If I could somehow pry myself loose from the crush of my current workload and from the marvelous entanglements presented at home by my two small children, I would be on my way from DC to Oakland, California right now. Why? No, not because flying to Oakland is a cheaper way to get to San Francisco. I mean I wish I was in Oakland. At 1807 Telegraph, to be exact. Tonight the Fox Theatre is opening its doors for the first time in forty years. Thanks to a whole lot of dough (including $11.4 million in tax credit equity from our very own National Trust Community Investment Corporation) and a whole lot of courage from a lot of stubborn and resourceful people, this beloved landmark that had been essentially left for dead is no longer playing to a house full of fungi. (I’m not exaggerating: back in the 90s, when the place was long abandoned, the leaky roof let mushrooms take root. Pretty sure they didn’t pay admission.)
Tonight, the Fox will host a grand opening gala event with a program of top-notch performers to celebrate this $70 million achievement. But it’s not the entertainment that has me mentally tallying my frequent flier miles and considering my post-pregnancy wardrobe (neither is very inspiring). It’s the theatre itself, of course. Tonight’s lucky attendees will behold its mystical golden deities, its Art Deco ticket booth (painstakingly restored thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Trust’s joint program with American Express, Partners in Preservation), its opulent dome -- all looking as resplendent as they did on opening night in 1928. This vaudeville theatre defined the glamour of uptown Oakland, where sweethearts could spend a magical evening, where families relaxed together, dazzled by an interior so fine the theatre was originally to be named the Bagdad [sic] — so think Baghdad circa 800 A.D., not 2003. And today’s Fox Oakland is certainly befitting of its glorious past. In addition to becoming a world-class performing arts center, it also now houses a tuition-free public charter school for the arts. So as grand as the Fox was back in 1928, I believe it is even better today.
In its heyday, the theatre drew crowds with it Mighty Wurlitzer organ, live shows and “talkies,” those novel moving pictures with sound. Like most downtown theatres, its demise was hastened by the television and the advent of suburban multiplexes. The theater’s descent was mercilessly slow: it stopped showing first-run films in 1962, briefly dabbled in softcore porn films, was hit by an arsonist in 1973, was threatened with demolition to make way for a parking lot in 1975 -- and of course there was that indignity with the mushrooms.
How did this remarkable transformation come to be? Well, in 1996 the City of Oakland took ownership of the building from a local couple who bought it at auction. They had courted at the theatre and couldn’t bear to see it lost. Yet it was a full three years before much-needed restoration work began. (Local preservationists were essential in getting the City’s attention and action—Preservationists: 1, Mushrooms 0). The roof was repaired, the marquee re-lit and the sign restored.
But work didn’t really take off until developer Phil Tagemi entered the picture. He stepped in and made the City an offer they couldn’t refuse. Fortunately Tagemi had earned some street cred for his rehab of a department store across from City Hall. The City agreed to his role. What he accomplished over the next eight years is nothing short of heroic. His California Capital Group partnered with NTCIC, Bank of America, Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency and others to assemble a complex financial package, including both historic and New Markets Tax Credits, that ultimately made the rebirth of the Fox possible. This support and the labor of countless skilled professionals means that the theater’s art deco design and its one-of-a-kind Indian and Hindu has been preserved--but not at the expense of the theater’s function. It now sports a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, new heating and air conditioning, mechanical and electrical systems, as well as cable and Internet access. A substantial investment was also made in a seismic retrofitting of the historic structure. By embodying these dual goals, of preserving what makes the Fox so unique, yet elevating it to meet the standards for today’s audiences make it at once a thoroughly modern performance space and an architectural anachronism.
Which is all to say the stage is set for the Fox Oakland to be a huge hit. The theater now holds a 2,800 seat live performing arts theater that already has an impressive line-up of musicians and performers from all over the globe. Its administrative, studio and classroom space for the Oakland School for the Arts provides a truly inspiring home for its students -- two-thirds of whom are from Oakland and are African-American. It is the city’s highest scoring high school academically, yet it had been using tents and trailers to accommodate its 340 students. The School is also hoping to draw in a youth symphony, a youth jazz band, and a gospel choir. I can only imagine how spine-tingling the acoustics must be in this place.
And the news isn’t just good for arts enthusiasts, preservationists, and theater-buffs. The Fox Oakland will anchor the long-awaited renaissance of an Uptown entertainment district of theaters, restaurants, and nightspots. So I guess I’ll have to wait to make my debut at the Fox Oakland. But that’s ok. I’ll keep saving those frequent flier miles. And hopefully by the time I have enough, I’ll be back into those pre-pregnancy clothes…
Oh -- and stay tuned... we'll have photo's from tonight's grand opening in a few days!
– Erica Stewart
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the Community Revitalization department at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.