Fox Theatre Project Far From Being a Wrap

Times Staff Writer

Now that they’ve saved Fullerton’s old Fox Theatre by raising $3.5 million in a down-to-the-wire fundraising campaign, preservationists face a far tougher challenge, say experts in protecting historic buildings.

Organizers of the effort must find an estimated $9.3 million more to renovate the 79-year-old movie palace -- without the dramatic threat of bulldozers leveling the building to help motivate donors.

They’re going to have to shift gears and harness the same momentum that carried them through the 10-month campaign into a long-range operation to renovate the theater, said Killis Almond, former president of the League of Historic American Theatres.

“They seem to have succeeded in going through the first ‘Oh-my-God-we-have-to-save-this-building-from-the-bulldozer’ phase and [now they need to] create a vision for the theater that’s marketable,” he said.


Almond, a San Antonio architect who specializes in renovating historic theaters, said the first step is to understand theater economics. Preservationists must have a plan for using the theater that will draw audiences, he said.

“The proper analogy is of a fruit bowl. People may admire the beautiful fruit bowl, but they keep coming back to enjoy the fruit -- the art,” he said. “It’s all about the art.”

On Wednesday, Fox supporters announced that with a $1-million donation by an unidentified benefactor, they reached their goal in time for today’s deadline -- a deadline that was extended twice as preservationists scrambled to raise money.

The theater and an adjacent restaurant were headed for demolition because a developer had an option to buy the site and build apartments.

“We’re breathing a little easier -- but we haven’t stopped working,” said Jane Reifer, president of the Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation. “People are still contributing because I think people are starting to understand that this is a real thing now.”

By the end of the month, the foundation hopes to be into the next phase, which includes expanding its board, hiring an executive director and finding coordinators for volunteers and special events.

“The whole time we’ve been winging it by ourselves with only a board of seven people,” Reifer said.

Some of the renovation includes fixing the leaking roof, stabilizing the building, seismic retrofitting, and dealing with severe rot and mildew from flood damage.

Boosters have used $700,000 of the last-minute $1-million donation to buy the theater and plan to use the remaining $300,000 to kick off fundraising next year, Reifer said.

Leaders of similar theatrical projects in Southern California say saving old theaters doesn’t come cheap.

In Newport Beach, renovating the historic Balboa Theater began more than a dozen years ago under various proprietors. But it was closed in 1992.

In 1996, the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation was formed to raise the funds needed to rebuild and manage the theater and took over the lease from the city in 1998.

The theater enjoys passionate support, but organizers say it will be at least four more years before they can raise the $6.5 million needed to renovate the 325-seat former vaudeville venue.

“It’s been a slow process,” said William Wren, treasurer for the foundation.

The foundation is still several million dollars shy of its goal.

The Riverside City Council voted this week to seize that city’s historic Fox Theater from owner H.J. “Joe” Zivnak, who city officials say has failed to restore it.

Ironically, Zivnak said he considered buying the Fox in Fullerton before settling on the Riverside theater.

“What’s ahead for the folks in Fullerton? A lot of work,” said Zivnak, who praised the large show of support for the Fox in Fullerton.

But he cautioned Fullerton volunteers about the pitfalls of historic restoration. Inspect the property thoroughly, he said, citing one error he made in removing asbestos floor tiles -- a mistake that resulted in a $39,000 cleanup bill.

Even when renovated, few historic theaters make money, said Tara Jones, a San Diego consultant who has worked on the revitalization of Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. She has been hired by the Fullerton foundation to help with fundraising.

The hope is to restore the building as a multipurpose facility to operate as a self-sustaining cultural center, featuring independent and classic film, concerts, plays and special events.

Preservationists plan to remodel the adjoining restaurant and have it available for weddings, birthdays and business meetings, Jones said.

With help from Jones, the group also has hired AMS Planning & Research, which also is working on the $200-million Orange County Performing Arts Center expansion.

The firm is working on a marketing assessment and already has interviewed members of the City Council and people from the local arts community, said Bill Blake, an AMS consultant.

“It’s kind of a feasibility study,” he said, “to see if the community supports the idea and if you can identify alternatives, potential partners, and assess funding strategies, essentially identifying the supply and demand in Fullerton.”

A preliminary assessment is expected in December with a full report at the end of February, Blake said.