Joshua Tehee

Grassroots effort underway to restore Fresno’s historic Crest Theatre

Several Hollywood stars attended the opening of the Crest Theatre at Fresno Street and Broadway on July 7, 1949.
Several Hollywood stars attended the opening of the Crest Theatre at Fresno Street and Broadway on July 7, 1949. FRESNO BEE

Sometimes revitalization happens en masse, with government money and City Council debate and a groundswell of public support – as was the case with the Fulton Mall’s conversion to Fulton Street at groundbreaking last week.

Other revitalization efforts are quieter, more grass-roots.

For instance, the small group of people working on The Crest Theatre restoration project. In January, theater manager Dee Ann Hull put word out on social media that the downtown theater was looking to restore its signature marquee and tower and that she needed performers and artists willing to help, even in the smallest ways.

“She was asking for artists to paint old movie posters to put up in the front of the theater,” says Lisa Dines, one local artist who answered the call. “I don’t paint, but I do stained glass.”

So, Dines created a pair of stained-glass bathroom signs for the theater. They will replace the original signs, which were put in back in 1948 and read “Ladies and Gentlemen” in green etched glass. Like many pieces of the theater, the signs had disappeared over the years.

Dines spent two months working on the stained glass, following art deco designs she found online. She wanted the signs to look as original as possible.

In all, she spent $50 in materials.

It was a small thing, perhaps, but it shows Dines’ appreciation for the theater and what it represents. The real estate agent and clinical counselor (stained-glass art is a hobby) has lived in Fresno for only a few years and didn’t realize the full extent of historic buildings that were in the city’s urban core. Then she visited the Crest with Hull and became enamored.

“All this. In Fresno. Who would have thought?” Dines says.

The Crest Theatre was built in 1948 and opened in 1949 as one of several ornate movie theaters downtown. It was built in the art deco style popular at the time, with ornate golden plasterwork on the walls and ceilings.

“Of particular significance is the building’s 50-foot-tall sign, which is the most elaborate example of commercial neon work in Fresno,” according to the website historicfresno.org, which has a list of buildings on the local historic register. The Crest was added in 2010.

Hull’s family has owned the 588-seat theater since 1996, when her mother, Gloria León, bought it from actors Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft (though Brooks was not there when León signed the final paperwork, a fact she is still sad/mad about).

León is a story in and of herself. She started her first business as a child in Mexico, selling American candy and renting (yes, renting) magazines. She moved to Fresno at 15. She had owned several businesses in the Crest Theatre building before she bought it.

The Crest has remained a movie theater of sorts, hosting a series of Mexican and Indian film premieres. For a while, it was used as a church. The family works with outside promoters to bring in special events and live concerts.

León’s favorites are the EDM (electronic dance music) shows. You can often find her out on the dance floor.

So, the theater is far from shuttered. The last EDM show drew 900-plus people. But the family would like to do more events and eventually handle the promotions themselves.

But that is down the road.

A lot of people grew up coming here. They have a connection. They see something beautiful.

Crest Theatre manager Dee Ann Hull

For now, they’ll start with the marquee and neon, because it’s the most visible. The volunteer group is working to form a proper nonprofit (Friends of the Crest) to start raising money for the project, which Hull pegs at $250,000. After the marquee, they want to focus on a full restoration of the theater, Hull says, though that kind of project could take eight years or more.

There are several fundraiser events already in the works, including a “Peace on Earth” EDM concert April 16 and another in early May that will coincide with the city’s Historic Preservation Week.

The theater needs to be preserved, says Jason Hatwig, who sits on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and is helping with the event, because its worth extends well beyond the obvious architecture and history.

“It’s about the people and the culture and the music,” he says. “Just to have that tie.”

Hatwig points to Sacramento’s Crest Theatre as an example of what is possible. That theater went through a complete restoration, including refurbishment of its neon sign in 2009, and is now a vibrant part of downtown Sacramento.

It won’t happen without help. Hull knows as much. She has tried working with the city and others to secure grant funding. She has had little success. She hopes, with new excitement and empowerment from the community, the theater can finally return to its former glory.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of people getting involved,” she says. “This is what we need.”

This – people willing to donate their talents, even if it’s to make a couple of bathroom signs – is how it starts.

Downtown is finally at the point we can maybe make it work.

Marcus Maurrietta, a local promoter working to revitalize the Crest Theatre

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

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