He was only 7 years old, but Rick Davis still remembers how proud he felt sitting next to his father, Luther, in the VIP section reserved for World War II veterans when Audie Murphy's 1955 movie, "To Hell and Back," opened at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield.
A few years later, a 13-year-old Davis sat in the theater's balcony, trying to sneak a kiss from a girl who slapped his face.
In high school, Davis performed on the theater's stage with his Nelson Davis Trio, sharing the program with folk star Glen Campbell.
"The Fox is part of me. Defining moments in my life have occurred at the Fox," Davis recalled during a recent interview.
Kern County's retired Board of Trade executive director and a former music store owner, Davis is the president of the Fox Theater Foundation. Formed in 1994 to salvage the iconic building at H and 20th streets from abandonment, the foundation is dedicated to restoring and maintaining the Fox, and providing an entertainment venue for metropolitan Bakersfield.
Davis and foundation board members hope to tap people's fond memories of the Fox and desire to support the arts during a membership campaign being launched Tuesday.
"We all have special memories of the Fox," said board member Phyllis Adams, noting that the theater opened on Christmas Day in 1930 with the showing of the science fiction musical comedy "Just Imagine," starring Maureen O'Sullivan, Ed Brendel and John Garrick. The movie imagined what the world would be like in 50 years (1980) -- complete with high rise buildings, hovering aircraft and a flight to Mars.
In the more than four decades that followed, Bakersfield families filled the Fox's seats to view movies, attend live entertainment events and marvel at its lavish blend of Spanish colonial and art deco.
"I remember being a little kid, seeing Disney films at the Fox," said board member Scott Fieber. "I remember going into that huge auditorium. It looked even bigger as a small child."
The 1,500-seat theater was designed by Los Angeles architect S. Charles Lee. After being one of the few downtown buildings to survive the 1952 earthquake, its original Mediterranean village interior was replaced with a contemporary art deco theme. A concession area was added and the entrance adorned with 1950s vintage glitz and neon.
But competition from other entertainment options and the advent of modern multi-screen theaters led to the closure of the Fox in 1977. Except for a brief period in the mid-1980s, the building loomed lifeless over H Street.
Fieber, who then was restoring buildings at Kern County's Pioneer Village, passed by the Fox almost every day as he drove to work. Its abandonment tugged at his heart. So did Cathy Butler at the Downtown Business Association.
Fieber was recruited by a group of downtown business owners and Fox devotees to help buy the old building and restore it for use as an entertainment center.
"The Fox was almost torn down. It was practically falling apart. At that time, downtown was in a state of disrepair," recalls Peggy Darling, a member of the foundation board and the owner of nearby downtown property. Darling and others hoped restoring the Fox would provide a renaissance for the entire downtown.
With a $500,000 loan obtained by the fledgling Fox Theater Foundation, the building was acquired in 1994. Donations for restoration came in the form of money and sweat equity, with volunteers dedicating hours of work to repairing and restoring the building.
As the foundation was steadily paying off the mortgage, the theater's heating and air-conditioning system gave out in 2005. The mortgage was refinanced to raise $190,000 for a new system. A year later, a $70,000 line of credit was arranged to pay for upgrading and repair of adjacent retail space, which is leased out to provide income for the theater. Today, the Fox mortgage is $554,000, with donations and theater revenue used to make payments.
Turning point for the Fox
Over the years, the foundation has struggled mightily under the financial burden of paying off debts and funding repairs. But a turning point came in 2009, when the foundation brought in professional theater management.
"It was a huge decision," recalled Davis, of the move to lease operation of the building to the late Danny Lipco and his company, aVenueTek, which books and promotes entertainment at the Fox.
Davis said the arrangement frees the foundation to focus on its mission of preserving the Fox, while professionals focus on arranging top-level entertainment. In 2011 alone, there was rarely a dark weekend at the Fox. Entertainers performing at the Fox included Sheryl Crow, My Chemical Romance, the Monkees, Merle Haggard and B.B. King.
Lipco died unexpectedly in January. His company, which includes family members and trusted staff, continues the Fox contract.
"What Danny wisely did was to run his business by mentoring and training everyone," said Davis, noting that the Fox Theater Foundation is in the process of negotiation an extension of aVenueTek's contract beyond its January 2013 expiration date.
'They won't build any like it today'
The foundation also is refocusing this month on building its membership.
"Every year, we turn to the community to help us continue our mission of preserving the theater for present and future generations. Just as many of you experienced the magic of the Fox as a child, so should your children and grandchildren have that opportunity," Davis wrote in a letter inviting people to become a "Friend of the Fox."
The membership drive and fundraising campaign is being launched to help fund much-needed improvements to the building. Already, The Bakersfield Californian foundation has stepped forward with a $16,000 grant to refurbish the theater's marquee. Center Neon, which is repairing the lighting, hired Antonio Saldana to repaint the marquee.
"So much has been done to rescue the building and make the Fox Theater into a unique downtown landmark. We wanted to support those efforts," explained Tracey Cowenhoven, vice president of The Bakersfield Californian Foundation. The Fox grant was part of more than $111,000 in donations the foundation made in its fall grant cycle to Kern County nonprofits that are focused on improving downtown Bakersfield.
Several major restoration projects have been identified by the Fox Theater Foundation as 2012 priorities. Some are ongoing projects, such as the multi-phase upgrade to the movie presentation system.
Upgrading of the lighting system, which was started in the late 1990s, has included replacing the spotlights and most of the onstage lighting. Purchase of the main lighting, and truss and dimming systems will complete the upgrade.
Improving the theater's sound system is another multi-year project. While the new systems, which are designed by Pacific West Sound, will not support large concerts, they are focused on the theater's smaller and mid-sized clients.
"While [sound and lighting] equipment can be rented from local vendors, we elected to build house systems through grants, donations and in-kind" contributions, said Davis. "We have been able to improve our in-house systems to the level that many groups use our gear, which reduces our per-show expenses.
"Our fundraising efforts in these areas will take us the final steps to state-of-the-art equipment that will further reduce renting gear and improve profits that can be used for restoration projects."
A large project looming at the Fox is re-upholstering 1,540 theater seats. The project is expected to cost around $160,000. Already $60,000 has been raised for the effort.
Fieber noted that the plaster on the inside of the building needs to be refreshed and reinforced.
The ceiling murals in the lobby have suffered from decades of popcorn grease. An art conservator will be brought in to evaluate the cost and scope of restoration.
Fieber likened the Fox to an old ship that constantly needs attention and a new coat of paint. But the investment has its rewards.
"If you are a native of Bakersfield or have ever been in a movie palace, you know this place is unique. They won't build any like it today," Fieber said.