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Fox Theater Sign

The sign atop the Fox Fullerton Theater; will the lights ever come back on?.

A Brief History of the Fox Fullerton Theatre

The Fox Fullerton Theatre is located on the prominent corner of Harbor Boulevard and Chapman Avenue in historic downtown Fullerton, California, four miles north of Disneyland. The theater sits on a 152-foot by 140-foot parcel (.49 acres). Constructed in 1924-25 by active local businessman C. Stanley Chapman (1899-1984), son of the regionally famous Charles C. Chapman (1853-1944), the mixed-use building was designed to function as a combination vaudeville/silent movie house flanked by a one-story retail wing and a two-story café. It was named Chapman’s Alician Court Theatre after the builder’s wife Alice Ellen (1903-1981), but as ownership changed so did the name of the theater, and it was variously known as the Mission Court Theatre, the Universal Mission Court Theatre, the Fox Mission Theatre, and the Fox Fullerton Theatre. The theater’s first manager was C. Stanley Chapman’s father-in-law Harry Lee Wilber (1875-1946), who left another of Fullerton’s picture theaters, the nearby Rialto (1917) at 219 North Harbor Boulevard, to operate the Fox. The theater was originally located at 500 North Spadra (now Harbor) Boulevard. In 1929, an L-shaped commercial structure on an adjacent lot was added to the south side of the building. At various times over the years addresses changed, and the Fox is now situated at 510-512 North Harbor Boulevard.

The Italian Renaissance-inspired theatre has been the dominant landmark in Fullerton’s historic downtown area for over 70 years. Fullerton is one of the few cities in Orange County and Southern California at-large to both preserve and to maintain its downtown commercial core. The city’s oldest surviving commercial block the Dean Block (1899-1901) is situated at 111-133 North Harbor Boulevard, just four blocks south of the Fox Theatre. As Fullerton grew and expanded, downtown buildings were constructed northward on Spadra (later Harbor) Boulevard. The 1920s heralded an economic boom for the city, sparked in part by the citrus industry and oil wells in hills to the north. Building permits soared to a record $2 million, and the city launched an impressive (by 1920s standards) $150,000 public works program to make water, street, and sewage improvements. It was during this era of expansion that the Fox Fullerton Theatre was constructed at the then enormous cost of $300,000.

Commercial buildings of both historical and cultural significance built between 1899 and 1930 surround the Fox. These structures represent the roots of the community, and the downtown area still contains many of the city’s most impressive buildings. A number of nearby downtown buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Sullivanesque Chapman Building (1923) at 110 East Wilshire Avenue, the Beaux Arts Farmers and Merchants Bank (1904) at 122 North Harbor Boulevard, the Spanish Colonial Revival Plummer Auditorium (1930) at 210 East Chapman Avenue, and the recently restored former Masonic Temple (1919), now the Spring Field Banquet and Conference Center, at 505 North Harbor Boulevard, directly across from the Fox Theatre.

When dedicated on May 28, 1925, the Fox Fullerton Theatre was the show place of Orange County. Designed and built by Meyer and Holler, Inc., an influential firm noted for its opulent commercial and theatrical structures, the theater represented the height of Hollywood glamour and sophistication. The Fox Theatre was Orange County’s first authentic movie palace, and C. Stanley Chapman and his company Orange Belt Theatres lavishly promoted the theater’s opening and premier. The opening night program featured the "latest stereoscopic novelty" entitled Lunacy, vaudeville skits, and "the Famous Pacific Coast Star" Miss Florence Roberts and her Company in "The Woman Intervenes" by J. Hartley Manners, author of "Peg O’ My Heart." Some of the musical numbers included "The Voice of the Nightingale" with organ accompaniment, and as a prologue to the feature film, Alfred Noyes’ poem "The Highwayman" set to music, and a duet, "Moonlight and Roses." The feature film making its West Coast debut was Dick Turpin, which portrayed the cowboy star Tom Mix riding his horse throughout the English countryside. The movie was accompanied by stirring music from the orchestra pit conducted by Bayard Flass, who left the Orpheum circuit to take the Fullerton post. The theater also featured a Marr and Colton concert organ, which provided an extensive array of musical effects. When installed, the organ was one of the best in the world and the first on the Pacific Coast. The organ and the symphony orchestra combined to provide the correct interpretation of motion pictures.

Irregularly-shaped, the expansive 22,280 square foot theater was entered from Harbor Boulevard through an arched garden courtyard with a staircase on the north side reaching to the second story. Doors with mullioned windows and radiant panels lined the open Alician Court area, which served as a gathering place for theater- and moviegoers. In keeping with the building’s Italian Renaissance theme, the exterior featured a balcony, wrought-iron works, a fountain, reproductions of terra-cotta urns and vases, flowers, vines, and shrubbery, and a palm tree. The urn at the top of the stairs was the largest ever cast in California at the time. Hanging plants topped the two-story back portion. Above the loggia was an impressive Greek-inspired theatrical mask, part of a stone motif facing the boulevard, which had colored lights in the eyes. At the back of the announcement signs, facing the street, was a battery of colored floodlights that bathed the court.

