Everything was turning around for the Fox Theater Foundation. A new house manager. New faces on the board of directors. A new, simpler business model. And a collective resolve, in the wake of the Bob Bender affair, to be more vigilant landlords, and responsible stewards, of the municipal treasure they operate and so cherish.
Then came last week's Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony concert and a homicide on the street just outside the theater. Just what the Fox didn’t need to slow its latest comeback: The possibility that patrons who'd squealed delightedly through innocent screenings of "Goonies" and "Ghostbusters" a generation before might be too spooked to return.
Some self-reflection seemed in order. More self-reflection. They'd already been doing some of that and it stemmed from this: The Fox was burned last year when $154,000 went missing — ticket revenue from a standup comedy show promoted by Icon Entertainment.
Icon pointed a finger at Bender, to whom the foundation leased the theater as its exclusive agent; Bender stopped answering his phone and hired a criminal defense attorney; and Bakersfield police investigated.
The BPD ultimately declined to pursue charges and Bender filed for bankruptcy, but some damage had been done to the Fox's image.
Enter Matt Spindler, hired as the theater's full-time house manager last spring. Spindler, who previously managed the Visalia Fox, was tasked with essentially filling Bender's old role securing the venue's rental contracts. Only this time the foundation's executive board would be kept fully in the loop.
"When you go through a hard time like we did last year, you really take a hard look," said Vikki Peterson, the foundation's second vice president and publicity manager. "'What did we do wrong?' What went wrong was, when you have a subcontractor in the building and you don't pay close attention, things can fly by.
"Matt's on staff," she said. "He's in the office. And the executive board is extremely involved. Every part of the operation, we review it."
Post-Bender business clicked without a noticeable hitch until the evening of Feb. 18 and the hip-hop concert. That's the night 19-year-old Kasey Villegas was fatally stabbed in the street after attending the show.
Bakersfield police arrested three men in connection with the incident, which stemmed from a fight outside the H Street theater a little before 11 p.m.: Joel Rodriguez, 26, Efrain Ugues, 32, and Jesse Reyes, 33, each booked on suspicion of murder, conspiracy and participation in a criminal street gang, or some combination thereof. As of Friday, police were still looking for a fourth suspect, 36-year-old Heralcio Ugues.
Peterson is convinced the Fox took all due precaution.
"This was uncommon," she said. "A lot of people will associate it now with the Fox, but that knife was never inside our building. We have metal detectors, we do (handbag) searches. It started across the street. Like any large fight, it gravitates.
"It wasn't the genre of the music," she said. "It was the people — the actions of a few. And that happens — it happens everywhere."
Indeed it does, but thankfully not often.
In November 2015, a fight at the Padre Hotel, two blocks south, escalated into a gunfight when, at about 2 a.m., a man fired at an officer and, after a foot chase, was fatally shot by another officer.
"I've had people say, 'We're kind of afraid of being downtown,'" Peterson said. "Well, if you're ever feeling unsafe, we have staff to walk you to your car. We certainly are doing everything within our power to keep people safe."
So, an aberration or a persistent risk? All signs point to the former.
"This could have happened anywhere, in any part of the city," Spindler said.
What more could they have done? That'll surely be one of the primary topics of discussion when the foundation's directors — at least six of whom are new — meet twice this week — in a general board meeting Tuesday and an executive board meeting Thursday. (They'd love one more board member, by the way — an accountant, preferably.)
"We've had growing pains, but we're getting there," Peterson said. "We want Bakersfield to be proud of the Fox. The message the Fox sent out wasn't always on target, but it'll be a positive message moving forward."
Message management is important indeed. Attentive, informed management is, too. That's the Fox's challenge from here on out.