There has never been any shortage of drama at the Fairfax Theatre -- not even counting the cinematic conflict that for 80 years has flashed across its screens.
Just months after the 1,800-seat Hollywood movie house opened in 1930, a pair of armed robbers burst into its ornate Art Deco lobby, used adhesive tape to bind and gag employees and made a wild escape with $437 -- a fortune in Depression-era receipts.
A half-dozen years later, burglars were so common that the theater’s owners took to leaving a fake safe in their office to fool intruders. One angry thief who spent hours prying open the safe one night in 1937, only to find it empty, took revenge by looting a theater storeroom of 60 lightbulbs, cartons of cigarettes from the lobby snack bar and postage stamps from the office.
Then there was that police raid in 1969 that resulted in the arrest of actors performing a nude scene on the Fairfax stage and led to the shutdown of the Los Angeles debut of “Oh, Calcutta!”
But now the action at the venerable theater at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue shapes up to be a fight over whether the Fairfax itself lives or dies.
The longtime owner of the building that houses the theater and nine neighboring shops wants to gut the structure and rebuild it as a combination retail and residential complex.
The exterior concrete Art Deco facade of the building would remain. But the theater would be removed, underground parking for 220 cars would be added and 71 high-end condominium units and a swimming pool would be built atop ground-floor retail space.
Even critics of the $30-million redevelopment proposal acknowledge that the planned residential addition, designed by Santa Monica architect Howard Laks, skillfully blends the old and the new.
They argue, however, that steps also need to be taken to preserve the interior theater space.
“It’s one of the last neighborhood theaters in L.A. It has a curtain tower, a full stage, dressing rooms. It’s got everything to become a legitimate live theater as well as a movie house,” said Gaetano Jones, a leader of a campaign to preserve the Fairfax.
Jones, an actor and singer-songwriter who lives nearby, said the Fairfax Theatre began as a single-auditorium venue for film screenings and live shows. Its current three-theater configuration would allow for operation of a movie house, a theatrical rehearsal stage and a full-production live theater stage, he said.
Jones has launched a friends-of-the-Fairfax group. Others groups supporting preservation include the Los Angeles Conservancy, Hollywood Heritage and several neighborhood organizations.
Hollywood Heritage, in fact, has prepared paperwork that would nominate the theater for designation for city cultural-historic landmark status. Brian Curran, director of preservation issues for the group, said it has agreed to delay filing the nomination papers until after a scheduled meeting with representatives of property owner Alex Gorby.
“The Fairfax Theatre is among the earliest Art Deco neighborhood theaters,” Curran said. “The theater’s cultural significance is wider in that it became a fixture that is very much attached to the postwar Jewish community, with use by synagogues and Holocaust films premiering there.”
Representatives of Gorby, a Santa Monica businessman who they say has owned the theater building and the attached shop spaces for four decades, counter that the era of the small neighborhood movie house is over.
In any event, they contend that the Fairfax has been so heavily remodeled and renovated that it no longer represents the original theater designed in 1929 by Vermont Avenue architect W.C. Pennell.
But a full environmental impact report is being prepared and it will detail any cultural and historic significance that is attached to the property, pledged Ira Handelman, a governmental relations consultant who is a spokesman for Gorby.
Because of a lack of parking space and competition from new movie houses, the Fairfax Theatre is no longer viable as a business, Handelman said.
The theater’s current operators and merchants who operate nine storefronts in the building anticipate they have several more years before any redevelopment begins, said Lana Sterina, who for 11 years has owned a pharmacy next to the theater.
Maurice Marzouk, who has operated a 10-foot-square key shop in the building for 15 years, predicted the theater will avoid demolition. “C’mon, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
But a stalemate will just prolong merchants’ anxiety, said Mike Monsef, co-owner of a shoe shop that has been in the building for 62 years.
“We don’t want to leave,” Monsef said from his store, where shoes are stacked in boxes on ancient shelving.
“But nobody is going to spend any money to improve or change things as long as we’re here on a month-to-month basis.”