On the evening of Feb. 27, 1930, something big was about to happen. Not “town of Visalia” big. What Visalia was getting was something larger than its population of slightly more than 7,000. What Visalia was getting was Valley big.
It was built, and they did come by the thousands, from all over, to see something grand. The lucky hundreds who had secured tickets for the evening show felt like Hollywood red-carpet royalty as they entered the lavish lobby. The evening’s showing of “The Lone Star Ranger” was part of the emerging cinematic advancement of sound added to film.
What they came to see was the opening of Visalia’s downtown Fox Theatre, a mission-style building that stood majestically on the westernmost part of downtown’s business district along Main Street. The theatre was designed to transfer customers to a different place and time, and those who entered were not disappointed.
The state-of-the-art complex was part of a larger nationwide trend, as Twentieth Century Fox theatres and the new “talkie” films spread across the nation. Each Fox was decorated as an atmospheric theater. Some were designed with Egyptian motifs, others as Mayan temples or Moorish palaces.
The Visalia Fox was designed to appear as a Spanish mission-style building.
Its prominent feature was the towering lighted clock tower, which was fitted on three sides with large timepieces, visible for blocks around. The inside was decorated with an eastern Indian deco appearance. Two replica palaces flank the stage, with painted gardens on the walls that create a peaceful atmosphere. A grand genie face sits above the stage, overlooking it all.
In the lobby, 154 single-file elephants are painted on the sides of the ornate ceiling cross beams high above the plush carpet. The ceiling was painted blue, with actual twinkling electric stars in it. The $225,000 building was well ahead of its time, and Visalia was getting something special.
Right away, theatre management went to work breathing life into the theatre experience. There were various promo-tions offered in the opening decade, all designed to attract the community to be part of it all. Along with the movie screen that could be retracted, a full performing stage was present.
Management searched for wild ways to draw crowds. In June 1930, as a promotion of the theatre world, the famed Leo the Lion was brought to Visalia and displayed to the public. Leo was the MGM mascot, his famous roar seen at the start of MGM’s movies. Acts like Zaro
the Famous Astrologist entertained by giving advice on various aspects of life, while including feats of magic. The “Mechanical Man,” who was vaudeville and circus famous, performed outside, offering $100 to anyone who could make him “laugh, smile or talk” while he was locked in a pose.
In 1933, the theatre offered to produce a full-scale wedding on stage. All of the decorations and wedding atmosphere items, along with a honeymoon trip to San Francisco, were provided by the theatre. Local merchants donated items, taking advantage of the notoriety, giving the lucky couple a handsome proverbial dowry reported worth several hundreds of dollars. The only catch: The wedding was done publicly. The theatre picked a young couple who were given much more of a wedding than they were going to be able to provide for themselves.
Other wild and bizarre acts were intelligent animal circuses that promised a “complete circus on stage.” One act was headlined: “Featuring Ginger the Comedy Mule.” The Fox also became the place to see vaudeville shows of both local and traveling comedic, dramatic or dancing troupes performing on stage. Children-oriented acts and Saturday morning “kiddie performances” were routine on stage. Soon after the birth of this trend, the theatre was dubbed “Vaud-Fox-Ville” because of the opportunity to routinely see shows.
Along with onstage presentations, management looked for ways to draw in a constant flow of movie customers.
It was still before home television, but in 1930, the nation was fresh into the Depression. Movie attendance started to rise again, but still needed an added push to get the crowds. On traditionally slow nights, attendance was boosted through promotions like Cash Night Wednesdays. Here, a random name from the phone book was chosen. If the person was in attendance, they would win a cash prize. If they weren’t, the cash rolled over to the next week until the prize was claimed.
In 1938, there was the Million Dollar Legs contest and later the Rage of Paris leg contest. These were promotions created using the same name of the movies playing that evening. Contestants would show up and walk across the stage; the curtain was drawn waist level so the participants stayed anonymous to the cheering audience. The most reaction won a cash prize for the evening. Other promotions were “Ham-n-Bacon Night,” where the theatre drew the names of lucky attendees who literally took home the bacon.
In 1940, the Fox hosted a Bob Hope film called “Ghost Breakers.” On opening night, the first 25 patrons to wear a ghost costume were admitted free. Soon after, as the United States entered World War II, the theatre became a multi-usage facility. Thus came the opportunity to promote the sale of war bonds and stamps, with visuals on screen stressing the importance of the patriotic move. The theatre, as well as the other Fox theatres across the country, paired with the March of Dimes, the nonprofit that provides medical well-being for mothers and babies. The community was able to enjoy an escape into the movies, while helping benefit realities within our country.
As wartime rolled on, the Fox lost some staff members, including management, when the boys went overseas to defend the nation. The theatre became in many ways more important than ever. In a time of great fear, the Fox provided the community therapeutic escape for a few hours in a day. Visalia’s Mayor J. Pierce Gannon recognized this and proclaimed, “It is at the theater, for a few hours, where relaxation may be done in order that the all-out war effort may be carried ahead, hard the next day.”
As the ’50s arrived, wartime had begun its journey into history, and locally Visalia’s population boomed, from roughly 12,000 in 1950 to 75,000 in 1990. These decades all presented their challenges to the theatre. In 1950, management presented the latest craze in movies. The 3-D experience featured movies that typically dealt with action or horror. Moviegoers wore disposable glasses with special plastic filmed lenses that brought more “life” to the screen. Along with this, the Fox made a programming change that would end the days of full stage productions. This came with installation of the CinemaScope screen, which was larger and wider. The experience proved to bring moviegoers away from the trending television sets and back to the theatre. However, with the opening of the Visalia Theatre on Main and Garden streets and construction of two drive-in movie theatres in town, the Fox continued to struggle.
In November 1976, after a six-week hiatus, the theatre, which now belonged to Mann Theatres, was refitted as a triplex theatre. Over the next couple of decades, the theatre started to show its age. Slow upkeep and failing utilities ran down the spirit of the place. Pieces of the old theatre were broken off and sold. Lavish historical paintings were taken off the walls and sold. A grand pipe organ that had been part of the theatre for much of its history, played before stage shows or during intermission, was dismantled and sold, as management didn’t want to pay tax on an instrument that “wasn’t being used.”
The Fox, worn-down and beaten, almost forgotten by the community where it once stood as a symbol of prominence, showed its last movie on Nov. 7, 1996. Fittingly, the movie title was “A Long Kiss Goodnight,” shown to roughly a dozen attendees. And then the theatre’s lights were turned out and it closed its doors.
Almost immediately, a concerned coalition of community members formed. This was the grassroots effort that led to formation of Friends of the Fox, a volunteer group still active in preservation of the theatre, a nonprofit created to return the tired theatre to its former glory days. The group persuaded the Los Angeles owner to donate the theatre to the town. Ultimately, more than $1 million in donations were spent on refurbishing, painting and polishing the theatre. The end result sought by the Friends was to make the property once again the crown jewel of Visalia. And on Nov. 20, 1999, three years after the initial closing, the dream came to life.
The history of the Fox Theatre reads like a beautiful love story. In its time of youth, the theatre seemed to be something that would live forever. Eventually, growth and progress took away much of the former attention and affection for the building as Visalia took the property for granted. It just took a moment for visionary community members to realize what we were about to lose, while we still had it, and the love story of our beloved theatre was born anew.
*Much of the historical information within this article was found thanks to the Visalia Branch Library archive center, which contains historical clips from the Visalia Times Delta, as well as the marvelous book “Visalia’s Fabulous Fox,” which is available
at the library.