Monday, September 7, 2009

Visalia's Fabulous Fox

When we entered the Visalia (CA) Fox Theatre with its Spanish Mission revival exterior, we were greeted by Lance Martin (see yesterday's blog).

Looking at the carved woodwork in the lobby, it was as though we were there for the grand opening on February 27, 1930. Had it, in fact, been Opening Night, we would have been among the 1,460 patrons in attendance--impressive, given that the population of the town was 7,263.

But we were struck by two contradictions in our first impressions. First of all, the interior carried forth “an atmosphere of old India into every part of the edifice” (Vidalia Times-Delta).

Secondly, the carved woodwork is not really wood. It is a material that looks very solid, has realistic-looking wood grain markings, and has the coloring of the real thing.

Another example of this "wood" appears at the ceiling level where several ten-foot arches spanning the lobby are decorated with “caravans of elephants...marching in graphic artistry.”

As one patron remembered, "All of the ornate wall decor" taken together conveyed an elegance that made the lobby "a special place."

A reporter for the Vidalia Times-Delta commented at the opening that no expense was spared “in furnishing the smallest detail of atmospheric beauty.”

We spent a lot of time photographing the details of the lobby's decorative work, wondering how long it took patrons to find their way to their seats on Opening Night, while they, too, studied the beautiful details of the artwork in the lobby.

Walking up these stairs took patrons past closer views of the lobby's decorative work on their way to the balcony. Views of the "carved woodwork" or the decorative ironwork (second photo below) along the stairway provided considerable much to marvel at on the way.

Illuminating the lobby were two immense metal chandeliers containing more than a hundred light globes. They emitted a soft, rosy glow which “semed to glitter off the mirrors, tile work, mosaics and metal objects” remembers a one-time Fox employee.

The exotic atmosphere of the Far East was further carried forth into the impressive auditorium, which represented “an outdoor setting in India with beautiful palms and vines growing on the side walls”—all designed to present “a feeling of peace and quiet” in the words of a local reporter.

Present on each side of the stage was a life-sized Indian Temple. This photo shows the portion of a temple on the right side of the stage.

Entry into the left temple portal led down a passageway to the outside.

It is hard to imagine the thinking that went into the decision to transform the Fox into a triplex. As one employee put it: "Had Jack the Ripper stolen in and sawn the imposing theater asunder, he could not have done a better job--slicing and carving it up--until all that was left were...three pathetic partitioned-off holes in the wall...."

High above the stage and its proscenium arch was the "guardian genie." As part of the conversion to a triplex, a steel beam had been driven through the face of the genie.

Restoration of the genie required working on a platform on scaffolding 40 feet above the stage.

After restoring the genie, the same artist, Jamie Hitchcock, was asked to redo the side garden murals, touch up the paint on the two temples, and paint the auditorium sky, which had twinkling lights installed.

The final two photos show some of the details of the seats and light fixtures that the restoration work has addressed.

Much of the credit for planting the idea to save the Fox goes to Rami Cherami, a teacher.

As you can imagine, the story of restoring an old theater is filled with stories of frustration, horror, and searching for money. The information that we found is included in Visalia's Fabulous Fox by N. G. Bringhurst.

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