By Michael Luo, L. A. Times Staff Writer, November 15, 1999.
A trip inside the cavernous Fox Theater in Fullerton is like entering the burial chamber of a bygone era. Velvet seats sit molding, like giant loaves of bread. White paint peels off the thick, ornate columns, and graffiti scrawls mar the walls. A skeleton frame is all that's left of the theater's 27-foot-wide screen.
The 1920s Moorish landmark lowered the curtain on its last film 12 years ago, and like so many movie palaces in an age of multiplexes, has been dancing with the bulldozer ever since.
But a surprise ending is now being written by city officials, preservationists and developers, who are proceeding with a $4-million plan to restore the Fox and make it the centerpiece of Fullerton's historic downtown.
The effort is part of a national resurgence of vintage movie palaces like the Fox, as well as smaller neighborhood theaters that were left empty a generation ago, that are winning a second life during the 1990s revival of traditional downtowns.
Few places are seeing as dramatic a return as Southern California, where refurbished theaters from San Pedro to Glendale now anchor revitalized commercial corridors.
Hollywood Boulevard is banking on restored theaters, like the El Capitan and the Egyptian, to spur its own comeback. Preservationists have also proposed an ambitious revitalization of downtown Los Angeles' sagging historic theater district, home to some of the most opulent venues in the world.
Movie palaces were once the crown jewels of city centers, with lavish architecture and glittering lights that often made them more elaborate than the movies they featured. But as suburban shopping centers bypassed downtown commercial districts after World War II and the movie industry abandoned single-screen cinemas, the theaters closed down--with many becoming dilapidated symbols of urban blight.
Their comeback is rooted in equal parts of nostalgia and economics.
Cities, seeking to draw suburbanites back downtown, are betting that the theaters can draw by providing entertainment in a hip retro atmosphere. City planners and developers hope movie palaces can once again provide the sense of place and belonging that they did decades ago.
"Where do you meet your neighbors other than at your high school or church?" said Peyton Hall, a Los Angeles-based preservationist architect. "It used to be the movie theater."
Refurbished theaters in cities like New York, Cleveland and Detroit have sparked full-scale revitalizations of decaying business districts, as moviegoers who come for the big screen stay for dining and shopping.
But this formula hasn't worked everywhere, and the jury is still out at other locations, like the recently revitalized Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro.
"The neighborhood is slowly, incrementally getting busier and busier," said Adrian de la Pena, an employee at a neighboring coffeehouse that draws overflow crowds whenever the Warner Grand puts on a large event. "The theater cropping up again is a big part of the evolution."
Theater management, however, has struggled to fill the stage with viable programs. The Warner Grand has sold out Los Angeles Philharmonic performances, but draws only about 200 people, barely more than a tenth of the theater's capacity, for its weekly classic film showing.
Fullerton officials and preservationists know the risk that comes with remaking the Harbor Boulevard landmark. But they believe the Fox's rich heritage, and the community's growing interest in its historic downtown, will make the project a success.
When the Fox first opened in 1925, it was the largest motion picture house in the county. The gala opening featured comedy, vaudeville acts, musical numbers performed from the orchestra pit and by the pipe organist, and a feature film with cowboy star Tom Mix.
Designed by the same architects who created Mann's Chinese Theater and the Egyptian in Hollywood, the Italian Renaissance-style theater featured a decorative garden courtyard, Oriental rugs, intricate plasterwork and giant chandeliers.
Some 4,000 theaters, many even more glamorous than the Fox, were constructed around the country between 1915 and 1945. Prior to the advent of television, picture shows were the leisure option of choice for the masses. The architecture that housed the burgeoning film industry was simply an extension of the movie fantasy. And movie palace architects spared no expense in their elaborate downtown monuments.
But more than offering an entertainment escape, the Fox also functioned as a quasi-community center.
The Fox was home to Orange County's first Mickey Mouse Club, established in 1931. About 1,000 children called "Mousers" gathered at the theater each Saturday for nickel cartoon matinees and organ music. During World War II, newsreels were shown inside the theaters to keep residents abreast of the latest events.
The movement to revive the Fox and other movie palaces of yester-year comes from the same longing among suburbanites to recover a sense of place and community life that has driven the larger downtown revitalization movement, preservationists say.
"You walk in and it reminds you of when you were a kid," said Katie Daulton, chairwoman of Fullerton Heritage, a local preservation group.
Ernie Chapman, 88, whose brother was the Fox's first owner, is one of many who still fondly remember the movie palace experience.
"I went at least once a week and sometimes twice," Chapman said. "They had a Friday night serial, which would always end with the heroine about to be killed. But you knew she wouldn't because there was another one the next Friday."
Unable to compete with the proliferation of sprawling multiplexes in Orange County, the Fox closed in 1987 after a failed attempt to become a more specialized art cinema.
In the decade since, Fullerton city planners have spent millions of dollars in an elaborate overhaul of the city's historic downtown, garnering numerous awards along the way.
Earlier this month, the City Council selected two local businessmen to complete the revitalization. Officials hope movies will be playing at the theater by 2003. The project also calls for a restaurant, coffeehouse, ice cream parlor and parking garage.
Restored theaters in larger cities, like Detroit and Boston, benefit from the phenomenal popularity of touring Broadway productions, such as "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera." Smaller town theaters must scrape by with mainly community acts.
"You're going to always have to go to private donations," said Michele Roberge, recently appointed to oversee the Balboa Theater's restoration in Newport Beach.
Some kind of financial return is crucial because theater renovations do not come cheap. Balboa's price tag is projected at $1.5 million. The Warner Grand's ran to $4.5 million. Fullerton estimates it will cost at least $2 million to renovate the Fox. The American Cinematheque's elaborate overhaul of the Egyptian in Hollywood, which was finally completed in December 1998 and included a glamorous high-tech auditorium constructed within the shell of the old theater, cost $15 million.
But those costs are likely to be dwarfed by the Los Angeles Conservancy's proposal to revive a row of movie palaces along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.
The Conservancy's plan calls for converting movie houses for theatrical productions, nightclubs, concerts and special film showings. Select buildings probably would be demolished to make way for a number of projects, possibly even a multiplex. Also, vacant office space would be converted into artists' lofts.
Today, Broadway is a crowded discount shopping area that primarily serves the downtown Latino community. After dark, however, with most upstairs building space vacant, and only three theaters open on a regular basis, the street is deserted. The hope is that a revitalized Broadway will become a 24-hour entertainment venue that will recapture a bit of its old magic.
The ultimate payoff is much more than mere financial return, theater advocates say.
"These are really among the great treasures of our city," said Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, at the palatial Orpheum Theater kickoff of the Conservancy's Broadway Initiative in July. "The great cities of the world preserve their past."
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