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FULLERTON : A New Role Is Cast for Old Theater

February 19, 1990|TOM McQUEENEY

Rows of dusty theater seats face a blank screen. Chips of white plaster, fallen from the rotting ceiling, speckle the worn magenta carpet in the aisles. Spider webs sway from the ceiling.

"You're really seeing this place at a low ebb," Paul Richardson said during a recent tour of the Fox Fullerton Theatre on Harbor Boulevard.

Although closed for three years and turning 65 in May, the Fox isn't ready for retirement.

Richardson, vice president of Landmark Theatre Corp. of Los Angeles, has been visiting Fullerton's historic theater while preparing plans for a $1-million renovation.

A detailed agreement being finalized between the city of Fullerton, Landmark and the building's owner will clear the way for the Fox to resemble the movie palace it was when it opened on Spadra Road, now Harbor Boulevard, in 1925.

Landmark hopes to unveil the restored theater as early as Christmas, Richardson said. The new three-screen Fox will show foreign and art films, classics and movies geared to an older audience, he said.

The restoration agreement could be ready for City Council approval in April, redevelopment manager Terry Galvin said. After it is signed, Fullerton will buy land behind the theater and build a 200-car parking garage for patrons. In return, the Fox's owner and Landmark must restore the theater to its original splendor, Galvin said.

"We're looking for a pretty faithful restoration," Galvin said.

So is theater owner Edward Lewis.

The Fox has been closed for so long, Lewis said, because he and his former partner could not agree on what to do with the decrepit building. His partner wanted to convert the Fox to a multiplex theater, but Lewis said he wanted the Fox restored.

Their difference was resolved last summer when Lewis, an attorney in Beverly Hills, bought his partner's share of the Fox and took sole ownership.

Although Lewis, Landmark and the city all want to see the Fox look the way it did when the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. drove to Fullerton to attend movie premieres, there will be compromises.

Even at $1 million, the budget is tight, Richardson said, and not everything will be restored. Yet the major features, such as the six Italian-style murals that depict California history and the decorative proscenium and organ lofts around the stage, will be returned to their original look.

The proscenium, the decorative frame around the stage, remains in good condition. But decorative plaster carvings around the organ lofts--which were used to direct the sound from huge organ pipes into the theater--were chipped away during an earlier renovation.

Preliminary restoration work has already begun behind the wooden wall that hides the theater's courtyard and glass doors from the motorists passing on Harbor. Workers have removed brick to determine what work is needed to bring the Fox up to current earthquake standards, and artists have test painted one of the murals to gauge the complexity of the job.

Although restoration should bring back much of the theater's old feel, one aspect of the theater will change. Economic necessity will require Landmark to convert the balcony into two smaller theaters, Richardson said. The 11-row balcony will be walled off from the main 650-seat section below, split down the middle, and converted into two mini theaters with about 130 seats each, he said.

Design details of the main theater will be duplicated in the smaller theaters to give them the same decor as the rest of the theater he said.

Among those planning to attend the reopening are 81-year-old twin sisters Elizabeth Betty Britten and Elena Hale. The sisters were ushers on opening night and worked there for several years until they both married men they had met while working at the theater.

"I hope they do (restore) it," said Britten, who along with her sister, now lives in Long Beach. "It was such a beautiful building."

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