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The Region

Curtain Rises on Bid to Save Theater

Fullerton: Renovating the dilapidated Fox building could cost millions, but supporters of downtown redevelopment call it 'the last piece of the puzzle.'

January 07, 2002|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ernie Chapman, though just a lad in 1925, vividly recalls the grand opening of the Fox Theatre in downtown Fullerton that year. Instead of a silent movie, his brother, Stanley, who built it, had managed to book members of Broadway's Ziegfeld Follies.

"How splendid it was," recalled Chapman, now 90.

In those days, the place was called Alicia Court, named after Stanley Chapman's wife, Alice Ellen. Soon after, it became Mission Court.

But a few years later, in 1930, the Fox theater chain took it over. The theater--on Harbor Boulevard just north of Chapman Avenue--reigned for decades as the city's downtown architectural showpiece.

Now, it is Fullerton's embarrassing eyesore. Closed since 1987, the place is a condemned, two-story hulk of plaster and brick.

The window where ticket takers used to sit in resplendent tuxedos is coated with grime. A cardboard-covered security gate blocks the front courtyard where moviegoers once sipped tea. The stone Greek-inspired theatrical mask high on the building's front, its eyes once bulging with colored lights, can only be seen now from across the street.

Despite considerable municipal and private efforts to revive the Fox, nothing promising is in the works. The message on the marquee describes the building's bleak and needy existence: Available.

Though much of downtown Fullerton has seen a resurgence, thanks to millions of dollars in redevelopment funds, the Fox continues to deteriorate. City officials know it's just getting worse and are renewing their efforts to save the building.

"In Fullerton, 2002 has got to be the Year of the Fox," said Councilwoman Jan Flory. "We just can't go on like this."

City's Ambitious Plans Go Nowhere

Efforts to save the theater have been made before.

In the late 1990s, a private city support group, Fullerton Heritage, gathered about 10,000 signatures urging that the Fox be saved. Two years ago, that almost happened.

The city had an option from the owner, Beverly Hills attorney-businessman Edward Lewis, to take it over. The city began working with a partnership headed by developer Doug Chaffee and local restaurateur Paul Berkman. They had ambitious plans, including serving food with wine or beer in the theater's balcony. The city agreed to spend $3 million on a new parking structure.

In the end, the numbers just wouldn't crunch. The city's option ran out, and the deal was scrapped.

"It's just not conceivable," Berkman said. "It would take $4 [million] to $5 million to buy something that doesn't have one thing inside worth keeping."

Gary Chalupsky, the city's redevelopment director, agreed. "Every system inside the place needs an overhaul," he said.

So Lewis was back where he started. He has since moved to Paris, and doesn't even return the city's telephone calls. (Nor did his Beverly Hills office return calls from The Times.)

The city's Redevelopment Agency has a slick brochure it is sending out to potential developers "inviting proposals."

"The Fox Theatre complex is strategically located at one of Fullerton's busiest intersections," the marketing pamphlet states.

But some of the same obstacles exist that led to the Fox's closure nearly 15 years ago. Who is going to open a single-screen theater with limited downtown parking when there already are so many new multiplex theaters in the area?

Even Cal State Fullerton is building new cinemas. The city also has helped upgrade Plummer Auditorium at Fullerton College, so that undermines the argument that the Fox is needed for stage productions.

Despite those problems, the Fullerton Downtown Business Assn. wants to see something done soon. And it would prefer that the Fox be reborn as a movie house.

"A theater makes a downtown," said association President Martin Ritto. "It draws people in. They bring their business with them."

Ten years ago, city officials say, the dilapidated theater wouldn't have stood out so much. Most of the rest of downtown had a musky, condemned look too. But about 90 downtown businesses took advantage of redevelopment loans to upgrade their buildings, many of which were restored to their original look. In 1998, Fullerton won the California League of Cities' highest award for downtown revival.

Chad Lowe, executive director of the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce, calls the Fox dilemma "the last piece of the puzzle."

Berkman, the restaurateur, said he's no longer interested. But city officials hope that developer Chaffee may still be able to put something together. Chaffee could not be reached for comment.

Flory insists that if the city makes the Fox a priority, something positive can happen in 2002. "My husband and I loved the Fox," she said.

Experts are certain the building can be restored, even the murals, which were painted over long ago after deteriorating from age and water leakage from the roof. The question is, does Fullerton really need another theater, and at what cost?

Fullerton Heritage is certain of the answer. In a recent letter to area residents, the support group wrote: "We don't need just another movie theater. We do need to be responsible caretakers for our city's past."

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