Monday, November 28, 2011

Fox Theater, 242 Main Street, Stockton, CA

Photo courtesy of Tom Spaulding
1916: The first theater, the T&D Photoplay, is built on East Main Street in Stockton, California by the Wilhoit family and used for a variety of entertainment acts. The same site will later be occupied by the Bob Hope Theatre.

1921: Fox West Coast Theaters Inc. leases the T&D, remodels it and renames it the California.

1929: After several years of successful operation, the California is leveled and plans are drafted for a new theater to serve the thriving city of Stockton. Fox West Coast Theaters reaches an agreement to lease the property for a period of 50 years and invests nearly half a million dollars to build a luxurious, safe and comfortable theater - the Fox California, or the Fox. It is a large theatre equipped with a complete stage, fly area, and orchestra pit, dressing rooms. This was one of several Fox theaters (including those in Pomona and Riverside) designed by Los Angeles architects Clifford Balch and F.E. Stanbery. (Joe Vogel-cinematreasures)

1930: The opening of the Fox on October 14 is one of the most grandiose events in the region. Approximately 20,000 people attend the celebration, including some of the most famous stars of the time. Opening acts include the latest “talkie” movies and comedy skits. Spencer Tracy in "Up the River". The Wurlitzer 3 manual 9 rank theatre organ had been saved from its original installation in the T&D/California Theatre, and was opened by organist Inez McNeil, who had been the original resident organist on the instrument. The Fox is the largest vaudeville house in California, with 2,170 seats. The theatre is also one of the safest buildings of the time, built entirely with cement and steel, with the ability to evacuate guests within two minutes. One of the jewels of the theatre is the $40,000 (in 1930) three manual Wurlitzer pipe organ with twin pipe lofts. Ticket prices are 50 cents for general admission and 65 cents for box seats.

1931: The Fox California celebrates the success of its first year in operation with a weeklong celebration. It is speculated that nearly a million people were entertained during the theatre’s first year in business.

1930s: The Fox California predominantly shows movies due to the owner’s close association with the large motion picture studios. However, stage acts and other variety acts are also presented at the Fox, including Al Jolson, one of the greatest entertainers of the time; the Marx Brothers; Ted Lewis, a clarinetist and member of one of the most popular jazz bands of the period; and Henry Lauder, a famous Scottish comedian.
1940s: Big bands of the 1940s perform at the theatre.

1960s: Famous bands such as Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman and the Dorseys play on the Fox stage.

1971: A local company, Westland Theatres, buys the rights to the Fox California. A declining business climate and the growing competition from drive-ins and television impact the profitability of the theatre. Despite efforts to keep the theatre in business, attendance declines.

1973: The Fox California closes its doors to the public due to lack of business. The last shows are “Sweet Jesus,” “Preacher Man” and “Marlowe.”

1974: A special showing of the movie “Billy Jack” plays at the Fox. Concern rises among citizens that the Fox will be demolished to make room for a civic parking lot or other development.

After closing as a Second Run Grindhouse showing Horror, Science Fiction and Kung Fu Movies (Triple Feature for 50 cents), they reopened the following year showing Triple X Porno Movies such as "Deep Throat" and "Behind The Green Door" which fortunately lasted under a year before showing Spanish Language Movies in 1975. That lasted until 1977 when it was restored as a Live Venue Theatre under a new name (Fox Center For The Performing Arts) which was a flop and reverted back to a Spanish Language Movie Theatre in 1979.(Floyd Perry-cinematreasures)

1979: The building is purchased by Edward C. Merlo and Madeleine Lawton who seek to save the building from destruction. They are ultimately successful in their efforts to save the historic structure and the Fox Theatre is placed on the National Register of Historical Places. Today it is one of only two movie palaces left in the Central Valley.

I also want to add that the Fox California Theatre came close to being demolished. In 1980, there was a proposal by the city of Stockton to tear down the Fox for a parking lot to complement the 10 story California Office Building next door, but thankfully the original owners fought the eminent domain case in court and won.(floyd Perry-cinematreasures)

1981-1985: Rocking Chair Productions produces a few rock concerts at the Fox.

1985-1988: Offshore Productions offers jazz and country music entertainment that doesn’t draw significant audiences.

1991: The Redevelopment Agency of the city of Stockton includes the Fox California as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown area and other parts of the city.

1995: The Redevelopment Agency leases the theatre and hires a promoter and booking agent in an attempt to develop a viable, on-going program at the theatre, and begins small renovations of the building. Several events and concerts are held at the Fox.

Late 1990s: The mayor and city council begin a large scale renovation of the Fox. The Redevelopment Agency is the primary financial sponsor of the project.

