The Historic Fox Theater Pomona
Opening the Fox Theater Pomona was an audacious, ostentatious, expensive proposition—both times.
Its original grand opening on April 24, 1931, took place in the midst of the Great Depression and cost a then-exorbitant $300,000. And funnily—or terrifyingly—enough, the theater’s recent grand reopening happened just two months ago, during our current Great Recession. The restoration took a year and a half and cost $10 million.
Was it worth it? Brothers and Pomona locals Ed and Jerry Tessier, who along with business partner and concert promoter Perry Tollett bought and revived the place, certainly think so. And the theater’s opulence speaks for itself.
“Unquestionably, it’s one of the Southland’s best Art Deco buildings—a phenomenal space,” Ed Tessier declares with a palpable sense of pride. “You can mention it in the same breath as you talk about the Wiltern.”
While the nearby 800-person-capacity Glass House has long been a refuge for Orange County music-lovers who refuse to deal with the traffic and $10 parking fees of LA, the 2,000-capacity showpiece at Third and Garey will be an even-bigger draw—and a hell of a lot more accessible than that place at Wilshire and Western.
In an area defined by venues that are either black boxes in nondescript strip malls or the House of Blues, the Fox Theater Pomona is a standout, all-purpose venue with character.
“It’s just an over-the-top, theatrical, architectural statement,” says Tessier.
With its murals, staircase and banisters bursting with pretty, metallic Art Deco swirls and curlicues, the Fox was always a lavish venue for the city—which, in 1931, was just a small agricultural blob of an LA suburb. However, the city did have unique demographics important to studios as test markets; the venue hosted everything from concerts and lectures to dances to radio shows hosted by Bob Hope. Movie stars came to premieres and test screenings; people gawked. It was a success.
But the theater eventually lost its sheen; blame World War II and the establishment of the American mall, among other factors. The Fox has since undergone a few evolutionary stages: community theater, Spanish-language-film theater, church, rave dance-party host—the last of which pretty much obliterated what was left of the old theater. The 1999 deaths of two rave attendees at separate events didn’t help.
Though the Downtown Pomona area was designated as the Arts Colony in 1994, there was always something missing from the neighborhood of dwindling art galleries, vintage shops and restaurants.
“The Arts Colony has become a very successful destination. It has evolved organically, and it’s not dominated by corporate culture—a very authentic mom-’n’-pop, emerging-artist kind of environment that’s bursting at the seams,” Tessier explains. “There’s big shows, art walks, the Glass House—yet it all kind of had a limit to it. Things downtown could never get much bigger than a 900- or 1,000-person event, and having the Fox now doing what it’s doing is a great way for the neighborhood to achieve what it’s capable of.”
His family’s real-estate-development firm, Arteco Partners, has been the primary developer of the Pomona Arts Colony project since the early ’90s, working on 20 properties, including nightclubs, lots and offices, accounting for two-thirds of all the restored buildings in the area.“We knew no matter how many of these buildings we did, the downtown wouldn’t really be considered truly revitalized until the Fox was rehabbed and operating properly,” the 41-year-old Tessier says. “It’s simply the iconic property of the downtown area.”
He hesitates for a half-second.
“However, we hoped somebody else would come along and do it. In fact, we joked for years that you couldn’t give us the building!” he says with a laugh.
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Although Arteco Partners specializes in historic-property rehabilitation, the sheer size of the Fox Theater Pomona project made the brothers uneasy. The original space stood at about 13,000 square feet—now, in its fully rehabilitated state, it’s nearly double that.
“We knew all along it was a monster of a building—very, very complicated, very tricky,” Tessier admits.
They gave up waiting in 2007. The brothers made a proposal to purchase and rehab the historic theater, and the city of Pomona approved the grand project.
Old black-and-white photographs and the personal memories of Pomona residents helped the restoration project along. Forgotten details such as wall colors (20 to 30 shades of pink, puce and lavender—rare for the usual masculine color palette of West Coast Art Deco), what the pattern on the carpet was like (maroon with flowers, bronze flourishes and teal lining) and how many edges the grand chandeliers in the welcoming lobby had (eight) were all revealed by scrutinizing historic records and oral-history research.
“It felt like anything we had done over the years led up to this one,” Tessier says. “For something like colors, we had people in there for a month, in every nook and cranny of the building, scraping down all the layers of the paint from over the years, taking samples of each one. They literally burnt the paint chips, studied them chemically and found out what chemical colors were available in the market now so they could reproduce them exactly.”
Because the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the renovation took place under strict parameters. Though Tessier says Arteco has a high standard for every building they put their name on, the Department of the Interior Federal Preservation also had its own guidelines, with a requirement to bring the Fox up to its exact 1931 look and character.
As a result, every drinking fountain, the frosting on each fixture, the chandelier and even the carpet are straight out of 1931.
