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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Fox Theater 90th & Gone With The Wind 80th Anniversary Celebration

In honor of the 90th anniversary of the Fox Theater in Riverside, California an exclusive VIP black tie event was held on Friday, September 13th. Included in the nights festivities in the exclusive Encore Lounge was a casino room (for charity), a bourbon & cigar tasting, live entertainment, an open bar with signature cocktails and gourmet hors d’oeuvres. Inside the theater we were given VIP seating on the Mezzanine level. This was ll to celebrate the most famous film ever presented in the theater, Gone with the Wind. My husband and I were fortunate to join other classic film fans for the festivities, which was made all the more special by the fact that this elaborate presentation was the first time my husband had ever seen the film. It was the perfect atmosphere in which to introduce someone to one of the most beloved films of all time.

Here's a little back story for those unfamiliar with he Fox and its significance to cinema history. The iconic landmark was designed by architects who chose a Spanish Colonial Revival style that kept in style with the 1920s’ aesthetic of a Southern Californian city of that era. Subsequently, the decor has a lavish art deco interior which was then considered the height of luxury. One just has to walk into the ornate picture palace and will find themself immediately transported to a time and place with the atmosphere of an exotic bygone age. My husband was very impressed and glad I had insisted he wear his tuxedo. We fit right in with the other couples wearing their black tie best.

The 1,550 capacity theater first opened its doors on January 11, 1929 as a cinema and vaudeville theater house. From its opening until the 1960s, it was used by Hollywood to preview feature film releases before final editing. Due to its "remote" location, Riverside was considered a useful site that represented the average demographic of American small towns. The industry believed it could register reactions to movies within the country’s largest demographic without having to travel too far from home. For decades, the Fox Riverside Theater carried the allure of being a luxury getaway from Los Angeles (or a lovely stop on the way to Palm Springs). Many stories mention celebrity giants of the old Hollywood era, such as Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby, visiting the Fox and attending screenings with the local residents. As my husband and I walked around the theater, we imagined that at any moment we might run into an old time movie star. You just can't help getting swept up in the grandeur of the place.

Ten years after the opening of the theater, on September 9, 1939, the Fox played a part of the most significant events in Hollywood history. That was the date and place of the very first public screening of Gone With the Wind (not the premier but a sneak peek). As the story goes, Selznick, his wife, investor Jock Whitney and the film's editor, Hal Kern drove out to Riverside to preview it even though it was still a rough cut, was missing titles and lacked key optical effects. A double bill of Hawaiian Nights and Beau Geste was scheduled to play, but once the audience had taken their seats it was announced that there would be a special preview instead. They were given the option to leave but would not be readmitted once the film had begun. When the title appeared on the screen the audience exploded with cheers, and afterword it received a standing ovation. Even with all this information my husband still didn't get why this was such a big deal. Sometimes I wonder how we ever got together.

It is said that Selznick believed it to be the greatest moment of his life and described the preview cards as amazing. During the whole process of producing the film the young producer vacillated in his opinion of the film. Sometimes he believed it was bound to be a huge success, and at other times he actually thought it was lousy, with no chance of earnings its money back. Supposedly, he wasn't looking to create a masterpiece, but just a good picture.

After a series of owners and operators, and years of deterioration and decline, the Fox Theater was eventually shuttered for many years in the late 1990s. Its transformation to the beautiful jewel that it is today is due to the City of Riverside purchasing it. The city targeted the venue as the centerpiece of the City of Riverside’s Arts & Culture initiative, the “Riverside Renaissance” program. $35 million went into the theater’s renovation and restoration between 2004 and 2010. The beautiful state-of-the-art performing arts center was rebranded as the Fox Performing Arts Center. Neither my husband or I had any idea about any of this before moving to Riverside. I suspect not many outside of the area knows about it either.

Although most of the VIP attendees were less interested in the screening than the casino and open bar, my husband and I were there to basque in the experience of the special presentation of the longest movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. We sat in the front row of the balcony seats with about ten or so others scattered around us. And even though it is a very long film (especially with a twenty minute intermission) the time seemed to clip by at a brisk pace. Maybe it was because of the historic surroundings. Maybe it was because we were all dolled up for date night. And maybe it was because my husband was experiencing the rare privilege of seeing for the first time a classic film presented in the way it was meant to be seen. All in all it was a fantastic experience I was so pleased to be a part of. Who knew Riverside could provide such a "Golden Hollywood" moment.

Today the City of Riverside continues to maintain ownership of this beautiful venue, and Live Nation manages and operates the Fox Performing Arts Center - an industry partner to the Fox Riverside Theater Foundation. The Foundation exists to direct charitable and sponsorship funds to preserve this cultural resource and to provide quality programs for generations to come. To that end, all proceeds of this event support programming at the Fox Riverside Theater Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes community access to the Fox Performing Arts Center through education, outreach, and fundraising.

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