Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stockton's Bob Hope Movie Palace

Over the course of our travels, we have had the good fortune to tour some beautifully-restored theaters that have become the core of their community’s downtown revitalization. The Bob Hope/Fox California Theatre in Stockton, CA, is fulfilling the same function--and it is doing it in truly grand style.

The first theater, the T&D Photoplay, was built in 1916 and renamed the California five years later. In 1929, after several years of successful operation, the California was leveled. To serve Stockton's thriving population, Fox West Coast Theaters invested nearly half a million dollars to build a luxurious, safe and comfortable theater - the Fox California, or the Fox.

The Fox opened on October 14, 1930, and was one of the safest buildings of the time, built entirely with cement and steel, with the ability to evacuate guests within two minutes. There were 2,170 seats.

In 1979, the theatre was purchased by Edward C. Merlo and Madeleine Lawton who saved the building from destruction. In the 1990’s, the Redevelopment Agency of the city of Stockton led the efforts in gathering federal, state, and city grants, which along with community contributions totaled $8.5 million. The Theatre was closed in 2002 for extensive renovations and re-opened in September, 2004 as the Bob Hope Theater, appearing much as it was in 1930.

The exterior lobby, in front of the entrance doors, has the original chandelier.

The rotunda is encircled by 12 carved plaster columns. Gold leaf was reapplied on the columns instead of the gold paint which had covered over the original gold leaf.

It seemed that everywhere we looked there was a scene over which to marvel. The rotunda floor mosaic is made up of 80,000 Italian marble pieces in a design evocative of Neptune. The marble was imported from Italy, and the mosaic was designed by a Canadian artist.

We arrived early enough to walk around the theater to “Ooh” and “Aah” when admiring the details. The proscenium arch is covered with scrolled plaster detailing that comes together in the center with a large, gilded, carved face.

I had not realized that the 1928 Robert Morton Organ was in the left portion of the photo above (hidden by the folks in the balcony). We were treated to a half-hour concert on this giant theatre organ, originally installed in the Seattle Fox Theatre over 40 years ago and, later, found abandoned and in disrepair in southern California.

The proscenium’s outer arch is decorated with hand-painted sepia tone murals of male figures astride galloping stallions.

The theatre’s ceiling beams and other decorative work are made of cast plaster and concrete. The original Fox used no combustible material.

The rotunda ceiling brought to mind what the restoration work must have involved to restore this portion of this magnificent theatre.

After looking around, we settled back with several others in a good number of the 2042 seats to view the movie “American Graffiti."

A movie palace indeed.

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