“Some days a room would be open for touring, the next day it would be closed off and I would have to take a second before I planned my next move,” she says. Today she floats through the theater without pause. As the theater nears completion, Janusz doesn’t need to worry about phantom rooms and wrong turns anymore.
Still, there is plenty of work to be done before the first patrons of the Fox Pomona Theater line up at the corner of Third Street and Garey Avenue to experience what investors hope to be the crown jewel of 15 years’ worth of downtown revitalization. And as groups pass the stucco of the balcony walls pregnant with newly re-painted art deco murals, Janusz drops some ironic trivia.
“This was actually the original paint scheme that was recreated from old photos,” she says. “The silver paint you see all over the walls and on the murals were meant to signify the silver lining of the Great Depression.”
If there was ever a city hurting for an economic silver lining these days, it’s Pomona. No stranger to the death grip of high unemployment and declining consumerism, part of that struggle is the ability to increase revenue in the bohemian oasis of downtown. In that regard, the Fox is much more than a building. It’s an emblem of the city that shuffles along outside its walls. After decades of abandonment, neglect and abuse, the doors to what was once Pomona’s glitzy, suburban altar to classic Hollywood will open once again. But although everything about the building’s façade screams 20th Century, the inside holds a modern use of space and entertainment that just might keep the Fox around for good this time.
It was 2007 when Jerry and Ed Tessier first inspected their newly acquired property. A quick tour revealed piles of debris, cheap green paint slathered over proud murals, broken chairs and cannibalized lighting fixtures and projection equipment. Gaping scars in the ceiling showed where old chandeliers had gone missing, reportedly sold on Antique Row by a Brazilian “neo-Pentecostal” church congregation that leased the theater in 1989.
“Everyone that occupied it after it was a theater did damage to it,” says Jerry Tessier. “But, on the other hand, we knew that the property had good bones. It was really f-ed up but there was still some great stuff there.”
Tessier, along with his brother Ed, is part of a family redevelopment firm called Arteco Partners that renovated about 25 percent of downtown’s buildings. Their office, located in the historic Founders Building a block west of the Fox, is one of their former projects.
The bulk of the mess they encountered was attributed to the handiwork of rave promoter Amos Wallace, who leased the building from a private owner in late ’90s and early this decade until the city rallied to purchase the building in 2002. At that time, the Fox was a weekend haven for local rave parties. The sight of spray painted graffiti, smashed theater equipment and decimated restrooms was beyond extreme. Even with years of experience redeveloping much of the downtown Arts Colony, Ed recalls his gut reaction after seeing the place: “I need a drink.”
What they saw was a long way away from the postcard image of the theater from 1931. Back then, the gleaming Fox Pomona marquee offered a piece of Hollywood glamour — such as a Mae West film — to a once-dusty agrarian community. World premieres of the silver screen made this tiny town on the outskirts of L.A. a destination for the Hollywood elite. Before that, vaudeville shows brought culture and consumerism to the streets of Pomona until the 1950s when movie palaces nationwide experienced a decline. New freeways diverted patrons to surrounding suburban developments for their entertainment.
By 1977, the community failed twice to save the Fox from being shut down. By the 1980s, it was converted into a Spanish-language movie house and the fanfare of Tinsel Town was long gone. For the community surrounding the theater, the chance to re-open this historical landmark may be a shot in the arm needed for the rest of the downtown storefronts.
Reviving an icon
Carol Meier, owner of the restaurant New York Delight, has operated for eight years around the corner from the Fox in a building owned by the Tessiers. In spite of heavy construction around her business, she maintains a positive outlook about the redevelopment.
“This is what happens when you have someone trying to revitalize,” she says. “[The Tessiers] are trying to revitalize the downtown and hopefully it will work.”
In 2008, after purchasing the building from city officials for $1.6 million, Arteco Partners dispatched demolition crews to begin the restoration.
“We believe strongly that you can’t tell people that downtown Pomona is ‘revitalized’ until its most famous and iconic structure, the Fox Theater, is renovated,” says Tessier.
While plans were still in their infacy, Arteco sought the partnership of investor Perry Tollett to help purchase the building under Pomona Fox Theater LLC. The full revival of the Fox includes other players, like Tollett’s brother Paul, president of L.A.-based music promoter Goldenvoice and founder of musical festival juggernauts Coachella and Stagecoach. Goldenvoice is the exclusive promoter of live music for the Fox.
In an agreement reached between Arteco and the city, the Tessiers were able to secure public redevelopment dollars to the tune of more than $200,000 a year for 30 years (totaling $2.5 million). In return, the city is guaranteed to hold 24 events a year at the Fox.