When the one- and two-story building was constructed it not only met but also exceeded theatrical building requirements and standards and featured the then state-of-the-art in lighting, heating, and ventilation. The auditorium floor, interior partitions, and the framework were of steel, reinforced concrete, and hollow-tile. The 1000-seat theater auditorium featured a highly decorated proscenium arch, canvas murals, elaborate doorways, and large chandeliers and Mica lamps hanging from the ceiling. Large enough to accommodate traveling road shows, the stage was 32 feet deep, 65 feet wide, and contained a 75 foot-high loft for flying the scenery. The mezzanine featured Oriental rugs, a sunken alcove with couches, comfortable chairs, and a fireplace. Rather than padded carpeting, the Fox Theatre contained wooden floors, tile floors in the restrooms, and in the case of the foyer, a squared and stained cement floor. Oriental rugs were placed over the flooring. There were ten dressing rooms as well as a lounge area under the stage for actors and changing rooms for ushers. In keeping with the Italian Renaissance ambience, an elegant fountain graced the lobby, doorways to the loge and balcony were arched and had the appearance of Italian marble, ornate moldings and columns were added throughout the entire interior, lantern-like lamps with long, torch-like standards were hung on walls, and Renaissance-looking painted figures covered the domed ceilings. Blue and gold were the predominant colors.

Unlike other vaudeville/silent movie houses of the 1910s and 1920s, the theater was constructed to accommodate additional uses. The open courtyard was designed to be flanked by retail and restaurant wings. Adjacent to the north, but not part of the theater building proper, was the two-story Mary Louise Tea Rooms (502 North Harbor), owned by Charles C. Chapman’s sister, Dolla E. Harris (1864-1960), who owned the main tearoom in the Barker Brothers Department Store in downtown Los Angeles. Mrs. Harris’ establishments were known for their excellent service and dining elegance. Two years later, the Mission Inn replaced the tearooms. Adjacent to the south was a retail wing. Occupants of this single story section of the theater changed over the years, but the original tenant in 1926 was Laura’s Flower Shoppe (500 North Harbor).

Over the decades, the Fox Fullerton Theatre became popular with both tourists and residents. Theater promoters encouraged visitors to engage in a day of "motoring, dining, and theater" by taking the "orange-scented highway" to Fullerton where they would see the best in vaudeville, cinema art, music, and stage presentations. Movie premiers were regularly scheduled, and the theater featured personal appearances by many film luminaries, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, Vilma Banky, Colleen More, Janet Gaynor, Dolores Del Rio, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. Along with films, stock companies and big time stage shows, such as "George White’s Scandals", continued to appear at the theater until the 1950s.

When C. Stanley Chapman selected the building firm of Meyer and Holler, Inc. to design the Fox Fullerton Theatre, he hired a much sought after design firm noted for its lavish and custom-built residential and commercial structures throughout the Los Angeles area. Along with Benjamin Marcus Priteca and S. Charles Lee, Meyer and Holler dominated theater construction and design on the West Coast. Many of the firm’s architectural designs, especially those introduced at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, were imitated throughout the United States. Known until the mid-1920s as the Milwaukee Building Company, the firm was founded around 1907, maintaining offices in Los Angeles (315 Wright & Callendar Building). The firm initially specialized in building modest bungalows, but later the company expanded and began to specialize in custom-built homes in Mount Washington, Windsor Square, Santa Monica, Brentwood, and other fashionable suburbs. After World War I, the firm moved out of the homebuilding business into large-scale commercial construction. Holler’s son Wesley C. Holler (1893-1981) joined the firm around 1926 and after 1932 succeeded his father as Mendel S. Meyer’s partner. The firm remained in business until the 1940s, but the company began to decline after the 1929 Crash on Wall Street when its lavish architectural style became unfashionable.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Meyer and Holler had many influential film and business leaders as clients—Harry Chandler, Frank P. Flint, King Gillette, Samuel Meyer, King Vidor, Henry Culver, etc.—for whom they designed and built homes and movies studios throughout the Los Angeles region. Meyer and Holler also designed and built apartment buildings, hotels, banks, and churches, including the Long Beach Museum of Art (2300 East Ocean Boulevard), the historic Walker Building (401 Pine Avenue) in Long Beach, the Petroleum Building (417 West Olympic Boulevard) in Los Angeles, and the Mary Tustin House (4973 North Figueroa) in Los Angeles, a two-story Craftsman house built for the widow of Columbus Tustin, founder of the City of Tustin. A number of Meyer and Holler buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the early 1920s, the firm won contracts for many large structures in the heart of Hollywood, including the Hollywood Athletic Club (6525 Sunset Boulevard), Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (6712 Hollywood Boulevard), Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theatre (6925 Hollywood Boulevard), the First National Bank Building (6777 Hollywood Boulevard), second only in height to the Los Angeles City Hall when it was built in 1927, and the Café Montmarte (6753 Hollywood Boulevard), one of the most glamorous nightclubs of the time. It is primarily these Hollywood buildings that have established the worldwide fame of Meyer and Holler. The Egyptian Theatre is considered Hollywood’s first authentic movie palace, and Meyer and Holler’s masterpiece, the Chinese Theatre, is the most famous movie palace in the world, still attracting millions of tourists to its legendary courtyard. It was between the design and building of the Egyptian Theatre (1922) and the Chinese Theatre (1927) that Meyer and Holler designed and completed the Fox Fullerton Theatre. The Fox Fullerton Theatre remains the firm’s major architectural contribution to Orange County. It is also the only one of Meyer and Holler’s small-to-midsize theaters that survives.

