InterView – 2007 John Griswold


Meet and Greet
By Chris Murphy

John Griswold

In 1993 Downtown Modesto was a wasteland. Abandoned by the major chain department stores for Vintage Faire, there were many abandoned hotels and buildings. There was very little nightlife, movies were sketchy and many wondered what would become of our downtown core. Fortunately, there were others that were wondering what “could be” in downtown. There were some lone rangers. Carmen Sabatino had the City Limits Restaurant. Mitch and Tammy Maisetti and Paul Tremayne were opening Tresetti’s and 10th St Place was little more than a bullet point in Modesto’s Vision statement. But there was a group of people that saw what happened to the Strand, the Covell and other downtown theatres and decided to save the last remaining historic theatre, The State. This was the single biggest decision that would lead to our downtown cultural revolution. John Griswold, a designer, preservation fan and music aficionado was tapped to lead the Downtown Arts Project as the Executive Director of the newly created non-profit corporation that would purchase and restore the State Theatre and begin the age of Downtown Modesto Renaissance.

ModestoView: When we began our interview, we got the real inside scoop how it all started.

John Griswold: Truth of the matter is: John was looking for a place to show foreign films. I had been talking with the Covell owners about fixing up the theatre to use. Then I discovered there was a little for sale sign in the window of the State….perfect. I was involved with both the Downtown Arts Project and the Stanislaus County Arts Commission at that time. I decided to run the idea by DAP first since they were doing absolutely nothing at the time. And it went from there. I was on the Board of DAP and I was the only one who knew a little about all phases of theatre work. So, at that particular time someone had the theatre in escrow to turn it into offices and a recording studio.

MV: Modesto seems to be in your blood, have you always lived here?
JG: I moved to Modesto in 1964 to go to school at MJC, before that I lived in Ripon

MV: What is your primary profession?
JG: My primary profession is a Commercial Interior Designer. I studied Architecture in College and as I was working on my third year, I just started getting calls to do interior design, got so busy I never had the chance to finish.

MV: In the early 90s, Downtown was a wasteland? What did you think of the possibilities?
JG: I knew from studying what had happened in other “Wasteland Cities”. Restore and open an old theatre and it would revive decaying areas. This has been proven time and time again. Several years later when I was a member of the League of Historic American Theatres, at one of the conventions I attended, that was reinforced. In fact we visited many cities in NY, PA and Canada that the exact thing happened, living proof. One of the problems we had when opening the State was to convince people it was safe to come downtown again.

MV: The State required a lot of work, what was the first thing you set out to do.
JG: Get the projectors working. Luckily, a good friend of mine, Joe Savage, had been working on those projectors since 1934, or shortly thereafter. So, First thing I did was call him to look them over and get them up and running. Then I called Robert Zeff, a true sound wiz, to fix up the sound system. The next problem was getting the boiler to work so we could have heat. The boiler was always flooded in the firebox and every time I had to light it, I would have to bail it out and dry it off. Actually crawl into it to light it.

MV: Who were some of the important people that that helped realize this vision?
JG: The important people were the ones who actually got in and helped get this place up and running, the volunteers and the friends. Just because someone is known in the community, does not make them important.

MV: What were some of the unexpected setbacks after you purchased the State?
JG: There were really no set backs….I don’t accept them, I just move on with what I am focused on. Had we had a board that was truly interested….this project would have been completed years before. You saw how quickly Mike Zagaris and Friends got things done, they were focused.

MV: Was there a time when you thought it might not happen?
JG: NEVER

MV: What was the first show you booked after the theatre opened?
JG: Jazz Man, Brian Culbertson, his first professional stage performance, now one of the biggest names in Smooth Jazz.

MV: Describe the change in downtown Modesto after the State opened.
JG: Pretty much as we all know, there has been a resurgence of the downtown area. After the State opened and people started coming downtown, cafes and restaurants started to spring up, followed by office buildings being built and so on……

MV: What was one of your favorite moments at the State?
JG: Partying with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra after their performance…those crazy Ruskies and probably seeing the first group of people come through the door for a foreign film, sort of a dream come true for me.

MV: In your post State Theatre life, you have championed the smooth jazz events here in Modesto, what does this mean to you?
JG: Simply…Keeping an art form alive in this area. There are many die hard smooth jazz fans, hungry fans and someone has to feed the little devils.

MV: You founded e-artsnews.org and then the Modesto Art and Music Association, what are your next plans now that you have moved past this?
JG: The thing I want to do most is start a wine bar/espresso bar/jazz club. In Reality though, I am doing some artist management and booking, planning two events for next year: A Brazilian/Cuban/Latin/African music festival and a big/swing band dinner dance under the stars. I might do a couple of small Brazilian jazz concerts as well

MV: What do you think Modesto needs to do to move to the next level culturally?
JG: At this point, I am not sure. We need to see how the Gallo plays into it all and what Sue Richardson is able to do with the State. There is a difference between culture and a bunch of bands playing on a stage. So, culturally…we have Buck Townsend filling a need and doing it well, we have the Prospect Theatre doing fabulous stuff, we have some art galleries, so I am not sure. I know that when I did the two seasons of Chamber Orchestras and Quartets, people came out of the woodwork for those. Obviously they filled a cultural need that nobody is filling. I always had an idea of what was need and now it is being sorta filled, it remains to be seen and time will tell.

MV: Describe the perfect John Griswold day.
JG: I am not sure there ever has been a perfect day, close when I spent a 10 days on a sail boat in the Caribbean, I guess those were perfect days.

MV: What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
JG: Basically the things I mentioned above, plus sell my property and see the world.

MV: What occupies the rest of your thoughts and time besides music and theatre?
JG: Music stuff takes pretty much all my free time, but other interests include sailing, traveling, attending concerts and plays, occasionally cooking, and wine tasting.

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About the Author:

Chris Murphy is the President and CEO of Sierra Pacific Warehouse Group and Publisher and Founder of ModestoView Inc. Chris worked globally in the cycling industry returning to Modesto in 1996. He is also the founder of the Modesto Historic Graffiti Cruise Route, Legends of the Cruise Walk of Fame, Modesto Rockin’ Holiday, the Modesto Music History Organization and co-founder of the Modesto Area Music Association. Chris is married to his artist wife Rebecca since 1985 and has two daughters Madison and Abigail, both graduating from Modesto High and UC Berkeley. He is lead singer and guitarist for his band, Third Party that donates their performances to non-profits.