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Visalia Fox Theatre

Visalia Fox Theatre

First Opened: 27th February 1930 (89 years ago)

Reopened: 20th November 1999

Website: www.foxvisalia.org Open website in new window

Telephone: (559) 625-1369 Call (559) 625-1369

Address: 300 West Main Street, Visalia, CA 93291 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Featured Photos

Overview

The Visalia Fox Theatre was built by William Fox of Fox West Coast Theatres and opened in February 1930. It is one of California’s few remaining atmospheric theatres. The “blue sky” auditorium ceiling still features its original twinkling stars, and would have originally been enhanced with moving clouds adding to the atmospheric spectacle.

East Indian themed Pagoda, doubling as an Organ Chamber
East Indian themed Pagoda, doubling as an Organ Chamber

The theatre was designed by Los Angeles architects Floyd Stanbery and Clifford Balch, with a Spanish Mission exterior and East Indian theme inside. Howard Sheehan, vice president of Fox West Coast Theatres, 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”.

The Genie Above the Proscenium
The Genie Above the Proscenium

A giant Genie, flanked by elephants, looks out into the auditorium from above the proscenium arch, which is tapered from top to bottom. On either side of the proscenium are temple pagodas, each in a different style, housing the organ chambers in their upper sections. The House Right pagoda originally contained the Musicians’ Room with direct access to the Orchestra Pit. Murals on either side of the auditorium walls had a series of multi-colored lamps to illuminate them from below in themed colors: cool blue in the summer and warm red in the winter. The walls curve into a deep blue ceiling which contains twinkling stars.

In the years after its opening, if you were meeting a friend “at the theatre” everyone knew it meant the Fox. It was the center of Visalia’s entertainment and the grandest building on Main St. Built with a heating and cooling system, then air conditioning by Carrier installed in 1935, it was also the most pleasant place to be during the common 100-plus degree heat in the summer.

Clock Tower Lit With Neon
Clock Tower Lit With Neon

The Fox was wired for sound from the outset; Fox contracted with Western Electric to provide the highest quality sound and projection equipment in the theatre. The clock was reported to be the largest of its kind ever constructed when the theatre opened in 1930. Three-sided, it was lit up in neon and easily spotted from any direction, however the weight of the neon on the clock hands contributed to the unreliable nature of the mechanism, and the clock was known for often displaying the wrong time.

The theatre was equipped with an organ, some sources cite it as a Mighty Wurlitzer, however this seems unlikely given the recent move to talkies leading up to the theatre’s opening and William Fox’s advertised policy that the Fox would play only “talkies”. According to Dave Junchen’s Encyclopedia of the American Theater Organs Volume II, William Fox recycled a 2-manual 7-rank Robert Morton organ, dating from 1920, from the La Petite Theater in Santa Monica, for installation at the Fox. Whether the organ was a Robert Morton or the reported Wurlitzer Style 210, the theatre’s organ was sold in 1956 to Pete Sweeney, who had played the organ as a teen during intermissions at the theatre.

Wurlitzer Organ Console
Wurlitzer Organ Console

In late 1953 the Fox was fitted with a CinemaScope screen, resulting in the removal of the two huge urns flanking the stage at the edges of the proscenium arch. The massive screen’s placement meant that it was a permanent feature, entirely cutting-off the stage and rendering it obsolete.

In the 1970s management of the Fox changed hands from Fox West Coast to Mann Theatres. In August 1976, facing increased competition from two local drive-in theatres, it was announced that the Fox would be triplexed. The work started in early October and the first of the three new screens opened in early November, with the balance becoming operational by 25th November. The triplexing, which included driving a wall through the “Genie” above the center of the proscenium arch, was criticized by some of the local community as “slapdash ... [and] not intended to last”. First-run movies continued to be shown at the Fox for the next 20 years until a Mann Theatres 12-screen multiplex was opened at the nearby Sequoia Mall, at which point the Fox was closed for good. The last screening was “A Long Kiss Goodnight” on 7th November 1996.

A month after the theatre’s closing, Friends of the Fox was formed with the goal of acquiring the theatre and ultimately reopening it. By March 1997 they made a cash offer to the owners, Tulare Investment Corporation, however it was rejected. It was then suggested that the owners might donate the theatre to the Friends, but this too was rejected. However by November 1997 it seems the owners had a change of heart, as they agreed to donate the theatre to the Friends. Shortly thereafter the Fox’s marquee proclaimed a “Miracle on Main Street” to all who passed-by.

During the next two years the Friends undertook much work at the theatre, with many donations-in-kind coming from the local community. The triplexing was removed, returning the Fox to its original theatre configuration. The landmark clock tower, a very visible icon of the Fox however out of commission for years, was restored. In 1998 repairs to the clock and clock tower were completed and the clock restarted, and with its reinstated neon lighting it became a very visible reminder that repairs were moving forward at the theatre.

The Renovated Auditorium
The Renovated Auditorium

The Genie above the proscenium arch was recreated by Jamie Hitchcock and painted by Patrick Barszcz, faithful to the original design and color scheme. Barszcz went on to restore the auditorium murals, proscenium arch, and pagodas. In cleaning the south pagoda he removed 36 pounds of dirt including broken glass, bottle tops, and buttons!

The Fox’s grand reopening was in November 1999, in a dazzling evening featuring Marvin Hamlisch, and with a pre-event dinner in a huge tent stretching an entire city block outside the theatre.

