Even for the biggest film fan, the modern movie-going experience can be a hellish ordeal. Whoever invented the modern multiplex should be dealt with most severely—I wouldn't rule out crucifixion. In the interests of greater profits, too many asses are crammed into too many seats in too many auditoriums in too few theaters. The walls between these auditoriums are typically thin enough that, with minimal effort, you could scratch a hole through one of them with your car keys. No matter what movie you've come to see you're guaranteed a good earful of the explosions featured in the action movie playing in the main house. All this bespeaks a near-total contempt for audiences on the part of theater chains, but at least they have the grace to keep the lights low so we're spared the sight of those sticky floors, puce curtains and other aesthetic horrors of this blighted cinematic age.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time when movie houses were such works of art that it was worth going to even a so-so movie just to gawk at the theater. And one of the loveliest of these movie palaces was right here in OC.
Although the Fox Theatre closed in 1987, its decaying hulk still stands in downtown Fullerton. City officials have received plans to tear down the Fox and build apartments in its place. The nonprofit Fullerton Historic Theater Foundation has been trying for years to buy, restore and reopen the Fox, but until that happens the theater's once-lavish interior remains inaccessible to all but the vagrants who occasionally manage to pry their way inside and set up camp.
The Fox introduced sound pictures to Orange County, and over the years many movie premieres were held there. By the '80s it was operating as the county's premiere showcase for foreign, indie and classic films, and when it closed it left a niche that's never quite been filled again. There are decades of movie history gathering dust behind the Fox's crumbling facade.
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The theater opened its doors as Chapman's Alician Court Theatre on May 28, 1925. It was designed and constructed by the firm of Meyers and Holler, Inc., the same outfit behind such other world-famous movie houses as Grauman's Chinese and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The firm specialized in a luxuriously over-the-top theme movie-house architecture, usually with an ethnic flavor. The Chinese, for instance, was overrun with colorful dragons and featured an auditorium that made the Forbidden City look chintzy by comparison. The Fox, meanwhile, boasted an Italian Renaissance theme, with six enormous murals in the classic style painted by acclaimed muralist Anthony T. Heinsbergen. Theater guests entered through the Alician Court and were greeted by blooming flowers, wrought-iron work, burbling fountains, columns, a palm tree and enormous terra-cotta urns. The lobby offered oriental rugs, couches and even a fireplace, and the auditorium was a 1,000-seat wonderland, complete with balconies, chandeliers and enough moldings for several city halls.
In addition to running films, the theater often showcased plays and vaudeville on its stage. It's said that on quiet nights, if you wander through the 10 dressing rooms in the bowels of the Fox, you can still hear the ghostly murmurings of long-departed sword-swallowers and tap dancers (along with the phlegmy hacking of the previously mentioned vagrants).
Architectural historian Alfred Willis appears at the Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday to talk about Sid Grauman and the Courtyard Theatres of California. The show is also slated to include special guests, among them Louise Holler Craddock, the granddaughter of the architects. It's an evening guaranteed to make you nostalgic for an era you most likely never knew.
Sid Grauman and The Courtyard Theatres Of California at The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-3456. Tues., 7 p.m. Free. For Fullerton Historic Theater Foundation Information, call (714) 607-0884 Or log onto www.foxfullerton.org.
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