Syndicated Joe Mathews column gets it wrong about the Tower Theatre controversy. Why would the Bee publish it?

The Fresno Bee on Friday published an inept syndicated column about the Tower Theatre controversy. (Curiously, the Bee labeled it as one of its regular “Valley Voices” offerings, which is a stretch, considering that the author lives in Southern California.) The usually thoughtful Joe Mathews wrote the “Connecting California” column for Zocalo Public Square, a nonprofit project sponsored by Arizona State University that focuses on “ideas journalism.” Unfortunately, this particular piece was misleading and poorly researched. It is an excellent example of the challenges faced by out-of-town journalists when they try to parachute into a complicated local story and then pontificate about an issue without a thorough knowledge of the nuances involved.

Pictured above: A scene from an April Tower Theatre protest. Photo: Victor Trejo

Because Zocalo Public Square syndicates its material to several hundred news outlets, I’m concerned that for many readers across the state, this column will be the only exposure to the controversy. I offer a few points in rebuttal:

Much more than a movie theater

Mathews positions the piece as a hallelujah to local churches that valiantly step in to save historic, endangered movie theaters from decay and ruin. Then he mistakenly lumps the Tower into that category, writing, “Like so many of California’s signature old theaters, it can’t support itself as a movie house in the era of Netflix.”

He’s wrong. The Tower hasn’t been a working movie theater in decades. The Abbate family long ago turned it into a performing arts center that books local and traveling theater companies, music headliners, dance concerts, opera and more.

Yes, films are occasionally featured, but in the past, those films have been screened one night a month, thanks to the non-profit Fresno Filmworks, which booked indie-type titles that wouldn’t otherwise play in local multiplexes. There’s been one other major movie tenant: For one week a year, the Reel Pride gay and lesbian film festival also booked the Tower. (What are the chances that Adventure Church as the owner would allow that festival to continue?)


Last time I looked, even opinion columnists need to follow fact-checking standards. How could the Bee editorial page let this statement through?

‘Saving’ the Tower

From reading Mathews’ column, you’d think the Tower Theatre is in danger of falling down. He compares it to two other formerly shuttered historic theaters in Fresno: the Hardy’s and the Wilson, both of them taken over by churches. The comparison doesn’t work. The Tower Theatre was never decaying or crumbling; for many years, it has been a vigorous, inclusive performing arts center. (Until the pandemic, of course.)

He writes: “In wise communities, churches and their neighbors look past their differences and focus on their shared interest in saving the old buildings.”

First of all, what a completely condescending remark.

Mathews might as well have written: “In the more sophisticated areas of the state, you’ll find enlightened folks who realize that we have to be tolerant of people who believe differently than us. Alas, poor Fresnans, how gauche and illiberal it is for you to be protesting in your little ‘holy war.’ ” (Yes, he uses that term — “holy war” — in his column.)

Later he points to his own enlightened community in the San Gabriel Valley, where he can go to a church-owned restored theater and watch “Miracle on 34th Street.”

. . .
. . .

Second, this isn’t about saving an old building or failing business. Owner Lawrence Abbate told the Bee that the Tower Theatre was coming off a great 2019 and expecting to have an even bigger 2020 before the pandemic hit. “It was off the hook,” Abbate said. “It just couldn’t get any busier.”

Finally, Mathews doesn’t follow his Hardy’s/Wilson comparison all the way through. Those beautiful theaters have been saved, yes, but they offer no secular programming whatsoever. They’re churches. They shouldn’t be expected to. The Tower Theatre has operated for decades as a secular cultural venue. It’d be much harder to lose that compared to an abandoned building.

The only option?

In his column, Mathews ignores the complicated backstory of the Tower issue. He implies there is only one potential buyer for the theater. How do we know that when it was never officially put on the market? The Tower controversy is a sprawling, wobbly tale that includes unnamed “angel investors,” allegations of sweetheart management deals, tricky finances, a church breaking the city’s COVID safety restrictions in the name of religion, and much, much more.