The only exception, Tessier says, is the neon marquee welcoming visitors and patrons.
“The original ’31 marquee was torn down, so we got a very cool, Art Deco, wrought-iron, Parisian-style one with gobs of neon on it instead,” he explains. “It’s the only piece of neon that the feds let us have, since it’s not consistent with the 1931 design. But otherwise, visually, the building is a step back in time, and you’re really seeing it almost identical to the way it looked when it opened.”
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Of course, if the building were restored to exactly how it was in 1931, it would be completely useless. As it stands today, the Fox boasts all the visual goodies and overall ’30s feel with all the modern conveniences: multiple bars and concession stands, state-of-the-art equipment, rooftop space and adjacent restaurant. The private phone booth that once stood at the top of the staircase? A private ATM booth instead.
A few surprises, good and bad, popped up during the renovation process.
The bad included asbestos, lead and other toxins. The raves in the ’90s had left behind splatters of neon-green and black paint; some graffiti still scrawled on the walls noted who was selling what kind of ecstasy tablets ($ Bizzy D.). There were absolutely no working utilities—and no improvements had been made to them since the ’30s, resulting in an about $1 million tab just to get water, gas and electricity back at the property.
“As we were taking off some of the old roofing, it turned out that the structure holding together the rooms had long since rotted away,” Tessier recalls. “Every single piece of the building had to be removed and started from scratch. Because it got that deep, we did have some cool finds.”
The Fox was once mainly identified by its 81-foot tower with a revolving sign that sat at the corner of the building, making it one of the tallest buildings in the Pomona Valley for decades, visible from as far as Upland and Chino. One of Tessier’s favorite discoveries was in that tower. The old building had bragged about being one of the first buildings in the country to have air-conditioning when it first opened.
Before Freon systems were common, the building instead pulled a massive amount of air into it and sent the air through “great-big water-jet nozzles” before being blown into the building.
“You couldn’t really suck that much air to the building without sounding like a freight train, and so they had to put the intake really, really high up,” Tessier explains. “So that’s what the tower is. A massive swamp cooler.”
Since the cooler had been removed and replaced with contemporary air-conditioning systems, there was an amazing, open space in the tower: the perfect dining room for VIP guests.
“We knew it would make for a one-of-a-kind room,” Tessier shares. “Go in there, and you’re looking almost 40 feet straight up inside the room, right under the rotating tower. And for the first time since all the interior was demolished, we had a fantastic moment.”
Another unexpected discovery was the large mural just above the theater’s entrance, where the box office once stood—a grand floral cluster of swirls and leaves in oranges, yellows and silver splashed across the ceiling. No photographic or oral evidence had given any clue to its existence.
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Tessier says he feels “a big emotional payoff” from the project’s completion. “The neighborhood has been staring at that empty building for 30 years,” he says, “and I think we all had a chip on our shoulders about it. We would never be the neighborhood we wanted to be until that building that was our flagship and a great point of entry for everybody visiting the Arts Colony. Finally having that is just a wonderful feeling. I really feel we’ve done what we’ve set out to do and we’re ready for prime time.”
Though it hasn’t always been a happy ending for the chain of historic Fox West Coast theaters. Built in 1925, the Fullerton Fox Theatre in downtown Fullerton was closed and abandoned just 62 years later—and it remains closed. The Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation has been attempting to raise proper funding for a full restoration of the theater for three years now.
But now that the Fox has been restored to its full glory, it also means an equally hefty amount of apprehensiveness for the Tessier brothers on whether or not the venue can possibly stay afloat in this tough economy. The challenge from day one, says Tessier, was making the project work financially, but they and everyone involved remain more than hopeful.
“My son is 5, and Perry’s daughter is 12 or 13 now. They’ll still be running this place and paying it off 30 years from now, but it was all worth it,” Tessier says with a laugh. “I was online the other night, and a real odd moment happened while looking at Wilco’s tour [dates]: They’re playing Barcelona, Madrid, London, Dublin, New York . . . and Pomona.”
“That really brought it home. We’ve re-created a building that’s really put our hometown back on the map in a great way. It’s going to be a complete treat for concert-goers for years and years to come,” he says. “It’s going to be a place for people to have phenomenal memories. They’ll remember performances there for the rest of their lives; they’ll meet their spouses for the first time. The way my dad’s generation talks about seeing Bob Hope or Spencer Tracy at the Fox, you know, my kids, my 5-year-old is going to be talking about that completely amazing Gogol Bordello show he saw.”
This article first appeared in June of 2009 on OC Weekly's Sumer Guide under the title "Fox Theater Pomona: Yet Another Reason Not to Go to LA for a Concert this Summer." The original article can be found here: http://www.ocweekly.com/music/summer-guide-fox-theater-pomona-yet-another-reason-not-to-go-to-la-for-a-concert-this-summer-6399068