible,” Ogden said. “It has brought attention to the theater and left people believing in what we’re doing.” Wrigley’s forte over the years has been fixing up some of Auburn’s older stock of buildings and turning them into marketable commercial enterprises. She’s an interior decorator by training and profession and the Old Town and Downtown Auburn business districts are peppered with buildings that have been given the Wrigley touch. That work started in Old Town in the 1960s. Buildings like the former Placer Bank on Commercial Street and the center section of Old Town were given renovations and makeovers. In more recent times, she has bought and restored buildings that house The Big Salad eatery, the Monkey Cat restaurant, The Golden Swann, the Koffee Kup, the Avantgarden, and the White House, which houses Latitude’s Restaurant. That effort to create more people-friendly places in her adopted home town could be reflected in future interior design input on at least one of the rooms inside the State Theater. While Wrigley’s $125,000 gift comes with no strings attached, Dave Mackenroth, Performing Arts Center board member, said the group is looking forward to her help. Auburn’s State Theater opened in 1930, about the time Wrigley was working at a similar theater in Exeter – a farm community of 9,000 that bills itself as the orange capital of the world. Wrigley recalled some tough times in the 1930s, when her mother found work in the school cafeteria or at a nearby canning plant after her father died, leaving her and five children. For Depression-era communities like Auburn and Exeter, movie theaters provided a ray of light in those dark days. And for Wrigley, lessons learned in finance and life at the theater much like Auburn’s helped build a strong foundation for her future success.