Theater Set for Its Next Scene

Times Staff Writer

Months after a campaign that raised $3.5 million and saved the historic Fox Theatre in Fullerton from the wrecking ball, preservationists have hired an executive director who worked on a $25-million theater renovation for the American Film Institute.

David Cole, whose resume includes screenplays and real estate management, was hired in February to help raise more than $10 million and guide the Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation through renovation.

Cole said he’s a believer in historic restorations because they’re a source of community pride.


His family has ties to Fullerton: Jacob Stern, his great-grandfather, owned a dry-goods store blocks from the Fox, a 1920s-era vaudeville theater and movie house crumbling after years of neglect.

Cole, 46, who produced a small feature film “Just Add Love” in 1997, also has judged movies for the American Film Institute, which hired him as a consultant on the recent renovation of the institute’s Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md., a 1938 art deco classic.

“He loves film, has a sharp business mind and believes in historical restorations,” AFI director and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg said.

Cole said the Fox foundation’s original plan was to finish renovation in five years, but he believes it can be done in three. Preliminary talks with structural engineers indicate that although the Fox needs seismic retrofitting, roof repair and other work, the brick building “is mostly intact,” he said.

Cole replaces Jane Reifer, a small-business owner, who was the foundation’s volunteer director and led the successful drive last year to buy the downtown Fullerton property.

To succeed, organizers need to raise money to help maintain the public’s interest and let that momentum carry them through the finish, said Killis Almond, former president of the League of Historic American Theatres.

Almond, a San Antonio architect, said one of the biggest obstacles is that individual and corporate donors “don’t want to give money to something that will fail.”

One success story, he said, is the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, Ohio. The 1930s theater was operating but in need of repair. To encourage support, organizers developed children’s programs, musicals and a top-notch film program before fundraising began.

“They kept the community informed, did it in phases and raised $5 million -- and Tiffin is a small community,” Almond said. “The moral here is that people gave and gave again because they knew what they were buying into.”

Restoring the Fox, which was designed and built by the firm responsible for the Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese theaters in Hollywood, would complete Fullerton’s downtown revitalization, which began in the mid-1970s.

Foundation officials hope to tap funding from Proposition 40, a bond measure approved by state voters in 2002 that has set aside $276 million for preservation of historic buildings.

“We couldn’t apply for those funds last year because we didn’t own the building,” foundation chairman Todd Huffman said. “Now we do.”

Cole said that while he’s soliciting funds, he plans to hit up family members in hopes of collecting enough to earn the right to name the Fox’s outdoor courtyard after Stern, his great-grandfather.

“It’s been one of my dreams,” Cole said.