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BUILDING TO THE CREST
"Look at this! How can you not like this?"
Gloria León is sitting in the front row of the Crest Theatre, admiring the art deco sea scene rolling before her.
"Look at the beautiful designs," she continues. Gold leaf molding swirls down either side of the theatre, illuminated by a single tube of blue neon. A seashell molding on the ceiling draws attention upward, beyond the frayed edges of the gold satin curtain hiding the missing silver screen.
The beauty of the Crest Theatre has been a private treat for Gloria alone for more than 13 years. With the cinema shuttered, the remnants of the phase "For Lease" has been the only marquee. But this Thursday, April 21, the Crest will open to the public for Fresno State's Lyles Center New Valley Inforum. The featured speaker will be Rebecca Ryan, consultant and "Generation X" expert. Her lecture will discuss the importance of attracting and keeping young, creative professionals as a means of stimulating economic growth.
It's a fitting topic for the venue, which hasn't hosted an event since 1992, when Gloria first purchased the theatre.
"I bought it from Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. They opened it up in 1979 as a Mexican movie theatre. They owned movie theatres up and down California. It was great. It was wonderful. If you would have seen it, it was just fantastic. The line used to be down the corner just to get into the parking lot. That was something really big for us."
By "us," Gloria means the Mexican community in Fresno. She left her native Mexico for Fresno in 1966, when she was just 15 years old. She has fond, vivid memories of watching films at the Crest and hoped to bring back Spanish language films.
"I wanted to open it up again and run it as a Mexican movie theatre and I actually had subtitles every time I had a new movie- every time I had an American movie. The problem is that they don't make Mexican movies anymore. They haven't for quite a few years. They're doing a few now, so maybe in the future it will get better."
After several attempts at events with the "wrong people," the Crest ceased to be used as an entertainment venue. The last film shown in the theatre was 1978's "The Wiz".
Unlike the other theatres downtown, the Crest was designed as a cinema. Built in 1948 by an unknown architect, the inside decor has been surprisingly well preserved. Everything is original, from the 950 red theatre seats to the beautiful terrazzo flooring in the lobby.
With the renewed interest in downtown, there is renewed interest in getting the Crest up and operating again.
Matthew Schwartz, a Fresno substitute teacher, is helping Gloria to devise new ways to utilize her cinema classic. A student in Craig Scharton's Urban Entrepreneurship class, Schwartz has been busy working with Gloria to fine-tune a plan for a multi-use performance space.
"This theatre, even having been built in 1948, its ready for amplified sound which is unique to older theatres," Schwartz explained. That, coupled with the theatre's 1250-person occupancy, would make it ideal for concerts, both local and national.
He points to the foam on the walls- a sort of grey batting that lines all sides of the theatre.
"That just gave me the chills. If you go to the other theatres, the Warnor's the Wilson, they're built so you can hear the person on stage even in the back rows." Most movie theatres don't have such sound, but the Crest does.
Despite its preserved grandeur, the Crest still needs significant work before it can be a functioning venue. Most pressing, the theatre does not have air conditioning. Only recently has the plumbing been worked on, and the 50-year-old neon needs to be repaired throughout.
"The hurdle for all the individuals who are interested, they want to do maybe four events per month, or even six per month. To take on this whole project- the restoration and renovation- is really quite a challenge," explained Schwartz.
One such individual interested in utilizing the Crest is Josh Singh. Singh, 35, owns several Subway restaurants and would like to use the Crest to show Indian films. But without a movie screen, projector, or a proper heating and cooling system, the cost becomes prohibitive.
With an estimated $200,000 needed for an air conditioner, and another $50,000 to repair the neon- not to mention a projector and screen- the cost of restoring the Crest has been too much for any one individual to bear.
Has the City of Fresno been any help?
"Yeah, well no they haven't helped me. I haven't seen anything. They're not there. Absent is the right word. And I’ve been trying because I saw the mayor- Alan Autry- at a restaurant and I approached him, and he said he was willing to do something but I called and called and called and called...Same as a few years back. Somebody was supposed to help me," laments Gloria.
"They attract all these big shots, give them million of dollars, but they can't give a little to the people who have been working? A low-interest loan, or something," echoes Singh.
Both stress they're not looking for something for free, but they wouldn't mind a little help with the capital improvements. The theatre itself is not protected by any historic status, however the sign is on the city's historic register.
"I'm a hard working person," Gloria continues. "If we have small events, everything that comes in goes back to the building."
Without regular events at the theatre, the property is supported by Gloria's small music and jewelry shop, a Mexican restaurant, and some offices. The smell of tortillas drifts in and out of the theatre.
When asked what she would like to see happen to the Crest, Gloria, its gaurdian angel of sorts, says movies.
"Oh movies again. But a lot of times if you combine events and stuff, maybe concerts, you can have everything here, the place is big enough." She wants people to know that she is open to suggestions and is encouraged by all the enthusiasm surrounding the Crest.
"Come and see me. I have open arms for everybody. I love to see your faces- you're so excited. Something I have been feeling for so many years, now I see all these beautiful faces happy about this and it makes me feel good. It really does!"
"If anybody’s interested in using the theatre, just let me know. I don't care who it is. I want to make sure that everybody gets to use this place. I want everybody. It's for everybody."
Rebecca Ryan will speak as part of the New Valley Inforum this Thursday, April 21st at 5:30pm. Tickets are $15 or $10 for students. A Creative Fresno afterparty will follow; tickets are $10. The Crest Theatre is located at Fresno Street and Broadway Plaza. For more information visit lylescenter.com.