Crest Theatre

1160 Broadway Plaza,
Fresno, CA 93721

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drb on March 14, 2016 at 4:37 pm

Fresno Bee – Grassroots effort underway to restore Fresno’s historic Crest Theatre

Joshua Tehee

March 10, 2016 7:50 PM
Grassroots effort underway to restore Fresno’s historic Crest Theatre

Downtown theater will start with neon marquee

Several fundraiser events in the works

The theater was built in 1949 and is on the local historic register

[Photo captions: 1 of 2 Several Hollywood stars attended the opening of the Crest Theatre at Fresno Street and Broadway on July 7, 1949. 2 of 2 Lisa Dines, center, presents Dee Ann Hull and Gloria Leon with stained-glass signs for the bathrooms at Fresno’s Crest Theatre. Special to The Bee]

By Joshua Tehee

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, 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

Mikeyisirish on June 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

A 2012 photo can be seen here.

TLSLOEWS on August 16, 2010 at 6:39 pm

One of the nicest marquees and verticals I have ever seen.

larrygoldsmith on August 9, 2010 at 5:41 pm

The present CREST marquee/neon work was part of the Skouras remodel done in very early 50’s. This was a Fox West Coast Theatre/National General Theatre.

frodoboy on June 3, 2010 at 9:48 am

Correction! My uncle just corrected some of my errors. The Crest marquee was already built by the theater owner (Fox?) and my grandfather’s shop (then a partner in Olsen signs)created all the neon work. If you look at the marquee today, it is pretty ugly without all that beautiful neon so I’d say my grandfather (and his team) really made that marquee pop! My uncle also corrected me in saying that my grandfather’s shop also created the other theater signs in Fresno. They were there before my grandfather arrived in Fresno. His and Olsen sign companies just serviced the signs. What do you expect? I was a little kid at the time and just thought my “gramps” did all these beautiful things! I still got in for free in most of the theaters!

terrywade on May 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm

The Crest Theatre Fresno is the same as the Crest Sacramento CA. Must have had the same Fox West Coast people do the remodel in Sacramento.

Twinkletoes on February 28, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Oh, I hope there is a planet named Theatre somewhere in this omniverse. We will find all of our favorites, preserved…..

William on February 2, 2010 at 9:59 am

Great Picture!! Now thats how it should be done. Fox West Coast houses had real eye catching marquees.

frodoboy on February 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

Here is a night picture my grandfather took of the Crest Theater neon sign in all its glory back in the theater’s heyday.

My grandfather owned Kaden Neon and Plastic Sign Company back in the 30’s through the late 60’s and designed and built the neon signs and marquees for many of the famous theaters in Fresno including the Warnors, Tower, Wilson and Crest. He also designed and built many other famous neon signs in the Fresno area. My uncle designed the old Manchester center sign. I even got to work in my grandfather’s shop in the early 60’s and he allowed me to design and build a motel drive sign. I think the motel is now a hooker hangout! In the summers that I worked for him, I got to watch my grandfather design the signs from scratch. Then I watched Howard build the metal housings. Then Joe would paint them. Then I watched Woody do the masterful bending and filling of the glass tubes and watched them come to life on his work table. I remember playing with the mercury that he used. It formed a ball in my hand and when I dropped it on the floor, it broke into hundreds of tiny ball bearings as it danced across the floor. It was very expensive and Woody got mad at me when I did it. Of course now we know how toxic Mercury is! Then I got to go and help Al and Lee put the signs up with their 80 foot cranes. Very scary indeed! My grandfather was a master craftsman and as honest as they came back then. He was very respected in Fresno during Fresno’s greatest period in my book…the 40’s through the 60’s.

Cakeight on November 7, 2009 at 11:12 pm

I’ve admired the beautiful exterior of the Crest for years. I happened to be in Fresno today, so I stopped by the theatre to take a few pictures-

While I was there, I had a lovely chat with the current owner, Gloria Leon. She invited me in (as she does anyone she happens to see) and showed me the amazing interior. Although few lights were on, it was still beautiful -

The theatre is currently being rented out for concerts, film screenings and other events. Gloria and her small, but dedicated crew are hoping to restore the building to its former glory. With a very limited budget, they are trying to renovate and paint as much as they can. She said the next big project is the restoration of the marquee, which is currently lacking much of its neon. They are also hoping to find someone to repair the beautiful, but cracking terrazzo entry. Gloria said that they are trying to start a fundraising project, but that they aren’t having much success. I told her that I would try to get the ball rolling here at Cinema Treasures. The Crest Theatre contact information is listed at the top of this page. Let’s see if we can help bring another theatre back!! :)

cthree on November 24, 2008 at 6:52 am

The Crest is in a position to be used in new venues and is the process of minor cleaning and restoration. There will be a small group of rock concerts on a irregular basis to infuse new moneys into this beautiful building. More coming soon !

Larry/c three

MPol on September 15, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Looks like a beautiful theatre!!

