Nick Carabetta isn't sure which movie first played at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach. The theater opened in 1947, so it might have been the holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street" or even the Oscar-winning "Gentleman's Agreement."
Whatever that opening night film was, Carabetta hopes to get a print and make it the Bay's next feature attraction. But he has a way to go before the theater's screen once again lights up.
The manager of Crema Cafe, a European-flavored restaurant on Main Street in Seal Beach, Carabetta founded the Bay Theater Foundation to raise money to buy the old movie house, which went dark in 2012.
"The nostalgia is a big part of it," Carabetta said. "Just from living here in Seal Beach and sort of getting to know the community, I know that there's a lot of people that just want to see this theater return."
The dream of bringing new life to old movie theaters has inspired efforts — including the Fox Theatre in downtown Fullerton — across Southern California.
For years, the Bay hosted screenings of classic and silent movies, in addition to new releases. Carabetta recalls seeing "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Hard Day's Night" there.
The theater, which has an old-fashioned marquee, stands as a landmark at Main near Pacific Coast Highway. Posters from the 2012 releases "Your Sister's Sister" and the remake of "Total Recall" still decorate the walls outside the locked front doors.
Carabetta said he did not know how much the theater's owners would charge for the venue, or if a deal was even possible.
In recent weeks, a simple black and white sign has gone up in the box office window declaring that Carabetta's group is not connected to the theater and implying skepticism about its mission.
"The Bay Theatre has been privately owned since 1975," the sign reads. "We have not authorized any groups or entities to raise money on our behalf. 'The Bay Theater Foundation' is NOT AFFILIATED with us in any way. If you have concerns about their activities and/or money you may have donated to them, please let us know."
The sign lists a Yahoo.com email address. But emails went unanswered and calls to the theater's listed phone number were unreturned. The theater's Web page simply says it closed in 2012.
A 1987 Times story said the theater was owned by Dick and Jane Loderhose, who lived in the building's penthouse and installed a massive Wurlitzer pipe organ in the theater.
Regardless of any opposition, Carabetta is continuing his drive. The Bay Theater Foundation's website has a PayPal donation page, and Carabetta said his group may soon host a Kickstarter campaign. He acknowledged that his group did not have an official connection to the theater and that the spelling of "Theater" rather than "Theatre" in its name was meant to underline the difference.
If the foundation succeeds in reopening the Bay Theatre, it won't be the first undertaking of its kind in Orange County in recent years.
The 1950s-vintage Port Theater in Newport Beach reopened in 2012 after shutting down in 1998 and has hosted part of the Newport Beach Film Festival. The Fox Theatre in Fullerton, which folded in 1987, opened in the last decade for sporadic events. A foundation has worked for years to resurrect the Balboa Performing Arts Theater — renamed the Balboa Village Theatre for its new planned incarnation — in Newport Beach.
Carabetta said that such endeavors inspired his group, which he described as himself and half a dozen friends.
"I thought it would be exciting to do that, and everything sort of converged," he said. "It seemed like a good opportunity for us to bring it back to the community."
The foundation's mission has at least a few supporters in town. Robert Howson, who owns the retail side of Harbour Surfboards across the street, described gazing at the closed theater during work days and recalling the surf movies he once saw there.
Hafeeza Locke, owner of T.H.E. Calypso Juice and Vitamins next to the theater, hopes to see it reopen. The theater would be a boost for her business and a source of neighborhood pride, she said.
"It's a historical building, and there's not too many of those around anymore," Locke said. "I think it'll be great for Seal Beach."