In designing their opulent movie palaces, Meyer and Holler specialized in what is now called "exotic" or "theme-oriented" architecture which catered to the wildest fantasies of movie patrons. The firm’s movie houses generally featured a standard floor plan, forecourts, and simple and plain surfaces. Approaches to the theaters were through a dramatic courtyard opening on to a busy boulevard. Once inside the forecourt, moviegoers were treated to fantastical, highly decorative, and elaborate motifs, all magically designed to transport visitors to another time and place. Each design element—theater seats, carpets, drapes, drinking fountains, stage curtains, furniture, ticket booths, landscaping, etc.—was organized around a central architectural theme. The Chinese Theatre, for instance, featured such Far Eastern effects as red doors, a pagoda, intricately carved silver dragon sculptures, and a gong in the courtyard. The Italianate Fox Fullerton Theatre, in turn, featured decorative elements and motifs all designed to recall the Italian Renaissance. Each of Meyer and Holler’s theaters were unique, although imitation by other architects quickly followed.

One unique feature of the Fox Theatre’s interior was six dazzling canvas murals on the walls of the auditorium featuring different periods of the discovery, settlement, and development of California. The three panels on the right wall (facing the stage) depicted the Spanish discovery and exploration period; the three panels on the left wall displayed California’s earliest days, including the coming of pioneers. C. F. Brunkhorst, an artist working for the firm of A. T. Heinsbergen and Company, designed all of the murals. In the 1920s when the company reached its height in popularity, Brunckhorst was one of over 180 artist painters employed by the company. These artistic crewmembers created tapestries and painted spectacular ceilings and wall decorations, coordinating the artwork to complement theater décor.

Anthony T. Heinsbergen (1895-1981), a nationally acclaimed Dutch-born muralist, began his craft as an apprentice in Holland. He migrated to Los Angeles in 1906. His reputation was established in 1924 when Alexander Pantages selected him to do the interiors of his chain of 22 theaters. During his long career, Heinsbergen decorated the interiors of 757 theaters throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico (probably close to 200 survive). The Fox Theatre murals were Heinsbergen’s major commission in Orange County. His major commissions in Los Angeles included murals for the Los Angeles City Hall (200 North Spring Street), the downtown Biltmore Hotel (506 South Grand Avenue), and the Wiltern Theatre (3790 Wilshire Boulevard), the showcase movie palace for Warner Brothers. He was most proud of his classically inspired murals for the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia, where his favorite mural is 70 feet above the floor. A labor of love, the mural was painted on canvas by Heinsbergen in his studio, then applied to the dome like wallpaper. Heinsbergen used a variety of painting styles for his murals, but he is largely remembered for his "delightful mish-mash of byzantine sumptuousness, Art Deco cubism and pure kitsch, perfect for the timeless and vulgar opulence of moving-going."

In 1955, the vibrantly colored murals in the Fox Theatre were painted over. In 1989, the owner of the Fox Theatre called out Tony Heinsbergen, the son of Anthony Heinsbergen and the current owner of the company, to determine the feasibility of restoring the murals. After examining the murals, Mr. Heinsbergen noted that an initial sampling of them indicated four were covered with a water-based paint and could be easily restored. The rear two, however, hanging on the right and left balcony area, had been painted over several times and different paints had been used, making restoration difficult. Heinsbergen recommended that these murals be reproduced rather than restored. All of the original drawings remain at the offices of A. T. Heinsbergen and Company in West Hollywood. The company now specializes in both interior decoration and restoration work. The firm coordinated the restoration of murals in the Fresno Tower Theatre and the Orinda Theatre.

