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Orange County

Group Wants Fox to Be Downtown Centerpiece

Fullerton foundation works to revive the crumbling theater for films, drama.

January 21, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The Fox Theatre in Fullerton, a 1920s-era Vaudeville theater and film house crumbling from years of neglect and failed attempts at restoration, may be revived thanks to an eager preservation group.

Restoring the Fox would complete the downtown revitalization that began in the mid-1970s. The Fox, designed and built by the same firm responsible for the Egyptian and Grauman's Chinese theaters in Hollywood, is now an eyesore -- a formerly regal structure that has fallen on hard times.

With its rusty and mottled marquee, trash-filled entryway behind collapsing iron gates and old rock concert fliers peeling from boarded doorways and windows, it contrasts with the clean facades of new and restored structures on the milelong stretch of downtown.

More than 50 restaurants line Harbor Boulevard, but there is no movie theater, said Jane Reifer, president of the Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation, which is spearheading the restoration project.

For nearly five decades, the Fox was a downtown fixture, along with Pillowry's Junior Department Store, Gifford's Stationery, Roy's Photo and Boege's Sporting Goods. The independent businesses created a shopping and entertainment district as popular as any mall today.

But in the '50s and '60s, with malls diverting suburban customers from downtown stores, businesses along Harbor Boulevard relocated or closed, leaving a bleak street behind. The Fox remained open until 1987.

But in its last years, the deteriorating theater struggled to fill its 908 seats, as patrons shifted loyalties to new theaters with modern amenities.

As downtown revitalization progressed along Harbor Boulevard, the Fox was overlooked, primarily because of the cost of restoration.

Several previous efforts to restore the landmark, including turning the facility into small shops and a restaurant, failed.

Theater restoration projects are expensive, and relying on donations slows the process, as shown by the ongoing renovation of the Balboa Theater in Newport Beach.

The Balboa Arts Theatre Foundation originally calculated it would cost about $850,000 to restore the theater into a performing arts center. That figure quickly grew to $6.5 million after numerous problems were discovered in the 1913 structure.

Its reopening has been pushed back several times so more money could be raised, and is now scheduled for 2008.

For the 2-year-old Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation, the first step is to acquire the building from attorney Edward Lewis, said Reifer, who owns Clutter Control, an organizing services business in Fullerton.

The structure will cost about $3.2 million, she said, and the restoration an additional $8 million.

Construction services and materials worth $4 million already have been promised, Reifer said.

"There are very few who don't agree we could use a film theater downtown," she said.

The restoration project has a supporter in City Councilman Leland Wilson, who believes that the restaurants and bars downtown are not enough to sustain the area's appeal.

"The old vision sought businesses for downtown that would close at 5 p.m.," Wilson said. "The new vision is to bring businesses that stay open later. Once [the Fox] is restored and up and running, it will bring people downtown for uses other than a restaurant or bar."

The foundation envisions using the Fox's stage for performing arts, as well as first-run movies.

The restoration will preserve the theater's architecture, Reifer said, including the courtyard lobby that used to fill with moviegoers.

The interior of the Fox is lavishly decorated, and includes six 20-foot-high murals depicting California history that were painted when the theater was built in 1925.

Murals by John Gabriel Beckman on the ceilings and lobby walls are also being restored.

If all goes well, Reifer said, the restored Fox could open in time for First Night Fullerton, the city's New Year's Eve celebration, in 2007.

The city has promised to build a 200-car parking garage once the theater is restored, said Terry Galvin, Fullerton's redevelopment operations manager.

The foundation has planned a community forum Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Wilshire Auditorium on Lemon Street to describe its plans and raise money.

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