FILLMORE — Mirroring the rebirth of a small agricultural town ravaged by the Northridge earthquake, celluloid images will flicker across the screen of Fillmore's historic theater this weekend for the first public showing in almost three years.
Fittingly, the restored Fillmore Towne Theatre reopens tonight with a benefit showing of a restored print of the 1964 musical "My Fair Lady." A festival of six films that include scenes shot in Fillmore follows Saturday and Sunday.
The city spent $1.2 million to rebuild its lone theater, which was privately owned before the earthquake and is the county's only cinema with a balcony. Built in 1916, it has long been regarded as the hub of the community of 12,800.
"It was going to get torn down," said screenwriter Paul Glen Neuman, one of six people who formed a committee called Save the Towne Theatre after the earthquake. "If you look at downtown as the smile of Fillmore, if you took the building out it would be like a smile without the two front teeth."
There are plenty of full grins on the faces of Fillmore residents excited about the theater's reopening.
"I've talked to a lot of older members of the community who are looking forward to getting back up to the balcony, because they have a lot of fond memories," said Assistant Manager Josh Overton.
Indeed, the theater is touted as better than ever.
In its heyday, the combination theater and vaudeville house played host to the likes of silent movie star Mary Pickford. But some eight decades later, the dingy, poorly maintained theater was missing seat cushions and a steady stream of customers in the months before its unreinforced walls and parapets cracked, leaned and fell in the Jan. 17, 1994, earthquake.
Now, the building is wheelchair accessible, includes Dolby stereo sound and 381 refurbished seats--with cup holders--from a closed Thousand Oaks cinema, and has a refurbished 1928 marquee.
"I can't think of another small community that has a single theater like this that hasn't been multiplexed or shut down," Neuman said.
Much of the money to restore the building came from state and federal earthquake relief grants. But the community, too, raised more than $35,000 from activities including bake sales and a movie memorabilia auction.
The fund-raising continues with the ongoing sale of $13.50 T-shirts and $200 brass seat plaques. The proceeds will go toward additional theater improvements, such as restoration of the ornate plaster work on two interior walls and the purchase of a movable screen so that live stage productions can return.
A trial run Wednesday night, which was attended largely by municipal employees and their families, brought back memories for some of those in attendance.
For Fillmore native Bud Spitler, 73, movies he has seen at the theater have defined different phases of his life.
He recalls walking down the middle of the street to avoid monsters after a showing of Boris Karloff's 1931 "Frankenstein" when he was 8 years old. Years later, Gregory Peck's post-World War II bomber squadron epic "Twelve O'Clock High" provoked a different kind of tension.
"I remember sitting up in the balcony after I got out of the service watching 'Twelve O'Clock High,' smoking cigarettes like mad," Spitler said. "I was nervous as I could be, because it was so realistic."
Initially, the theater will show second-run movies--those that have already been out two to four weeks--and will only be open Thursdays through Sundays. Still, Neuman believes the theater will be a success.
"We're not looking to compete with the multiplexes," he said. "We're looking to make the theater-going experience in Fillmore different and unique. . . . I think the people in town will embrace it."
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Film Festival Schedule
Tonight's black-tie grand reopening of the theater will include food samples from Fillmore restaurants, entertainment and a silent auction. Tickets are $30. For reservations call 524-3701. The Fillmore Towne Theatre is at 338 Central Ave.
This weekend's film festival features movies shot in and around Fillmore. Admission is $1, with popcorn and sodas selling for 25 cents. The regular movie schedule begins Thursday with "The Ghost and the Darkness," starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. For information call 524-FILM.
1 p.m. "Almost an Angel," starring Paul Hogan.
4 p.m. "City Slickers II," starring Billy Crystal.
7 p.m. "Chaplin," starring Robert Downey Jr.
1 p.m. "Little Giants," starring Rick Moranis.
4 p.m. "La Bamba," starring Lou Diamond Phillips.
7 p.m. "How to Make an American Quilt," starring Winona Ryder.