In 1929, West Coast Theaters began to lease and manage the theater, then known as the Universal Mission Court Theatre. West Coast Theaters later merged with the Fox Film Corporation, and it was in the 1930s that the Fullerton movie house became known as the Fox Fullerton Theatre. The Fullerton theater was one of many cinemas operated by the Fox West Coast Agency, but it was the largest theater owned by the company in Orange County. The original builder of the theater C. Stanley Chapman traded the theater and other buildings in March 1930 for a 940-acre ranch between Redlands and San Bernardino owned by Mr. A. Gregory.

The interior and exterior of the Fox Theatre were altered in 1929, 1930, and again in 1955. Alterations to the theater paralleled technological changes in the film industry. To accommodate sound and the advent of "talkies", "highly scientific equipment" was added to the then Mission Court Theatre in 1929 at a cost of $35,000. Unveiled to an eager audience on February 17, 1929, the new sound equipment brought all three types of talking pictures—Vitaphone, Movietone, and Photophone—to the theater, making the Fox the first theater in Orange County to feature talking pictures. The first "all-dialogue" picture shown in Orange County was Give and Take starring Jean Hersholt and George Sidney. In 1930, the Fox West Coast Agency embarked on a mission to "modernize" the theater. The entrance and forecourt were expanded and remodeled using the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as a model. The box office, which had been located in the main part of the building, was placed directly in the center of the forecourt near the sidewalk. The original attraction board was removed and replaced by a neon marquee installed directly above the arched entranceway to the theater. A large neon Fox Theatre sign, visible for miles, replaced the illuminated Mission Theatre sign on the rear roof. To bring viewing depth to featured films, a mammoth Magnascope screen—27 feet in length and running the length of the stage—was added. The interior was also redecorated and refurbished: new carpet was laid throughout the theater, new drapes were added, and new furniture was installed in the foyer and mezzanine. In 1955, the Mann Corporation made additional changes to both the interior and exterior. To accommodate changes again in technology, a new "stereophonic" sound system was installed, and a wider "eye intensity" curved movie screen that ran wall-to-wall and was adaptable to CinemaScope, 3D, or VistaVision was installed. New seats, carpet, and drapes were added, along with a colorful concession bar, and a new "free-flowing" Westinghouse air-conditioning system. To take advantage of America’s growing fascination with the automobile, which increased traffic down Harbor Boulevard, glitzy changes were made to the theater’s exterior. The 1930 marquee was replaced with a projecting center neon marquee. Glass frame poster boards were added, and the 1930 box office was replaced by a modernized version.

In May 1987, the theater was closed when it became too costly for the existing independent theater operator to run and repair. Mr. Edward G. Lewis, an attorney who lives and works in Los Angeles, currently owns the Fox Fullerton Theatre, which is for sale. The Fullerton Redevelopment Agency is seeking a qualified buyer who will sensitively restore the theater, a City of Fullerton designated historic landmark.

"Chapman’s Alician Court Theatre [Opening Night Program]." Fullerton, CA: [Privately Published, 1925.

"Chinese Theater at Hollywood, California." American Architect, August 20, 1927, p. 251-268.

"C. S. Chapman City Holdings in New Hands: A. Gregory, Redlands, Exchanges Ranch,

Includes Theater." Fullerton Daily News Tribune, March 31, 1930, p. 1.

"Front Court to Be Ablaze: Theatre in Hollywood Serves as Model." Fullerton Daily News Tribune, October 2, 1930, p. 1.

"Fullerton to Get New Showhouse." Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1924, pt. 5, p. 5.

Gebhard, David and Robert Winter. Los Angeles: an Architectural Guide. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs-Smith, 1994.

Glass, Jeff. "Artist Was Famous for Deliberate Excess [Heinsbergen]." Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1981, pt. 1, p. 14.

Jennings, Frederick. "A Theater Designed in the Egyptian Style." Architect and Engineer, March 1923, p. 77-84.

Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown. Pasadena: Navigator Press, 1997.

Naylor, David. American Picture Palaces: the Architecture of Fantasy. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.

Pildas, Ave. Movie Palaces: Survivors of an Elegant Era. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1980.

Ryon, Ruth. "Old Firm Keeps Young Remolding Past; Theater and Hotels Among Its Major Restoration Projects." Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1985, pt. 8, p. 2.

Sexton, R. W. and B. F. Betts. American Theatres of Today. New York: Architectural Book Publishing Company, Inc., 1927.

Silverman, Stephen M. The Fox That Got Away. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1988.

"Talking Films Open Sunday: Mission Theater to Offer Latest in Photoplay Entertainment Here." Fullerton Daily New Tribune, February 16, 1929, p. 1.


Comments or questions about the history of the Fox Fullerton Theatre may be referred to Debora Richey.

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