Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Heavy chords, bum notes mark Fox's return

David Allen, Staff Writer
Created: 04/27/2010 03:32:21 PM PDT

ONE YEAR after the Pomona Fox Theater reopened after a $10 million renovation, developer Jerry Tessier is asked the obvious question: Are you sorry you did it? "Yes and no," Tessier says after a laugh. "I'm not sorry at all, but my one piece of advice is, don't open a theater in a recession." It's been a rocky comeback for the Fox, which held its opening gala April 18, 2009. (The theater originally opened 79 years ago: April 24, 1931.) Primarily a concert venue in its new incarnation, the former movie palace had 22 concerts in 2009, at times going weeks without one. The facilities manager left and wasn't replaced and his assistant was laid off late last year due to slow business. "I'm basically acting as the general manager," says Tessier, 36, who knows how to renovate old buildings but has never been general manager of a concert hall. While the Fox was expected to lose money its first year, the loss, which Tessier wasn't inclined to reveal, was greater than he'd have liked.

In North America, concert attendance and ticket prices were both down about 30 percent in 2009. The Fox has never been well-timed: It opened in the Great Depression and reopened in the Great Recession.

"It's a risky business," Tessier admits of concert promotion. "We can't do 20 concerts a month. We're lucky to get four or five a month." In the biggest flop, has-been Marilyn Manson could only fill half the house, which must have been a shock to the shock rocker.

On the plus side, the Fox hosted several high-profile indie-rock acts, including Wilco and the Flaming Lips. Paramore's performance made Spin magazine's list of the year's top concerts. Morrissey said Pomona was one of his five favorite concert dates on a worldwide tour.

On successive nights in mid-April, Vampire Weekend and Pavement both sold 2,000 tickets, the Fox's capacity. Lines stretched around the block.

I was a paying customer both nights. Watching Vampire Weekend from a perch in the balcony, I could see fans standing pressed together on the main floor, where there are no chairs. Their faces, aglow in the stage lights, were alternately ecstatic and awestruck. Afterward, hundreds of people, from teenagers to the middle-aged, streamed from the theater, happily buzzing about the show as they dispersed to local bars or free parking lots scattered around downtown. The scene struck me as an updated version of the days when the Fox was the valley's top movie house.

On April 15, when Pavement played the Fox, the pop duo She & Him were performing at the Glass House club two blocks away. "There are 2,000 people here and another 800 at the Glass House," Tessier told me that night on the sidewalk as the Fox emptied. "Some people said it was hard to find a place to park. I said, `Great!' That's a good problem to have."
Fans are flocking to Pomona from miles away: L.A., Orange County, San Diego, Victorville and Temecula. "These concerts are destination events," says Tessier, a music fan who has attended almost every show himself. "There are people coming to Pomona for the first time, or the first time in decades. And they leave thinking Pomona is a cool town."

Close to home, however, the Fox is a disappointment to many in the community. "Ask when they're going to have an event a normal person would want to attend," one Pomona woman urged me. The limited appeal of Pomona Fox events can be contrasted with Ontario's Citizens Business Bank Arena, which has hosted Neil Diamond and Carrie Underwood, and the Riverside Fox, which has featured Broadway shows and recognizable names such as Sheryl Crow.

Tessier says his 2,000-capacity venue can't afford the name acts that would go to the 11,000-seat arena, and as for the Riverside Fox, he points out that it's city-owned and -subsidized, with no mortgage. "From day one we've said this is a mixed-use venue. Its principal use is live rock concerts. That was our basis for renovating it," Tessier says of his financing.

Besides Tessier and his family, who have overhauled multiple vintage buildings in Pomona and Claremont, the other primary owner is Perry Tollett, co-owner of the Glass House with his brother, Paul, who heads the concert promotional firm Goldenvoice. Goldenvoice puts on the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals and has the exclusive contract for live rock concerts at the Fox.

