Backlash in Fresno as evangelical church tries to buy Tower Theatre, a bohemian landmark

A person in a mask waves a rainbow flag in front of an Art Deco theater
Ronnie Cassis raises a gay pride flag in front of the Tower Theatre in Fresno. Cassis gathered with gay and straight community members to object to the recent purchase of the theater by an evangelical church.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
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At first, few in the neighborhood paid attention to the churchgoers filing into the Tower Theatre on Sunday mornings.

It was pre-pandemic and just another audience at the historic Art Deco theater with its neon orb atop an 80-foot tower. But as Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater across the street went dark, the gay bar silent and the Tower District’s lively sidewalks emptied, the devout continued to meet for months, drawing local ire.

In January it became public that Adventure Church was buying the theater, the neighborhood’s namesake and economic anchor.

“That’s when things went wackydoodle,” said Heather Parrish, co-director of the Rogue, an annual fringe arts festival and one of the organizers of an effort to stop the sale. “This is the historic center of progressive bohemia in Fresno. An evangelical church operating in the heart of it strikes at the culture we’ve built for decades.”

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People with rainbow gear and signs that say Honk if you love Tower
A mix of Fresno residents gathered to protest the recent purchase of the Tower Theatre by an evangelical church.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
A man in a mask and a shirt that says Y'all need Jesus
Brett, who would not provide his last name, wears a Christian-themed shirt to show his support for a church purchasing the Tower Theatre, against the objections of community activists.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

In recent weeks, the Tower Theatre’s uncertain fate has escalated tensions in Fresno, bringing to the fore divisions over religion, LGBTQ rights, arts and the pandemic in this hub of the San Joaquin Valley. Church leaders say they are being unfairly labeled as intolerant interlopers, and opponents say the church has shown little understanding of the neighborhood where it wants to anchor itself.

Donald Munro, a journalist with the Munro Review, a Fresno-area arts website, posted a Save Our Theater petition that had more than 2,000 signatures collected by organizers. He likened an evangelical church buying the landmark “to the Republican Party buying the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and transforming it into an indoor shooting range.”

At heart it is a zoning issue. Can a church buy a landmark theater on a commercial street of bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and pubs? Can a community block a private sale? But the level of passion is intensified by the economic hardships of a global pandemic and the vicious discourse that has become everyday in a divided country.

Sunday demonstrations are going on Week 8, $40,000 has been donated to a legal fund, and a lawsuit has been filed, trying to keep a church determined to change lives out of a part of Fresno that’s happy to be as it is: a gay, artsy, liberal pocket of a far more conservative city.

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“Keep Tower Weird” is the area’s motto — as well as its economic plan. The Tower District hosts the annual Rogue Festival, the Reel Pride gay film festival and a raucous Mardi Gras parade.

A woman drinks outside a bar
Adrianna Rafanan has a drink at Bobby Salazar’s in Fresno’s Tower District, a small arts district with restaurants, bars and the Tower Theatre.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Adventure Church leaders will not clearly state their position on LGBTQ rights. But it is a branch of Foursquare Churches, which welcomes the gay community to attend but does not accept same-sex marriage or ordain gay ministers. Perhaps as damning on these blocks is that they frown on alcohol.

“This is about jobs. They don’t support this community,” said Jim Tomlinson, a waiter at Sequoia Brewing Co., wearing a T-shirt reading “Adventure Elsewhere.”

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The church’s pastor, Anthony Flores, is from Stockton and was once on the “other side of church,” according to his sermons. On a recent day, he came out of his office high-fiving teens doing work around the church’s current campus, in front of a graffiti-tagged alley in a less-affluent part of the Tower District.

Flores is down-to-earth, calling himself “OG” and bursting into song during sermons, with a theatrical flair not unlike the people protesting his church. He’s proud of the quality of candy at the church’s Harvest Festival, a Christian alternative to Halloween.

He said he could not speak to a reporter during pending litigation. A church news release states it intends to use the Tower Theatre for weekly services and also keep it as an event venue for nonprofit organizations. It claims it does not need zoning approval from the city, which local council members dispute.

The theater is part of a neighborhood with lovingly restored bungalows, many posted with “All Are Welcome” yard signs and Black Lives Matter placards.

Yet questions of exclusion hang over this feud. In a Facebook video, the church’s assistant pastor DeShawn Carraway, who is Black, accused the Tower community of acting like racists.

“Imagine this was said about people of color: You cannot be here because you are going to change our culture, you are going to change our identity, that we can’t co-exist — there would be an outcry,” he said.