“We also agreed to sell the property and carry back a promissory note instead of requiring the developers of Arteco partners to pay full market value for the property,” says Ray Fong, Pomona’s manager of redevelopment. This gives the partners of the Fox time to pay back $1.3 million they will owe the city over several years after the theater has generated revenue. To date, the Tessiers have contributed over $8 million dollars supplied by tax credits, totaling a little over $10 million for the Fox renovation. For the city, getting the Fox into private hands with the least amount of public dollars was a primary goal.
“Not many cities that have a Fox theater are able to do what we’re doing,” says Fong. “The Fullerton Fox is looking for an investor, but they are putting in a lot more money than we are putting in. And the Riverside [Fox Theatre] spent tens of millions of city money.”
Drinks on the roof
Soon, every stitch of their work over the past several years will be put to the test. This is the first time the Tessiers will own and operate a theater. But apparently, that doesn’t seem to worry any of the partners on the project.
“The Fox has been the most challenging to date”, says Jerry Tessier. “We had never done a specific historic theater renovation and we’re very hands-on so we personally had to learn a lot about theater, like the flyways, the stage and lighting and all the things that aren’t in our typical project.”
Originally slated to open in February 2009, the Fox had its share of setbacks. As if renovating a historic building in the middle of a recession wasn’t enough, there were also a couple technical issues. Installing new, complex elevator systems and being forced to move the building’s main transformer vault — originally located on the roof — out to Garey Avenue dumped extra work on the project.
But that didn’t stop the Tessiers or their partners from moving forward with their vision of the Fox as a multi-faceted venue for everything from rock concerts to school plays.
From a concertgoer’s perspective, the obvious draw is the main auditorium. The multi-level seating and standing areas are lined with relics of grand architecture, enveloping audiences in an authentic 1930s theater experience with impressive lighting and sound.
But check the original blueprints of the Fox and you’ll see some surprising new amenities. What used to be a second floor room full of pipes and machinery was hollowed out to make the “Flyway Ballroom.” There are also two new restaurant spaces still in search of new tenants. Of course, there are the bars. A brief tour around the place reveals over 10 fixed and portable full bar stations, a remedy for what Jerry Tessier calls one of his major pet peeves: waiting in line for a drink at a concert. One thing is for sure, every inch of this building is utilized. Even the roof.
“I would say the rooftop bars are gonna be a big selling point,” says James Barnum, general manager of the Glass House and ADA coordinator of Goldenvoice. “For some of these shows during the summer, when the shows don’t start till 8 o’clock and it doesn’t get dark until 8:30, being able to get a view of the mountains is gonna be awesome.”
Somethin’ for the scene
Despite being literally a stone’s throw away from each other, Fox’s 2,000-capacity venue might be a welcome alternative for larger bands who require more room than the 800 slots the Glass House offers, according to Barnum, who will run concerts at the Fox. In the end, he says both venues will compliment the local music scene.
“What a lot of bands are gonna dig is that they started out at the Glass House opening for other bands,” he says. “They end up headlining Glass House, you move them over to Fox to open for bigger bands there, eventually headlining the Fox, but they’re seeing the same familiar faces behind the scenes.”
Just a couple of weeks from Fox First Night, a gala ribbon-cutting and fundraising event, there is a sense of excitement in the air even though the theater is still months away from completion. The flashy red namesake emblem peeking over the tops of trees hints at the progress to come.
“What I think the re-opening gala represents is the culmination of all these years of effort and finally achieving a goal, so it’s a celebration of a dream that people in this community have had for so long that’s finally coming to fruition,” says Mike Schowalter, chairman of the board of Friends of the Fox. This organization is the non-affiliated fundraising arm of the Fox and also helps with the city’s programming there.
Aside from being a home for the city’s marquee events or the sweaty fervor of indie rock favorites like Gogol Bordello (scheduled to perform at the Fox on May 21), the Tessiers say that buying a ticket to a Fox event includes a unique atmosphere both inside and outside the building.
“You’re not just coming to a concert,” says Ed Tessier. “If you wanna see a parking lot in a parking lot, go to the Grove [of Anaheim]. It’s like going to the Walgreens…we’re a real neighborhood, a real place, there’s history here, there’re neighbors here, there’re working and living artists here.”
Fox First Night, Pomona Fox Theater, 134 W. Third St., Pomona, (909) 555-1212, www.foxpomona.com, Sat., April 18, 5PM ribbon-cutting, 6PM doors open; $135 single ticket, $1,080 table of eight