"Saving old buildings and neighborhoods is an enormously effective way to provide continuity in the places where we live." -- Dwight Young
"These old buildings do not belong to us only, they belong to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our own property to do with as we like with them. We are only trustees for those that come after us." --William Morris
"We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us." -- Winston Churchill
"A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent; and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory." --Graeme Shankland
"It's not good because it's old, it's old because it's good." -- Anonymous
"Back in 2003, Porterville native Ruth Dresser made a pair of unique donations to the Visalia Fox Theatre: a 1919 Wurlitzer pipe organ insured for $1 million and a Baldwin grand piano." --Visalia Times Delta, September 5, 2013
"The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well-being. If all places look alike, there's no reason to go anywhere." -- Ed McMahon
Photos for this article by: Gene Aksland, John Greening, Laurie Schwaller, and courtesy of author's collection
Environment: Valley, downtown Visalia, historic theater
Activities: events, history, photography
Site Steward: Friends of the Fox, 559-625-1369
Books: A Walk Around Visalia by George Pilling (Sound Stones, 2011)
Directions: Map and directions are at the bottom of this page
The Story of the Fox Theatre
by Terry Ommen
Movie theaters today are often built with little attention to ambiance or architectural sparkle, box-like on the outside and unadorned on the inside. But such disregard for cinematic splendor wasn't always the case. When Visalia's Fox Theatre was built in 1930, not only did the movie on the screen thrill the audience; the theater itself was enchanting, and an integral part of the movie-goer's experience. Back then, just a few coins would buy a ticket to paradise.
The story of the Visalia Fox Theatre began in January, 1928, when the well-known William Fox film company announced it had acquired all 250 theaters in the West Coast Theatres, Inc. chain. One of these was the Visalia Theatre, a playhouse on the northeast corner of Court and Acequia streets that had been built in 1889 as the National Guard Armory and remodeled several times since then. After examining the tired old building, Fox officials decided to replace it with a modern movie house suited to the glitzy golden age of motion pictures.
Fox bought land on the northwest corner of Main and Encina streets. Los Angeles architects Floyd Stanbery and Clifford Balch drew the building plans, and by April, 1929, the site was cleared and ready for the contractor, Beller Construction of Los Angeles. Howard Sheehan, Fox's Vice President, known for his keen eye for "the new, the better and the beautiful," made all the design decisions.
For nine months, Visalians watched Sheehan's Spanish-style building take shape, and when it was finished, they marveled. The tall clock tower attracted the most attention. The Visalia Times-Delta reported that it looked "like a lighthouse above a seaport." Mounted on its dominating height were three clock faces, each over six feet in diameter, ringed with neon lights, and each facing in a different direction. The wonderful clock, touted as the largest of its type ever built, captivated the community.
The new building's interior was equally dramatic, with an East Indian theme contrasting with the Spanish exterior. Sheehan wanted visitors to experience the feeling of entering the garden courtyard of an Indian ruler, stepping from the "streets of Visalia to the mystic shrines of the gods."
But there was more to the inside than just elaborate decor. In the new Fox Theatre, built for "talkies," the most advanced Western Electric audio gear was installed. Even the walls were shaped with acoustics in mind. And the projection room, according to Fox officials, was the "most superbly equipped booth in the state."
On February 27, 1930, at 6:30 p.m., with Klieg lights beaming skyward, the Visalia Fox Theatre doors opened for the first time to the public. The 1,460 seats filled quickly, as the audience was welcomed with music from the new $20,000 organ. Those in attendance enjoyed several motion pictures, including The Lone Star Ranger starring George O'Brien and Sue Carol; Movietone News; a Mickey Mouse cartoon; and Night Owls, a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Opening night was a sensation at the beautiful $225,000 theater.
For decades to come, the Fox served as an important Tulare County social center under a variety of owners. Not only were films shown there, but many performers entertained live on its stage.
By the 1970s, however, single screen theaters were losing money, and more and more of them were being replaced by multi-screen or multiplex houses. In 1976, the Mann Theater Corporation, owner of Visalia's Fox Theatre at the time, announced that the Fox would be remodeled and converted into a triplex.
Despite this change, the aging landmark continued to struggle financially, and maintenance problems began to accumulate. In late 1996, Cinamerica-Mann, the company leasing the Fox, surprised the community by announcing that they were closing the theater doors. They had built a new 12-plex in the Sequoia Mall and were giving up on the old movie house. Soon, the vacant Fox was for sale.
This series of decisions reverberated throughout the community. In its 66 years, the grand landmark theater had amassed a loyal fan base, and many were concerned about its future. The Tulare County Symphony began eyeing the building as a possible new home. The Visalia Times-Delta weighed in editorially and supported efforts to make it an arts center. Visalia Mayor Mary Louise Vivier publicly said she wanted the theater preserved and restored. Downtown merchants worried about the impact of the vacant entertainment center on downtown business.
When by the end of 1996 no serious buyer had come forward, a local grassroots group called "Friends of the Fox" formed. Organized and led by Rami Cherami, a teacher in the Visalia Unified School District, the non-profit group began working on a plan to acquire the theater, restore it, and reopen it to the public.
Then came the "Miracle on Main Street." In December, 1997, the owners of the theater thrilled the community by donating the Fox to the Friends. The new owners spiritedly continued fundraising for its restoration. By 1999, with the help of many donations and hundreds of volunteer hours, the Friends had been able to complete many major renovation projects and to fix most of the Fox's cosmetic needs. The Fox was again ready to receive a theater audience.
November 20, 1999, was the date set for the "Grand Re-Opening," featuring well-known pianist and composer Marvin Hamlisch as the guest performer. The long-awaited evening was truly a grand occasion, and a grateful and excited community flocked through the doors of the historic theater made enchanting and new once more.
Since 1999, the Fox has been operating regularly, thanks to the Friends of the Fox, who continue to solicit financial support for the numerous expensive restoration projects yet to be completed.
In 2011, the Friends' Board of Directors and Paul Fry, Theatre Manager, made the decision to pursue National Register of Historic Places listing for the iconic Fox building. Chris Brewer, the architectural historian hired to complete the long application process, reports that National Register status seems assured.
Visalia's fabulous Fox has stood at Main and Encina since 1930. A treasured historic building that was saved by citizens of its community for future generations, it stands as a tribute to those groups and individuals who have worked so tirelessly to protect and preserve it. Thanks to them, the Fox will continue to be a magical place where memories are made for many years to come.
Address: 300 W. Main Street, Visalia, CA
Latitude/Longitude: 36° 19′ 48.72″ N, 119° 17′ 41.28″ W
Note: W. Main Street is one-way to the east in the vicinity of the Fox Theatre.
From Hwy 198: