Joe Mathews: To preserve our old theaters, have faith in churches whose beliefs you don’t share

By Joe Mathews

Columnist Joe Matthews writes that historic theaters, like the Tower in Fresno, can be saved in the Netflix era if they’re allowed to be used and managed by churches. “The Tower is a 1939 Streamline Moderne gem anchoring an artsy neighborhood of Fresno. But like so many of California’s signature old theaters, it can’t support itself,” Mathews says. Photo by Logan Bush/Shutterstock.

It’s an issue many communities across California are wrestling with: how to preserve historic buildings and landmarks that are part of their heritage without draining local government resources.  

Case in point: historic and architecturally significant movie theaters that date back 80, 90, or even 100 years.

In California communities from South Pasadena to Redding, churches have emerged as potential saviors of vintage theaters to mixed response. Now Fresno is grappling with the same issue.

Commentator Joe Mathews says opposition to church takeovers may be counterproductive. 

Read Mathews’ column below:

Have a little faith, Californians. 

Even if you can’t stand your local churches, you might find them to be a valuable savior of your historic and endangered movie theaters.

So please think twice before joining a holy war like Fresno’s fight over the historic Tower Theater.

The Tower is a 1939 Streamline Moderne gem anchoring an artsy neighborhood known as the Tower District. But like so many of California’s signature old theaters, it can’t support itself as a movie house in the era of Netflix. So the theater’s owner is trying to sell the place to the ideal steward of such a theater: a growing church that can fill seats, raise money for maintenance, and keep the theater open for shows and community events.

Such sales make sense but can be complicated. Many growing churches are non-traditional, evangelical, or politically conservative, and don’t fit the secular entertainment districts where you find old theaters. In wise communities, churches and their neighbors look past their differences and focus on their shared interest in saving the old buildings. That’s what happened with two other Fresno theaters, Hardy’s and the Wilson, when churches moved in. 

But at the Tower, the church and the community have escalated conflict and eschewed collaboration, turning a neighborhood problem into statewide controversy. 

Long story short: The Tower Theater owner allowed Adventure Church, a largely Latino congregation already located in the Tower District, to hold services there during the pandemic. When the Tower's owner decided to sell, the church agreed to purchase it.

But when word of the agreement leaked, many Fresnans took note of Adventure’s opposition to same-sex marriage and LGTBQ rights and rallied against the sale as an attack on the neighborhood. Weekly Sunday protests were held. The anti-church protests soon drew counter-protestors from right-wing groups, and police erected barriers to keep them separate. 

Someone — it’s not clear who — raised the political temperature by displaying a tribute to the late talk show host Rush Limbaugh on the theater marquee.

The conflict grew from there. One restaurant on the Tower property sued to block the sale, saying it was entitled to purchase the theater. Fresno’s mayor offered the church an alternative property, which Adventure turned down. Other city officials suggest taking the theater by eminent domain. 

If Fresno can find a theater savior less problematic than Adventure, that would be wonderful. But there are reasons to doubt whether a relatively poor city government or a restaurant can maintain a costly historic theater. If Adventure is the best option, church and community should stop fighting and start talking.

Yes, compromise with an anti-gay church sounds odious. But a keep-your-enemies-close approach makes more sense. Adventure is already in the Tower District — whether it occupies the theater or not.  And if you’re going to have to put up with such a church and its proselytizing, why not benefit from its presence by getting it to fix up and preserve the Tower? 

I’ve witnessed this more conciliatory approach bear fruit in two California places. One is Redding, home of the huge and controversial Bethel Church with its own problems on LGTBQ issues and a pursuit of miracles like resurrecting a dead toddler. Its members helped form a non-profit, Advance Redding, that saved the city’s failing auditorium by offering a wide variety of programming.

The other theater is the Rialto in my own San Gabriel Valley neighborhood. Famous as the murder scene in Robert Altman’s The Player, and as a date spot for La La Land‘s lovers, the theater sat vacant and decaying for years. That changed when Mosaic Church, a mega-church with congregations from Hollywood to Mexico City, arrived.

There was some resistance to the church’s arrival. While I liked the young, diverse congregation, Mosaic is not for me — your cynical columnist, attending services and cringing at the pop-style music and the over-the-top sermonizing.

But three years later, Mosaic is undeniably a neighborhood asset. The church repaired the theater and opened the place for events and movie screenings. The last film we saw before COVID hit was a Mosaic-sponsored showing of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the Christmas classic about having faith in people whose beliefs we do not share.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman