Ten years after the final movie was shown in the theater, “Save the Fox” began in 1997 as “Project Fox” within “Fullerton Heritage”, the City’s preservation group, who were taking steps to save the Fox Fullerton Theatre from the wrecking ball. There was a sense that there was not enough affinity on the part of some in City Hall. In 2001 this triggered a letter to the Fullerton Observer by one of the “Save the Fox” co-founders. In time, “Project Fox” was spun off to form the “Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation” which oversees the theater to this day.
Community awareness and fundraising efforts
It wasn’t long before lawn signs began appearing all over the area, saying simply “Save the Fox,” with a stylized, familiar theater marquee, with the phone number and website below. Meanwhile, the owner of the Fox who didn’t want to save it and let it fall into a horrible state of neglect, had brokered a deal with a developer to sell the Fox and related properties to be torn down to make room for apartments like across the street on Chapman Ave. But the developer did not want to be the ones to tear down the beloved Fox so they offered the Foundation the right to take over their option of $3.3 million dollars to the owner…and the clock was ticking.
On January 29, 2004, the “Save the Fox” effort had its public coming out at a community meeting at the Wilshire Auditorium. It was a packed house, with the doors having to be closed at the direction of the Fire Marshall. The Board of Directors was introduced, as well as some local politicos. Pretty soon it turned into a deafening pep rally, and the public was sold.
On February 17, 2004, the City Council unanimously approved a $1.65 million challenge grant to the Foundation (roughly half the purchase price the developer was on the hook to the original owner for. This signaled amazing support for the project, doubling the value of donations. Also, that February there was a volunteer organizational meeting to spell out “Save the Fox” wants and needs in the areas of in-kind donations and volunteer time and expertise. The community was responsible for coming up with $1.65 million to match the City’s match.
Throughout 2004 and beyond, while some were working the phones and doing media interviews, “Save the Fox” had a presence at Fullerton’s Downtown farmers’ market. They were also at other public gatherings to spread the word, answer questions, and solicit support and donations. Nothing was too small – even the entry to a supermarket if it was allowed. Ad space was also purchased in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, to reach the Los Angeles market and the industry.
On May 28, 2004, the Foundation held what would be the first in a series of annual fundraising events known as “Hollywood in Fullerton.” In following years, the event was sequentially themed to the decades of the theater’s existence. In October 2004, the Foundation was up against a hard deadline with the developer who was going to demolish the Fox for apartments to take over their option from the original owner. Volunteers began staffing an outreach table in front of the theater under the marquee. This began as a simple daytime activity but eventually grew to a round-the-clock effort. People at a table, in the middle of the night, on the main street through downtown was a real attention-getter, leading to coverage by local media, both print and electronic. People driving by and dumping out their ashtray change in buckets. By the 25th hour of the 25th hour, the matching funds to the City’s offer of $1.65M was still almost $700,000 short. At the moment an anonymous donor walked in and provided a $1 million dollar gift saving the Fox from the wrecking ball! At that moment the hardworking volunteers helping raise money called the anonymous donor “Clarence”…the angel from the beloved film, It’s a Wonderful Life”. Only a few people know who this wonderful person is to this day.
In September 2005, the Foundation began its popular series of outdoor “Movies ON the Fox.” For the next five years, every month or so, the community would gather in the parking lot to enjoy family-friendly movies shown on the sidewall of the stagehouse.
Taking historic action
Early in 2004 a development company had obtained a purchase option to buy the theater and associated properties from the previous owner, coming due in November 2004. The Foundation negotiated with the developer to take over the option if the Foundation could raise the funds to buy the theater and repay the developer’s expenses. This was accomplished by the due date, and the Foundation was able to buy the theater.
The Foundation recognized that being listed in the National Register of Historic Places would be a major milestone, and it would give the Fox Fullerton Theatre the same standing and recognition as other historic places in Fullerton. Members of Fullerton Heritage had the expertise for this and one of them took on the project. Assisted by others doing research and compiling information, she and her team completed the application, and the theater was entered in the National Register on October 25, 2006 (#06000948).
Shortly after the Foundation took possession in January 2005, steps were taken to identify and abate known environmental hazards, including mold, lead-based paint, asbestos, and pests. This would make it safe for volunteers to enter the theater in force in the months and years ahead to give the theater a good cleaning and to do some much-needed, long-deferred maintenance. Depending on how much needed to be done, these “work parties” were bi-monthly or monthly. For years it seemed there was always something to do.
Since the theater closed in 1987 many changes had been made to the building code. This necessitated modifications to the existing firefighting system, including the addition of a sprinkler system. It also meant seismic retrofits based on the results of structural engineering tests. Additional work also included certain architectural “corrections.” The large street-level projecting marquee added in the 1950s, did not fit the restoration time-period and it had to be removed. A pediment that had been removed to make room for that marquee was replaced, and a large terra cotta urn that had been vandalized was fabricated and re-installed.
The Tea Room restaurant space to the north of the courtyard overlooking Harbor Boulevard. and the Firestone corner retail center on Chapman Avenue were both intended for ultimate tenant occupancy. In Phase I work was done to correct deficiencies and stabilize the Tea Room, including a new roof, expansion of the basement, and provisions for a new power system. The Firestone Corner was also repaired and restored to the point of possible tenancy.
Inside the auditorium, the ceiling and proscenium were beautifully restored by EverGreene Architectural Arts, and they also performed a thorough investigation and appraisal of all artistic surfaces and materials inside the theater to create an accurate color reference for the restoration of all artistic surfaces. In some cases, this involved very carefully stripping layers to create surface “windows” to check the layers beneath. This technique revealed the true artistic pattern of the ceiling mural painted on the main lobby ceiling.
During this same timeframe, a group of volunteers completely refurbished the close ceiling lighting fixtures that adorn the entire auditorium.
With the 90th Anniversary of the theatre approaching, a group of volunteer craftsmen and electricians removed, refinished, and reinstalled the letters. The marquee was fitted with all new LEDs to illuminate within the letters. The fully restored rooftop marquee was rededicated at the 90th anniversary “Speakeasy Days” event held May 23-25, 2015. with vintage vehicles, gangsters, and their molls in tow. The weekend culminated with a big 1920s style celebration with an orchestra. During this celebratory weekend, the Fox hosted over 3,000 people on tours throughout the interior of the building.
On October 17, 2017, along with District 65 State Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, then California Governor Jerry Brown paid a visit to Fullerton to tour the Fox and consider it for funds through the Department of Parks and Recreation. The visit was a success, resulting in a State Grant awarded in the 2018-2019 fiscal year which will enable our next phase of work.
Exciting changes are in the works for the next chapter. We are working with DLR Group on much needed upgrades to the electrical, heating and air conditioning systems that are going to be taking place. We are also improving the entry and exit pathways of this historic building in accordance with the Preservation Brief of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps the most anticipated addition will be new restrooms for the main lobby!
The goal for Phase II is to be able to open the doors to the public for regular events without requiring daily permits.
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