A woman holds a cardboard sign outside an Art Deco theater
Suzi Wallace gathered with community members to object to the recent purchase of the Tower Theatre by an evangelical church.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Tyler Mackey, executive director of the Tower District Marketing Committee, whose group has raised concerns about the theater’s sale, said he has been screening his calls because of people harassing him with homophobic slurs. He said there is intense anxiety among the business and property owners who depend on the theater bringing in a rotating, revolving crowd and the area’s reputation as friendly to gay businesses.

“We want to know what the church’s full intentions are,” he said. “But we reach out and all we get are crickets.”

A man in a leather jacket and a bat mask holds a hand-written sign
Christopher Robert Cole, who goes by Batlord Carcas, demonstrates with protesters opposed to the purchase of the Tower Theatre by an evangelical church.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
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Details of the deal are shrouded. In December, the property — which covers a city block, including the theater and space for four restaurants — was listed by a FresYes real estate agent who sits on the church’s board. But it was listed in a way that required a knowledgeable search to find.

Flores earlier stated that the 1,500-member church, which serves a largely Latino community, has an unnamed angel investor aiding with the purported $6.5-million purchase.

The owners of Sequoia Brewing Co. filed a lawsuit, saying their lease agreement with the theater’s owners gives them the right to buy their part of the property and that the theater owner and the church conspired to hide the sale. A judge last week granted an injunction, temporarily halting the sale from closing. The next court date is March 17.

Earlier, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer attempted to defuse the situation by offering Adventure Church a deal on a city-owned theater downtown. His effort backfired, offending both a children’s theater group that was already renting the downtown space and the church’s leadership.

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The entryway of the Tower Theatre looks out at an intersection at night
Pastor Anthony Flores of Adventure Church is seeking to finalize purchase of the Tower Theatre. The theater is not zoned for church use.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

The Tower Theatre’s owner, Laurence Abbate, is the son of Dottie Abbate, who restored the 80-year-old building in 1990.

At that time, the Tower District was a run-down area recently revitalized by a small band of entrepreneurs. (The area is still considered sketchy by a kind of Fresnan who takes pride in never going south of Shaw Avenue, a common dividing line in the city.)

Dottie Abbate was a Republican with ties to the gay community and the arts.

“My mom was friends with everyone,” Laurence Abbate said. “People got along then.”

At the height of tensions over the theater, Abbate posted a message on the marquee mourning the death of Rush Limbaugh, an early shock jock known for demonizing Democrats, feminists and the gay community.

Abbate said he posted the “RIP” out of a personal sense of loss and did not mean to antagonize anyone.

Over the next three days, donations to Save Our Theater grew by $3,000 and turnout at the next Sunday’s demonstration doubled.

Many of the same people have come to the demonstration each week.

On a recent Sunday, it included an opera director, a woman crocheting a scarf who said she was representing the fiber arts community (sewers, crocheters, quilters and jewelry makers), an educator who founded both a social justice and ukulele club and a man in a red MAGA hat, Josh Fulfer, livestreaming to thousands of followers as he voiced a running commentary about those he deemed disgusting.

A woman dancing to a George Michael song asked a friend if it was true actor Neil Patrick Harris was considering buying the theater.

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It was wishful thinking, prompted by comedian Sarah Silverman, who had tweeted at several of her celebrity pals to step in.

A woman with a Wiccan flag and a sunflower umbrella absentmindedly backed into Fulfer, hitting his MAGA hat with her floral parasol. He was unmasked and screamed at her — prompting a masked, wispy young person in a pink hoodie to get in his face before being pulled back.

Fulfer, wiry and confident, smiled at the outrage. He later posted the conflict under a headline, “Fresno Leftists protesting god choose to assault those documenting event.”

Haley White, founder of the Fools Collaborative, a group of activist artists behind the demonstration, said her opposition was based on the area’s economy. If the church was the most queer-friendly in the world, she would feel the same.

But she said that like many of the demonstrators, she had found haven in the Tower District after leaving a small, religious farm town where she was not accepted.

People wave rainbow flags on the sidewalk next to a decorated crosswalk
The Tower District community is up in arms and lawsuits over the purchase of a Fresno landmark, the Tower Theatre.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

She said she has been invited to church 20 times in the past month by Adventure Church members.

“I’m sure they mean well,” she said. “But after a while it’s, like, read the room. We came here to escape that.”

A police officer watching over the demonstration told a photojournalist he hoped the church did get the theater because it had done good work with gang members at its current location.

Down the street, Brandon Greene and Mariana Lozano, from a different neighborhood, made their weekly Sunday outing to the Tower District for coffee. They said they sympathized with the demonstrators.

“This is its own little slice of the world and it gives the rest of the city somewhere to go,” Lozano said.

“I have nothing against churches,” Greene said. “But I also like to barhop and see concerts. Why not keep a theater a theater and a church a church?“

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Online, Adventure Church was holding services giving thanks for its new home.