Here is a series of photos taken by Jim Watson:

2000: Anita J. Merlo and the Merlo Fox Building Trust donate the theater building to the city of Stockton in honor of Edward Charles Merlo, architect.

In 2000, Bob Hartzell, president of Friends of the Fox, a nonprofit organization that supports the Fox Theatre, orchestrates the refurbishment of a 1928 Robert Morton pipe organ that will be placed in the renovated Bob Hope Theatre. Once restored, the organ will be worth between $160,000 and $200,000.
Stockton's Robert Morton organ made its debut at the Seattle Fox Theatre on April 19, 1929. And its purpose was already obsolete.

The Robert Morton organ for the Stockton Fox Theatre was originally installed at the Fox in Seattle. The theater had a number of different names, but the original idea was to name it the Mayflower. Ultimately, it began as the Fox when Fox film studios owned a chain of theaters across the country. Fox theaters were renowned for their stately architecture, wide and deep balconies, and sumptuous deep red carpeting. Truly, moviegoing was an event.

The Seattle Fox defined the golden age of movie palaces. It featured an eclectic Spanish Renaissance architecture designed by Sherwood Demier Ford. Its architecture, however, didn't quite connect with the intended name of the building -- the Mayflower -- or even the original design of the organ. The organ grills had a nautical design of a ship's prow to honor the Mayflower name.

By the 1930s, the theater became the Music Hall. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a dinner theater before becoming a "mixed-use" house under the name of Emerald Palace. The building was demolished in the winter of 1991-92.

The Robert Morton organ was common in West Coast theaters, while Wurlitzers were primarily used in the East. The organ was installed in 1929 with the console mounted on a revolving lift. The opening organist was Jamie Erickson, a popular keyboarder throughout the West and Midwest in the 1920s and '30s. Its last performance in Seattle was given on Nov. 15, 1963, with organist Dick Schrum at the console.

Eight months later, the instrument was sold for $7,500 to the Carl Greer Inn of Sacramento. It cost inn owners another $3,500 just to haul it down from Seattle. It remained at the inn until Bonnie Ciauri, an organ enthusiast, purchased it In 1978. Bonnie Ciauri bought a powerful 1928 Robert Morton theater organ. The instrument’s magnificent pipes once thrilled silent-film audiences at Seattle’s Fox Theatre. But Ciauri didn’t play theater organ, and she certainly had no space for it in her Palm Springs and, later, her Hemet home.

She had it taken apart. The 4-manual, 16-rank (commonly referred to as a 4/16) orchestral theater organ went mute.
Ciauri stored the console in her daughter’s air-conditioned house, but detached from its pipes, the Morton console was furniture, silent as the movies it once accompanied.

The pipes, hundreds of them, made of wood or tin-lead-zinc alloy, were stacked on top of each other in three metal containers, each the size of a semi-truck trailer. Once full, the containers were sealed and parked on a desert lot.

Every day for the next 22 years, the pipes baked in a relentless desert sun and chilled each night under the stars. Finally, in April 2000, Stockton Friends of the Fox president Bob Hartzell rescued the organ. And after years of painstaking restoration, the mighty Morton is about to warm up her pipes.

Hartzell had his doubts when he first opened the desert containers.

The heat had just about cooked it,” Hartzell said. “Everything but the console was as close to ruination as it could be. If it had been just a year longer, it would have been too late.”

When Hartzell found the organ, Don Geiger donated storage and work space at Stockton’s Geiger Manufacturing. Still, FOF volunteers were shocked when they went to the desert to unload the containers for transport to Stockton. What were once perfectly round metal pipes had flattened and corroded. High humidity had warped mahogany and cracked pine. Pipes and parts bound together in 1928 by glue made from horses’ hooves fell apart as they were removed.
But with Hartzell’s leadership and the direction of theater organ expert Dave Moreno of Sacramento, 15 members of the FOF and the Sierra chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society worked with steel wool, modern glue and dedication to get the Morton ready for installation into the Fox late this summer.
Here's Bob Hartzell's The Travels and Travails of a 4/16 Robert Morton:
Great story!

The Robert Morton installed at Stockton's Fox replaces a Wurlitzer-Morton hybrid, a 9-rank Wurlitzer Model 210 with additional Morton ranks. The organ originally was housed at the T&D Theater before it was torn down to make way for the present Fox. When it was installed in the Fox, the Morton ranks were added. The Wurlitzer-Morton was removed from the Stockton theater in the 1950s and sold to an East Bay buyer. Its whereabouts are unknown.(therecord,2003-06-19)

2001 – 2002: Funding is given to the city of Stockton, with Congress awarding $290,000 in 2001, and $225,000 in 2002 to help renovate the Fox Theatre. The state of California also awards a $300,000 California Heritage Fund Grant.

Restoration photos,%20CA/4

Jerry performed here on 
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