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How did Memorial Auditorium get dragged into the Tower Theatre controversy?

Well, this is just getting weird. Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer came up with a grand “peacemaker” compromise to end the battle over turning the historic Tower Theatre into a church. What is his bizarre solution? Use city money (a bunch of it) to spruce up the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which has a long list of needed renovations, then offer to rent it to Adventure Church in a sweetheart lease deal. (But wait, there’s more … if you order within 24 hours, we’ll throw in electricity, water, gas and sewer!) All of this if Adventure Church agrees not to purchase the Tower Theatre, The Bee and GV Wire reported on Thursday.

There’s a little problem, however: A long-established arts organization is already the resident theater company in the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium.That company is Children’s Musical Theaterworks, which serves hundreds of children and community members a year. It’s been in the Memorial for just a smidgen of time — try 21 years.


Related stories: MORE THAN 2,100 PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES DECLARE: TOWER THEATRE SHOULDN’T BE OWNED BY A CHURCH
And: UPDATE 01/27: ‘SAVE THE TOWER’ FOLKS ASK YOU TO SIGN ANOTHER LETTER OF DISSENT

CMT doesn’t use the facility all the time, but when it does, for two-week performance chunks, I question if there’s any way for a fully built show in the throes of rehearsals and performances to coexist on Sundays and Wednesday evenings with a bustling congregation. Does Pastor Flores really want to preach from the set of “Legally Blonde”?

Dyer’s proposal is ill-thought and offensive for several reasons:

• CMT has begged the city for years to fix safety and aesthetic issues at the city-owned building. For example, there are restrictions on the use of the fly rails (the equipment used to move backdrops, scenery and scrims up and down) and the electrical equipment. The estimate to fix all the theater’s problems is in the $1 million range. CMT has done a scrupulous job of maintaining a safe space for its precious young charges (including keeping a close eye on those fly lines and taking down any that are in danger of falling) and continues to court big-ticket donors for those improvements. The city always claimed poverty. Yet after brushing off requests from a community-minded, youth-boosting, culturally enhancing, secular organization with thousands of supporters — and doing so for years — suddenly there’s money to spruce up the place to house a church.

• I talked with CMT board president K.C. Rutiaga just a few minutes ago, and no one bothered to even tell the organization about the proposal. This, for a theater company that has its offices in the lobby of the building. “It’s hurtful in a way,” Rutiaga says. “We’ve been asking them to renovate for how long now?”

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• My guess is that thanks to Measure P, there’s a good chance that funds will be available soon to improve the auditorium for theater groups. Now wouldn’t that be rich — to make a community (and, again, secular) organization toil in a deteriorating facility for years (decades!) and then make the improvements (using tax dollars specifically designated for the arts) in the name of religion?

I don’t think there’s any chance of this proposal going anywhere. Adventure Church is threatening to sue the city, and there’s no indication that the church would want to move from its Tower neighborhood. But it’s disheartening that an important and beloved cultural institution such as CMT is treated so poorly by the new administration. Dyer should withdraw this offer immediately — and agree to play a cameo as Jafar in “Aladdin, Jr.” as penance.

 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (11)

  • Joel C. Abels

    A slap in the face to CMT for sure! Shame on the City of Fresno for not even including CMT in the conversation! The organization has been a driving force in that theatre for 20+ years bringing audiences downtown and good stewards to that aging venue and that is how they are repaid? In the bigger picture it speaks to the way the arts are continually regarded in this city. Less than. An afterthought. Not cool City of Fresno, not cool AT ALL!

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  • Beatrice Valenzuela

    I think it’s all getting a little creepy. Is it customary for the City of Fresno to become so monetarily involved in specific religious institutions?

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  • Gerald Palladino

    Here! Here! Thanks, Donald.

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  • I truly appreciate the mayor suggesting a solution to this situation, and I presume that his heart was in the right place in his suggestion. But it is short-sighted and unfair to push a long-standing community-based organization like Children’s Musical Theaterworks out of the way for ANY reason, especially without even consulting them. Perhaps the mayor is unaware of all the great things that CMT has done for Fresno’s arts community; let us be fair and forgive him that, and attempt to educate him. I’ll start:
    I grew up performing on the stage at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in the 1970s, as part of Fresno Children’s Playhouse, and those were some of the best years of my life. FCP eventually folded in the 1990s, but due to the dedication of many local artists CMT rose to fill its place, continuing to provide a space to train young actors as I was trained. CMT is a vital part of Fresno’s theater community, and brings so much joy to the children of Fresno. It would be a terrible shame to see CMT disappear after everything they have done to keep children’s theater alive in Fresno.
    Again, a fair attempt at a solution, but I hope we can find a better one.

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  • Steph

    And now let the city only charge CMT the same rental rate he was offering the church. And to any other outside entity wishing to rent the building I guess Mayor Dyer has set the new rate.

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  • laura splotch

    what if??? and this is a big if…but what if CMT could be housed in the tower theatre as part of this transaction? i definitely feel that that organization would be better suited for the tower theatre than a church that is not inclusive in a very inclusive neighborhood.

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  • Gerald Palladino

    I agree with you, Donald. Tower would be ideal for CMT. but I doubt we could profitably afford using the venue.

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    • expatbruce

      Go get ’em Gerry!

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  • Paul McCauley

    Why doesn’t the mayor offer the amphitheater at Roeding Park, the Zoo isn’t using it. Or the amphitheater at Woodward Park, when was the last time anyone used it? Better yet offer the downtown ballpark, at least that already has parking and restaurants in need of additional business. If it must be a theater how about the old movie theater at Sierra Vista, sure it’s in Clovis, but why let that minor detail spoil a potential deal.

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  • Jackie

    Mayor Dyer is coming up with solutions. Its a start. He can’t control what the city did in the past. Better late than never.

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  • expatbruce

    The mayor needs a better research team.
    I think they call it ‘intelligence gathering’ in the FPD.
    Mayor Dyer should know better than to shoot from the hip.
    It was on then FPD Chief Jerry Dyers watch when TEN$ of million$ of tax dollar$ were payed out by the City of Fresno to settle Fresno Police Department, hm, how do I put this? … ‘roughhousing’ complaints.
    Watch out for his free-spending ways.
    It is easy to spend other peoples’ money…

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