Preservationists Continue Efforts to Save Pasadena's Raymond Theatre

Fleetwood Mac performed there, so did Phil Collins and INXS.

Now the future of the performing arts house hangs in the balance.

In the early morning hours of Tuesday - say, half past midnight - Gina Zamparelli and other members of Friends of the Raymond Theatre lined up behind a podium in a room in a building adjacent to the Pasadena Civic Center to state their case against developer's plans to gut Pasadena's Raymond Theatre and turn it into apartment complexes.

Monday's meeting of the Pasdena Planning and Development Commisison was another chapter in the 17-year mission by theater preservationists who want the performing arts palace preserved for future generations.

The 50 percent design review of the Raymond Theatre project by the city of Pasadena Planning and Development Commission was deeply divided among those spearheading efforts to save one of Pasadena's oldest buildings and those who want to see it developed into something a little more contemporary.

No final decisions were made as to whether or not the property will be made into apartments or preserved as a theater.

The 50 percent design review is the second step out of a three-step process that allows the design commission to advise the developers on possible structural changes to the proposed design of the building. This task is necessary before the final phase of the project begins. The final phase is approval of the plan, after which building can begin - it is this final phase that Friends of the Raymond want to avoid. The process begins with a concept of what the building should look like.

Pasadena's Raymond Theater, which has been home to film, live band concerts and vaudeville stage performances, has stood for almost 70 years. And for the last two decades, preservationists have been trying to get the city of Pasadena and the theater's owners to recognize the Raymond's viable infrastructure and value as a historic performing arts house.

The property has changed hands several times during its long history. It has been known as the Crown Theatre, when the property was purchased by the Crown Holding Corporation in 1948, and 30 years later, Perkins Palace, when the theater was under the ownership of Mark Perkins. By the time of Perkins' ownership, live performances were becoming popular at the theater, although movies continued to be screened. Performances were held at the theater featuring the likes of The Cars, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and The Pretenders.

"It is a legendary rock venue," said Zamparelli, a former concert promoter and founder of Friends of the Raymond Theatre, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Raymond Theatre. "I think the crazy thing about the Raymond was that it always sold out, because it served the entire San Gabriel Valley. People did not want to go to Hollywood to see a show. If you live in El Monte, you don't want to have to go to the Roxie."

By 1988, the property changed hands again. Pasadena developers Gene and Marilyn Buchanan bought the property, with plans to convert it into an office building. It was this decision that launched La Cañada resident Zamparelli on an odyssey to save the theater. After complaints to the city of Pasadena, Zamparelli was hired by the city to determine whether the theater could indeed make a profit if it were allowed to remain a theater. In 1990, the city allowed the Raymond Theatre to continue operations, and a year later, the property was sold to Gary Folgner.

Folgner continued to operate the theater, booking live acts. However, issues arose with the type of fire protectant in the venue's 1,000 seats, and the theater closed again, forcing Folgner to forfeit the deposits of dozens of bands he had booked. It wasn't until Folgner sued the city over this issue that it was revealed that the type of fire protectant has been correct all along. However, by then it was too late for Folgner to recover the loss of revenue. When Folgner was no longer able to pay the bills for the theater, the Raymond's ownership reverted fully to the Buchanans early in 1991.

No live performances were ever held there again.

The Buchanans have since re-launched their efforts to convert the theater into apartment complexes. This has also re-launched Zamparelli's efforts to save it.

Zamparelli can remember being 5 years old and running around the lobby of the old theater. She remembers riding in her parent's car and begging her to dad to drive by the theater just to get a chance to wave at it as her family went by.

"I don't think people really care, to tell you the truth," said Crescenta Valley Heritage member Mike Morgan. "When you think about the amount of people and the shows that were put on at the Raymond, the amount of just sheer joy and magic are going to be lost. For what? For condominiums? There are places that should be developed. I don't think the Raymond is one of them."

"It could viable, from the example of the Alex in Glendale," said CV Heritage member Sharon Weisman of the local theater that also shares a similar history with the Raymond in terms of the types of shows it was witness to. "It's a draw, and it attracts people."

What started as a simple effort to save a building from demolition has since turned into investigations by Friends of the Raymond Theatre's attorneys of "unfair treatment" by the city of Pasadena. According to an e-mail sent by Zamparelli Monday afternoon, the Friends of the Raymond accuse the city of Pasadena of conducting closed-door hearings on design issues pertaining to the future development of the Raymond Theatre, including reviews of the building's façade and interior, when these meetings should be held to allow public comment.

"I have spent 12 hours in seven changes on this project sitting in meetings like this," said Gene Buchanan. "That was behind closed doors? You got to be kidding me."

"We continue to disagree with the way this process is being handled," Zamparelli said. "We believe the public should be allowed to participate in the design review for the Raymond Theatre."

Other accusations include illegal interior and exterior demolition of the theater without a final design review and proper permits.

"We and other preservation organizations asked the City Council for this provision so no premature demolition would occur," Zamparelli said. "Our understanding is the paint was removed from the façade without a permit, and over 40 holes were bored into the theater. The balcony and the stage have been destroyed without a building permit."

The design commission has no comment on the accusations.

Buchanan, however, believes that the accusations are being made up in order to stall his project.

"They're an absolute lie," said Buchanan. "They don't know what they're talking about. I have pulled two permits so far and I have been working with the city. In a high-profile project like the Raymond Theatre, do you think that I'm going to go in there and do something without a permit? I hope I'm not that stupid."

Buchanan says that his work on the Raymond Theatre is no different than other jobs he has done in the city. He does not want to call what he is doing "demolition," but a project in which the historic fabric of the building will be preserved. And Buchanan feels that the opposition he is facing stems from the fact that the interior of the theater will change significantly.

"That's not their [Friends of the Raymond Theatre] jurisdiction," said Buchanan. " They don't own the building. I own the building. They can come protest all they want to. Until they buy the damn building, they have no rights to criticize me.

"It's not that we haven't asked him [Gene Buchanan] to just sell it and let the community have it," said Zamparelli. "When he states a price and try to give it to him, he ups it another million. We can't win."

According to Friends of the Raymond, offers have been made to the Buchanans to buy the theater. However, the group accuses the Buchanans of purposely increasing the price of the property every time a payment is about to be made.

Buchanan strongly disagrees, saying that Friends of the Raymond Theatre has not approached him with an offer, and he has not increased the selling price of the theater by millions of dollars, attributing the latter to increased real estate prices over the years.

"They go away for a year or two, come back and expect it to be the same price - are you nuts?" said Bucahan.

"I have owned the building since 1985," said Buchanan. "I have tried repeatedly to sell the building. I had it in escrow - twice. I did sell it - twice. I got it back both times because people couldn't do what they said they could do."

"We're still reaching out to find a buyer now," said Zamaprelli. "We never want to stop looking."

"I am going to restore the theater on the outside," said Buchanan. "That's the same thing we have done for another 500,000 square feet in Old Pasadena; we take an old building, we change the use of the inside, we restore the building as best as we possibly can. That's exactly the same thing we're doing with the Raymond Theatre."

"A terrorist who destroys a building is attacking science, is attacking art, is attacking culture and is attacking the people of this wonderful city," said Forecast Foundation board member Johnathan V. Pose, about the Raymond's demolition and the people responsible for it.

Zamparelli remembers the day she locked door to the theater for the last time.

"I just turned back to the theater - because I knew what was happening was so wrong - and I locked the door for the final time and walked away, and I said to theater, 'As long as you're standing, I'm going to be your voice and I will not let you down.'"

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