Pomona unveils its hidden gem
The Fox Theater returns to its Art Deco magnificence.
by Maxtla Benavides & Carmin Hermosillo
photography by Rhiannon Mim
Hammers pound and the smell of paint and dust fills the air. Construction workers in hard hats and utility belts, their clothes covered with dirt and plaster, work diligently to meet the deadline for the grand reopening of the Fox Theater in Pomona. Their attention to detail is evident. The ceiling is ornately painted with floral designs, complimenting art-deco patterns on the walls.
At one time, the theater echoed the beauty of old Hollywood, with its majestic staircase at the entrance leading to the balcony. It is the same staircase that people used in the 1930s when the theater opened. Elegant, fan-like ironwork adorns the staircase and wraps around the theater entrance, adding a touch of sophistication to the renovated space.
The Pomona Fox Theater first opened on April 23, 1931, when the city of Pomona was surrounded by agricultural fields. Pomona and its surrounding communities embraced the lavish flair of the Fox Theater in the middle of this farmland. Designed by Balch and Standberry of Los Angeles, the theater was a masterpiece of art deco design. In its heyday, an 81-foot-tall sign bearing the word “Fox” rotated in red and blue neon.
In 1931, the interior of the Fox displayed murals and tapestries, elaborate plaster panels, ornamental iron work, couches, and one of the first commercial air-conditioning systems in the country. This charming movie theater offered jobs to local teens and became the place of many dates for couples.
Steve Julian, host of Pasadena-based radio station KPCC’s Morning Edition program, spent his childhood riding his bicycle from Emerson Junior High School to downtown Pomona. “My mother’s aunt took me to see ‘Cat Ballou’ with Jane Fonda. It is the first memory I have going to the Fox,” Julian says. He remembers the distinctive carpet throughout theater and recalls a “beautiful staircase that went up the right hand side of the lobby to the balcony.”
The Fox was large for its time and offered something unusual—a grand balcony. “It really was the balcony that was just magical,” Julian says.
Julian has many fond childhood memories of the Fox Theater. “I remember sitting up in the balcony and hearing the sound of the film being processed through the projectors. You could sit right up by the projection room and see the light coming through.”
Moviegoers were treated to a complete theater palace experience. There was a Wurlitzer organ pre-show, newsreels, cartoon and comedy shorts, Sunday serials and the latest big picture releases. Major motion picture studios tested Hollywood screenings at the theater. Hollywood truly came to town for those screenings, too. They were glamorous – complete with red-carpet openings, Hollywood stars and plenty of paparazzi.
Unfortunately, the excitement began to deteriorate and so did the theater. Suburban malls and California’s freeway system became factors in its demise. Movie enthusiasts no longer had just one option for entertainment, but several.
But decades later, the theater got a second wind.
The grand reopening of the Fox Theater on April 18, 2009, proved to be a success, with hundreds of people in attendance at the unveiling of the historical space. Located nearly an hour east of Hollywood, the Fox Theater is a gem, ready to thrive in one of the newest hubs for arts and culture in the heart of downtown Pomona. The reopening of the Fox Theater is helping put Pomona back on the map of entertainment destinations—a real plus for a city plagued with the stigma of having more than its share of crime.
“I think it brings a positive spin to Pomona,” says Leo Molina, owner of the nearby Radio Futura record shop. “Most people think it’s not safe or that there is not much going on here. This helps change that perception.”
After the Fox was bought by the city of Pomona in 2002 from a manager who produced rave parties that left the theater in less than prime condition, it was decided collectively that a private company would handle the renovation project. To aid the renovation project, the “Friends of the Fox,” a non-profit organization, was created to help garner funds and support for the project. “Our commitment from the beginning is that we intend to comply with the historic preservation,” says Michael Schowalter, Chairman of Friends of the Fox. “When you talk about historic preservation, this has been No. 1 on people’s lists.” The theater is in the national historic registry, which means the building had to be restored in compliance with State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), an arm of the Department of the Interior.
The Tessier family, which owns many properties in Pomona, took on the project as developers with the goal of transforming this neglected landmark into the city’s main attraction. The Tessiers are also known as stakeholders in the city for their involvement in community-based projects. Mark Tessier helped start “The School of Arts and Enterprise,” a charter high school that has college preparatory courses. It is located in Pomona’s downtown Arts Colony.
“We were born and raised here. It is a labor of love,” says Jerry Tessier. The young developer sympathizes with the bad stigma that has plagued Pomona. “It is really hard to convince and show people that downtown Pomona is fully revitalized and a good place to come.”
From the Tessier office, there is an aerial view of the rotating Fox sign and the marquee that was replaced in the 1950s. The tower will now be turned into a restaurant, which connects to the east terrace from an elaborate staircase. Both the east and tower terraces are open spaces, and the Tessier family recognized an opportunity to expand the theater and create alternate business opportunities.
“I got the inspiration for outdoor patios from the Fonda Theater in Hollywood,” Tessier says. Each terrace will be used for private parties, intermission areas and casual lounging. The theater will also have its own VIP area. The tower terrace can be used for private parties for up to 24 people. “Just when you think that the next door will lead to an exit, in actuality it will bring guests right back into the historic lobby or lead to another new-found area to the complex,” says Tessier.
The east terrace connects to the tower terrace, historic lobby and corner restaurant. The corner restaurant sits comfortably on the west side of the theater, nearest Third Street and Garey Avenue. Guests of the Fox can choose to dine for a casual night out or enjoy an appetizer while waiting on a show to start in the Grand Hall. The restaurant, with walls painted deep blue, features artwork by local artists. The winding staircase that sits in the middle of the restaurant leads into a bar area. Just steps away from the bar is a door that leads to a concession stand lit by fancy chandeliers.
Developers researched photo archives of the original Fox Theater interior to replicate the designs from the early 1930s throughout the venue. Stencils of the artwork were made to match the original color palate of the space. They also took swatches of original paints in order to match the original colors.
The Grand Hall is an integral part of the theater. It includes the grand balcony, an orchestra level and the main floor, which still has the original 350 seats intact.
Local residents, as well as members of outside communities, have welcomed the restoration with open arms. But for local business owners who are located on the same block of the theater, the feeling is bittersweet.
“The whole year has been a disaster with all the construction going on, but I am putting up with it because I know the opening of the theater will also benefit me,” says Minerva Hernandez, a flowers and craft store owner on Third Street. The corner window of her shop, which she uses for advertisement, was boarded up during the construction period. She attributes a loss in sales in part to the construction. At the same time, however, she is hopeful that the new and improved venue will bring more business to the downtown area and increase sales again. She is not alone.
“We’ve been here 15 years and we’ve been waiting for it to open,” says Leo Molina. “We think it’s fantastic. I just can’t wait until they have events. I think it’s great, and I think it will bring more people to Pomona – period.”