In 2003 Porterville resident and American Theatre Organ Society member and enthusiast Ruth Dresser donated a Wurlitzer organ to the theatre, dating from either 1917 or 1919 (reports vary). The “new” organ is a 4-manual, 24-rank instrument, and much care was taken to fit the drastically increased number of pipes into the existing organ chambers. The Dresser gift also included an automated Baldwin baby grand piano, connected to the organ console, which now sits atop a platform in front of the House Left organ chamber.

The Friends of the Fox continue to manage the theatre which is open for film screenings, symphony performances, and live entertainment events.

How do I visit the Visalia Fox Theatre?

The Fox Theatre doesn’t currently offer tours so check out the theatre’s events calendar Link opens in new window for upcoming events.

Further Reading

Online

Books

Technical Information

Flying System
System Type Single purchase counterweight operated from Stage Right at Stage level
Grid Height 52ft
Linesets 10 (4 lift lines per batten), 2 used for lighting
General Information
Seating Capacity 1,275 (Orchestra 849, Balcony 426)
Movie Projection
Projection Booth to Screen Approximately 90ft
Projector EIKI LC-X986 Digital Projector
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height 24ft 10in
Proscenium Width 41ft 5in
Forestage Depth 3ft 6in
Stage Depth 20ft 8in
Thrust Stage Extension 12ft deep (covers Orchestra Pit)
Wing Stage Left 10ft wide
Wing Stage Right 16ft wide
Historic Photos & Documents

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Photos of the Visalia Fox Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium - Orchestra
  2. Auditorium - Balcony
  3. Auditorium - Wall Murals
  4. Stage From Auditorium
  5. Auditorium Closeups
  6. Lobby
  7. Lobby Closeups
  8. Box Office and Clock Tower
  9. Exterior
  10. Backstage
  11. Organ Chambers
  12. Projection Booth
Auditorium - Orchestra

The Orchestra level was designed to feel like sitting within an East Indian garden. Textured walls, windows, and sculptures gave way to colorful vistas in the distance, stars visible in the azure sky overhead, all framed by triumphal pagodas flanking the action onstage.

The theatre’s twinkling stars in the blue sky ceiling still work as of Summer 2019.

Auditorium - Balcony

The auditorium’s East Indian theme is best absorbed from the Balcony level where it is easy to see both pagodas, sidewall murals, plus the tapered proscenium; all within a single field of view.

Whereas the balcony does feature a starlit sky overhead, the vast majority of the balcony is utilitarian in design. One exception is the carved face in the plasterwork above the House Left exit. It has no symmetrical pair on the House Right side, and successive theatre managers have been left guessing as to who – or what – it represents.

Auditorium - Wall Murals

The theatre’s sidewall murals are one of its most important features, and a rarity amongst theatres in California. There are very few “atmospheric” theatres remaining in the US, never mind California, and the Fox Visalia is a prime example.

Renowned US theatre architect John Eberson popularized the “atmospheric” design, with the intent of transporting the patron to a more exotic place, such as a European courtyard or garden, with seemingly infinite vistas. Atmospheric theatres were generally asymmetrical as opposed to the traditionally symmetrical classical theatre design.

Atmospheric theatres took on many flavors from Spanish Mission (a favorite of Eberson’s, demonstrated by the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio) to South American ( Aztec Theatre, San Antonio). The Fox Visalia features an East Indian theme with large pagodas flanking the stage and a Genie, flanked by elephants, watching over the audience from the center of the proscenium.

Stage From Auditorium
Auditorium Closeups

Closeups include a sneak peek behind the walls where lights were hidden to uplight the “sky” walls and ceiling.

Also look out for the Moon Projector, a Brenkert focus spot from the late 1920s which was located on the House Left side of the auditorium and allegedly used to project the moon traveling over the cloudy and starry sky (any evidence of cloud projectors has long since disappeared). Whereas this seems an improbable story by today’s standards, the lantern is period-matched to the theatre’s opening and even has masking on one side so as not to be seen by the audience when in operation.

Lobby

True to the auditorium’s East Indian theme the lobby features elephants stenciled on almost every conceivable surface!

Architects Stanbery and Balch made a feature of the stepped underside of the balcony to help prepare us for the stepped pagodas and tapered proscenium which we will see upon entering the auditorium. Other details of note in the lobby are the original chandeliers.

Lobby Closeups
Box Office and Clock Tower
Exterior
Backstage

The flying system installation appears original to the 1930 opening of the theatre and was executed by Mr Armstrong’s company, apparently prior to his relationship with Mr Power.

It is interesting to note that the rigging facilities drop off rapidly as they move upstage. This is probably due to the start of the demise of Vaudeville, and the start of the rise of the movies, around the beginning of the 1930’s.

Organ Chambers

The theatre was originally equipped with a theatre organ however sources disagree as to its manufacturer and style. In 2003, Porterville resident and American Theatre Organ Society member and enthusiast Ruth Dresser donated a Wurlitzer organ to the theatre, dating from either 1917 or 1919 (reports vary). The “new” organ is a 4-manual, 24-rank, and much care was taken to fit the drastically increased number of pipes into the existing organ chambers. The Dresser gift also included an automated Baldwin baby grand piano, connected to the organ console, which now sits atop a platform in front of the House Left organ chamber.

The photographs below are from the House Left organ chamber.

Projection Booth

The projection booth retains its original 1930s switchboard, with DC generator and resistor banks located in the room above, however none of the original projection equipment survives. The theatre is currently equipped with a DLP system.



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