Media Life: Seldom-viewed 1943 mural paints picture of Auburn’s past

By: Gus Thomson/Media Life
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The geniuses who decided to gut Auburn’s State Theater in the early 1970s and make it a twin-screen theater did at least one thing right. They kept a mural depicting Auburn nearly 100 years earlier that provides a breathtaking Cinerama-style viewpoint – and an aerial viewpoint at that. It’s a view on an inside wall of the building that continues to stir the historical imaginations of the few who actually take the time to inspect a hidden folk-art masterpiece in Downtown Auburn. While the actual creator of the brightly painted mural of the city – including snowcapped Sierra peaks in the distance and a locomotive puffing along what was then the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks – has been the object of debate over the years, the Media Life research team has stumbled on some information which tends to put that matter to rest. Lengthy career The mural, it turns out, was front page news in the Aug. 5, 1943, edition of the Auburn Journal announcing its completion. The name of the mural artist – Martin Ravestein – isn’t well-known today. But he was active in Northern California for at least three decades during the early part of the 20th century. 1915 found him designing and painting the Canadian exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. By the time he started work on the State Theater mural, he had already painted others at Grass Valley’s Del Oro Theater and the State Theatre in Oroville. Later, he would turn his brush to the interior of The Majestic theater in Chico, now known as the El Rey, for a fantasy-themed mural. Tony Broadbent, a key State Theater volunteer, said he’s admired the mural but knew little of its past. One of the quirks of the painting is that it has the railroad on the left, creating the illusion of the tracks built in 1912 being added in a bout of artistic license. Broadbent said it takes viewers a few moments to adjust their perspective and realize that the tracks are the original ones built in the 1860s. That means shifting their viewpoint to make sense of the mural. A photo the Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center organization has in its possession shows the theater gutted out in about 1973 but the mural remaining. Another shows Joe Souza repainting the mural at about the same time, brightening up a work undoubtedly stained by years of tobacco smoke. Souza is still around town, most notably playing his horn at most Auburn Farmers Markets. Colors burnished by time These days, the bright colors have taken on a new layer of grime but the blues, particularly, remain strong and vibrant. Ravestein – also sometimes referred to as Ravenstein – can’t take credit for the concept of the mural. That would go to Carl Dahlgren, who created the print in 1880 the mural was based on. Over the years, the mural has been attributed to William Chavalas, the muralist for the Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox church in Los Angeles, and Harry De Groat, a commercial artist in Auburn. De Groat created much of the early theater poster art for the State Theater and died of lead poisoning related to tainted paints in 1934. With no signature to go by, the painting has been couched in mystery but the 1943 Auburn Journal article points fairly definitively to giving credit where credit is due – and the credit should go to Ravestein. What next for the painting? Perhaps a cleaning. And it would be a help to have a modern-day aerial photo as a reference point and a small description of Ravestein’s Auburn masterwork.