The Fox has also had dance parties, DJ concerts and mixed martial arts matches. One of the latter sold 1,200 tickets - probably none of them to anyone who attended the swank opening gala. "I'm not going to apologize for those things because there's a segment of the population that wants them," Tessier says. He also suggests that older music fans ought to open their ears wider for new sounds. "People just need to broaden their musical horizons," he says, pointing out that Vampire Weekend is frequently compared to Paul Simon.

Slowly, the Fox is finding an audience. I've attended four concerts so far. Downtown crowds - a phrase that used to be an oxymoron - are more frequent, and that's helping at least some bars and restaurants.

The Fox "is our centerpiece now," says Larry Egan, executive director of the Downtown Pomona Owners Association. Egan was downtown on a busy April 15 to witness happy concertgoers and packed rooms at three nearby bars. "People from all walks of life came: politicians, carpenters, accountants, teenagers, doctors, executives and more," Egan wrote on his Metro Pomona blog.

Tessier says restaurants on Third Street are filled on concert nights, with Pho Vi staying open late and staffing up.

I'd say the results are spotty. The night of the Vampire Weekend concert less than a block away, downtown mainstay El Merendero was half-empty, closing at 8 p.m. After concerts, Garey Avenue is clogged heading north to Interstate 10. Del Taco's drive-through near the freeway is jammed. If I were Donahoo's Chicken - oh, to be Donahoo's Chicken! - I would sell its famous boxed meals from the curb to passing motorists before they hit the freeway.

Now, it isn't all commerce at the Fox. Graduations, proms and other community events are taking place too (for a rental fee). Egan says a Bonita High jazz concert drew people from La Verne. "They liked what they saw, which is good for us," Egan says, noting that some returned for a Second Saturday art walk.

If the Fox stumbled in 2009, I'd say it was in seemingly not having a plan to capitalize on community affection for the theater. What was slated as a three-day opening weekend of festivities was reduced to one night at $135 a head for a gala. There was never a formal grand opening and plans for a cheap matinee were postponed.

The average person never got inside. When "The Wizard of Oz" was screened last month, more than 700 people showed up, a testament to public curiosity. Tessier, who was surprised by the attendance, says a monthly movie night is in the works, probably on the fourth Sunday of each month.

To be fair, one reason for the Fox's slow start is that not only was it still under construction at the gala, it's still under construction a year later. A first-floor storefront on Third opened late last year as a bar named Drink. The two storefronts along Garey are being renovated as Fox Sports Bar and Grill, which will have 20 flat-screen TVs, and Papa's Tacos, for late-night eats. Also, a room above the stage will become SkyFox, a nightclub.

"I would have liked to have the Fox and the ancillary businesses open at once. But it took time to find operators," Tessier explains. Downtown hasn't hit the tipping point. Because sidewalks are empty on nights without concerts, Tessier says 1,000 lofts are needed to create more street life. And five more nightclubs or bars would "give us a critical mass for people to come to Pomona to go bar-hopping or club-hopping," Tessier says.
(Selflessly doing his part, Tessier is working on two: a tequila bar at the corner of Third and Thomas and a Latin dance club above the existing Brick night club on Thomas. Both may open late in 2010.)

To return to the is-he-sorry question, Tessier says downtown simply had to have the Fox back. "Even if the building doesn't pencil out for us financially in the future, I wouldn't regret it even then because I see what kind of impact it's had on Pomona and downtown," Tessier says. "After sitting empty for five years, we thought, we have to do this. Downtown will never be fully revitalized if its most iconic structure sits empty and neglected and falling apart." He adds: "What's happening now is reinforcing why we did it."

At the Fox, 2010 should see more concerts, more Latin and Mexican music and, with luck, more revenue. "My goal this year," Tessier says, "is to break even."


Blogger Skrip said...

What a great article David. Everything is accurate as can be and gives a great vision as to what is happening to Downtown Pomona. Of course, we must commend the great work of Mr. Tessier, a pioneer in the revitalization of our downtown. A great read this morning!

April 30, 2010 at 8:39 AM  

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