SPearce on February 8, 2008 at 1:07 pm

About 10 years ago I drove through Fresno, specifically to check out any William Saroyan sites, but drove up and down the streets near downtown and saw some movie theaters that resonated with me as my home town is farther up the San Joaquin Valley, Stockton. The street I most remember in Fresno was beyond the center of downtown (might have been east, but I am not sure), and was up a hill a bit; it was a “High” street and may have been developed as a suburb up-end neighborhood street in the ‘30s and '40s. It was a block or two of architectural treasures, a fair amount of it art moderne in style with many shops renovated, vital coffee houses and tratorrias, foot traffic to some extent, and I noted some art moderne movie theaters (I thought). This may not be where the Crest is sited; but the style of the Crest was, if I remember, the vernacular of the movie houses on that street. It was so reminiscent of my hometown and what I have seen in California of an architectural style of movie house of a period.

I was looking for some sense of the streets of Saroyan’s youthful hometown. Many of his stories/-screenplays were set in Fresno-like towns of the central valley. I had read most of what was published and available of his literary work. Because of Saroyan’s influence (born 1908) for this town and California, and time period, and American literary history of that time period, I would humbly beseech any renovator to consider working on a way to utilize what William Saroyan evoked in his time, which presaged and paralleled development of a theater like the Crest, to use as a cornerstone in any renovation of a genuine article San Joaquin Valley movie house in Fresno. If there was ever a place that should be screening Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy” with some regularity – and especially in 2008 – it is a Fresno movie house, and that is a film that should be shown now. In fact, I am thinking of producing some readings of his work where I live, just because I believe with a sense of urgency it is so important to do now. Saroyan had a lot to say about “Young Man” going off to war; he was a peacenik before his time, and a conscientious objector in WWII, and that thinking figures in much of his work. This is his centenary.

My thought was that through respect, not exploitation, if a tribute place to William Saroyan was developed, for the people (whether locals know him well now or not), Fresno would do itself a world of good by traversing one path being the continuity from him in further identifying its future in restoring its past pedestals of architecture, literature, and motion pictures.

I know there is sculpture devoted to the “child” in his stories in Fresno, but a movie theater probably offers much more potential, the material is available, and Saroyan was a native son. His generic protagonist was often named “Young Man,” a youth of central California who loved movies, and recognized his impulses and raw feelings as he voiced his thoughts of becoming the future American. But who was that future American? Perhaps all the motion pictures since tell us what happened to that youth (Young America) from the end of WWII.

At one time Saroyan was a foremost American/California writer. He wrote plays and screenplays. He depicted movie theaters in screenplays and explored what they were about; i.e. blogging. I searched for a bookstore that catered to Saroyan readers, or a section in a chain bookstore focusing on him. Nothing. Okay. I just wondered when Fresno was going to recognize properly this resource, as what else is a writer?

Evidently this theater may still have some options? I would want to plant a seed here, and maybe others might nurture it. I believe if such a site was developed for him, it would draw for screenings a much wider audience from farther horizons.

davidreed on September 25, 2007 at 3:32 pm

One of my favorite Blade/tower signs and Marquee. I went up to Fresno to check out their abundence of theaters. Talk about jealous!!I still dream about restoring this one…all that sex appeal That only a true movie palace can have!! I know she’s showing films again but are there any plans for a facelift? Any new info the rest of you junkies can supply I look forward to seeing….

kencmcintyre on July 31, 2007 at 7:21 am

Here is an article from the Fresno Bee dated 1/16/49:

kencmcintyre on March 1, 2007 at 6:31 pm

Here is another photo of the marquee:

donthx1378 on February 18, 2007 at 9:23 pm

The Fresno Bee Sunday did a nice piece about the Crest being reopened and showing Ballywood films for right now on the weekends. They talked about that there are many plans to try to draw people downtown to see films at the theater.

AdrianEverett on January 19, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Although I live on the East Coast in Virginia and have never seen this theater or have been to the West Coast of California for that matter I think this theater should be fully restorated for either live performances or the “Art House Movie Circuit”. I do agree that theaters like this cannot compete with the digitally enhanced Multiplexes of today but for those seeking an alternative and looking for an escape into something different, this theater and those like it can be great once again.

STELLARB on December 30, 2006 at 4:34 am

This great theatre is now open for “Bali-wood” presentations. The local media thus far has paid no attention to it. I think it’s kinda cool!

William on March 28, 2006 at 12:31 pm

The Crest’s auditorium was very similar to Fox Theatre in Inglewood, Ca and the Crest Theatre in Sacramento.

William on March 28, 2006 at 12:28 pm

The Crest Theatre opened on July 7th. 1949 and was operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

MSchwartz on February 28, 2005 at 1:04 pm

Dowser and Douglas,

I am currently working on a number of projects in Downtown Fresno, the Crest especially.

Please let me know how we can pool our talents.


STELLARB on January 19, 2005 at 6:48 pm

You might want to contact the non profit “Fresno Filmworks” group , who presently showcase one indi/art film per month at the TOWER theatre.They are looking for a permanent home.I’d be willing to help out with miscl tasks. I live right down the street. Always thought it was a perfect size venue to attract some national touring music acts too,to help make end$ meet.