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A Riverside movie palace is reborn

January 26, 2010 |  6:00 am

Foxtheatre_PeterCooper2  

When the Fox Theatre opened in downtown Riverside in 1929, it was one of the most architecturally striking movie palaces in Southern California. The approximately 1,600-seat venue boasted colonial Spanish mission-style exteriors and an interior modeled after a Spanish galleon sea vessel. In 1939, the theater hosted the first public preview screening of "Gone with the Wind."   

For decades, the Fox Theatre served as a venue for first-run and second-run films, as well as vaudeville and solo shows. But the theater slowly fell into disrepair over the years, the victim of poor to non-existent maintenance. The silver screen gradually went dark and public events became less frequent. The last time the theater was regularly used was close to 15 years ago.

 Fox1While many movie palaces dating from the golden age of Hollywood have closed for good, the Fox Theatre has been spared a similar fate thanks to a  $30-million restoration effort led by the city of Riverside. Several years in the making, a newly refurbished Fox Theatre opened its doors to the public last week, reborn as a performing arts venue for touring Broadway shows, pop concerts and other events.

The theater, which is now called the Fox Performing Arts Center, features a redesigned stage, improved acoustics and restored artwork. In addition, the backstage area has been completely gutted and rebuilt to accommodate live performances. 

Pasadena-based architect Richard McCann led the restoration effort, which he said took three years to design and two years to execute. 

"It was just a mess -- the roof leaked, the ceiling caved in at places," he recalled. "In the lobby areas, the original paint peeled and then the plaster gave way. There were pigeons all over the place. To top it off, there was no power."

McCann, who has worked on restorative projects like the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood and other notable performing arts venues, said one of the biggest challenges was to redesign the stage area.

His team doubled the stage depth from its original depth of 28 feet while adding 15 feet to the stage's height. They also restored the proscenium to look as it did when the theater first opened. Backstage, the crew built dressing rooms as well as electrical and storage facilities in the area that was once an ancillary screening room.

To improve acoustics, the team removed the sound absorption material in the walls that owners had placed there at the advent of talkies. New selective sound panels have been installed in their place.

"For live performance, you want enough absorption so you don't get an echo while allowing enough live resonance so that you don't feel like you're in a small room," said McCann.

In addition, the team replicated historical windows, restored plaster and rehabilitated historical paintings.

One of the main tenants of the Fox Performing Arts Center will be the Nederlander, which will present a series of touring shows under the banner Broadway in Riverside. "Annie" is set to open at the theater in February, followed by "Jesus Christ Superstar" in March and "Hairspray" in April.

On Friday and Saturday, Sheryl Crow inaugurated the venue with two concerts. Future performers include Natalie Cole (Feb. 13), the barbershop ensemble Masters of Harmony (Feb. 27) and Pat Benatar (April 15).

The theater is owned by the city of Riverside, which leases it to various arts groups. The city took over the theater in 2005 from a private owner, according to Robert Wise, the city's manager on the project. 

The Fox's restoration is part of the city's five-year, $1.68-billion Riverside Renaissance project, which has sought to revitalize the city's downtown area through various public improvement projects.

Among the subtler changes to the Fox is the widening of the individual seats. In 1929, the comfort standard was 18 to 19 inches wide while today's comfort standards is more like 22 inches, according to McCann, the lead architect.

"These days, we like to have a little more room," he said.

-- David Ng

Photo (top): the restored interior of the Fox Performing Arts Center. Credit: Peter Cooper
Photo (bottom): the Fox Theatre, circa 1929. Credit: City of Riverside

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