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Seal Beach’s dormant Bay Theatre prepares for a sequel

In the dimly-lit main room of the Bay Theatre, the bones are exposed, the carpets uprooted, the walls bare. The air is a fusion of dust and aged wood.

This is what Paul Dunlap has always wanted — to resurrect a storied cinema of this caliber.

Dunlap is reviving one of Orange County’s renowned theaters, which entertained from 1947 to 2012. The single-screen theater served as a mainstay of Old Town Seal Beach, showing independent, foreign and classic films.

Dunlap, of the Fullerton-based Dunlap Property Group, hopes to restore the venue for movies, but also plans to feature performing arts.

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“Ever since I was a young man, I’ve loved plays, music, everything,” said Dunlap, 64, of Fullerton. “I thought it would be really neat to show what I like in my own theater.”

Decades prior to his $2.2-million purchase of the landmark in late 2016, Dunlap dreamed of owning an old theater.

Beginning in 1976, the year he started in real estate, Dunlap worked across from the Fox Fullerton Theatre, which opened in 1925. He became enamored and tried unsuccessfully to purchase it several times. He later tried and failed to buy the Celebrity Theater in Anaheim.

Along the way, Dunlap restored other signature structures, including Villa Del Sol (the California Hotel when it opened in 1922) in downtown Fullerton.

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“I can’t explain why I love restoring things,” Dunlap said. “I just do.”

Fox Film Corp. owned the Bay until 1975 when Richard Loderhose purchased it to feature his Wurlitzer Opus pipe organ.

The organ went in 2007; Loderhose died a year later. The Bay failed to attract a buyer for years.

In 2015, community activists formed the Bay Theatre Foundation, which raised money through donations and T-shirt sales in hopes of purchasing the building.

The movement floundered. Dunlap stepped in.

Esther Kenyon, founder of the Seal Beach Community Performing Arts Assn., said community support is widespread, adding that the theater will elevate the arts in Seal Beach, where venues are lacking.

“It’s very exciting for the community,” Kenyon said. “The arts are an essential part of the community’s identity.”

Dunlap walked through the Bay Theatre on a recent day, his love of history and old things evident. He pointed at classic light fixtures, a drinking fountain and metal theater seats, reciting the origins of each.

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The tenor of his voice raised as he unfurled the blueprints to his new theater on a dusty table.

In the projector room, he showed off old equipment — one 16 mm and two 35 mm projectors. Age and dust coated everything, even a 35 mm reel of “Nosferatu,” the 1922 silent film classic. Dunlap plans to keep it all, but add a digital projector.

Dunlap will restore as much as possible to its original state — with some minor changes, like expanding for bigger crowds. He’s renovating the third floor as an apartment and plans to move in with his fiance in April.

Dunlap said a third of the renovations are done. Completed restorations include roof replacement, air conditioning installation on the mezzanine and in the apartment, plaster replacement on the facade and an updated marquee.

Dunlap still needs to replace the concrete in the theater, reinstall the seats, build the stage, install the new lights and sound system, and update the concession equipment.

He estimated that the project will run him about $2 million. He’s hoping to open the 400- to 425-seat theater in the fall.

Former Councilman Charles Antos, director of the Seal Beach Historical Society, said the Bay Theatre was once an integral part of Old Town. Indeed, the City Council designated the theater — with its brick-and-stucco facade — a historic landmark in 2016.

“It’s so important to preserve old businesses like the theater,” Antos said. “When they are torn down, they are replaced with modern structures, and the unique character of a city is lost.”

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