Mathews also glosses over the weekly protests that have continued for a mind-boggling 27 weeks, some of them drawing as many as 250 people. Think about that: Demonstrations have persisted for half a year, through the cold and thick of COVID and into the broiling Fresno summer. Organizers estimate that nearly 3,000 people have attended these weekly gatherings in total — concerned residents giving up their Sunday mornings to fight for their neighborhood.

It’s the zoning

The surest indication, however, that Mathews didn’t do his research is that the word “zoning” doesn’t appear once in his column. That’s a significant omission considering that the zoning argument is at the heart of the opponents’ opposition to the sale. The Tower District Specific Plan prohibits religious assembly in a building that large and in that location. As a tenant, Adventure Church has been blithely breaking that restriction for many months. And there’s no mention of area bars and nightclubs and the difficulty that future owners of those businesses may face in coming years of retaining conditional-use permits when they’re located next to a church.

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Rather than the author spouting feel-good platitudes about why can’t we all just get along — or taking his own neighborhood example of a church-renovated theater and then trying to extrapolate that to a vastly different scenario —  we should be talking about grassroots democracy, neighborhood determination, and finding ways to encourage diversity and inclusion. This is especially the case in a city that features churches on what seem like every major intersection. Yet the Bee just reported that 23% of Fresno residents do not affiliate with an identified religion. That’s a quarter of its population. We need some balance.

Don’t be naive

In terms of the bigger picture, Mathews missed the most important point of all:

The Tower sale is a front in the culture war. This story is about losing an iconic centerpiece of Fresno’s only truly self-declared progressive neighborhood to a zoning-busting religious organization preaching intolerance. It’s about a concerted effort by religious institutions to take local control away. It’s about using the freedom-of-religion argument (and a right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court) as a special trump card to walk over secular society.

Thanks for dropping by, Mr. Mathews and Zocalo Public Square, but we have a lot more important things to worry about than when we can catch the next screening of “Miracle on 34th Street.”

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.

Comments (16)

  • Patty Bennett

    Thank you, Donald.

  • gp7594earthlinknet

    Thank you, Donald, for valiantly supporting the truth!

  • Jim Wilson

    You should submit this article to the Fresno Bee for the Valley Voices section.

  • Jackie Ryle

    Well said, Donald. Thank you.

  • Dawn

    THANK YOU SO MUCH CKEARING THAT UP! I was up atv4a blurred trying to read the Joe MAthews article and very upset. I was sending out texts asking what happened. I so appreciate ypu clearing this up!

  • Leilani (Lee) Jensen

    Thank you for this important clarification and denunciation of an irresponsible column, please have the Bee publish your message.

  • Haley White

    Thank you, Donald. Joe Mathews’ trash op-ed is getting picked up by outlets all over the state; it troubles me greatly that it may be many people’s first entry point into the whole situation. It’s infuriating that one man could put out so much bad information to so many people so quickly.

  • Detective Jess

    I think it was a miracle on 34th St. keeping with the Christian holiday lol …..

    Bravo sir

    I’m still waiting for a journalist to put together where the money‘s coming from international foursquare Church of the gospel they have real estate planners and lenders and they have a campaign called planting a church,

    Which they network with local churches to become district churches are sections and they pay tidings to the bigger church…..

    No one did a story when the president of the foursquare international church came here to personally thank Anthony for taking over the tower theater and running the gays out it’s not over yet going to trial in 2023

    No one blinked a eye when a anti-Jewish / Israel bishop from New York congratulated Anthony on his Facebook page

    The proof is in the court documents all their lies are exposed and no one‘s exposing them….

    The nonprofit tax havens family trust and other business entities all use the same address for tower theater….

    All the corporation names with the same address and different peoples names on them….

  • m w reilly

    This needs to get published in the Fresno Bee!! Thank You Mr. Munro!

  • Claire Ardell

    Thank you!
    It is unconscionable that he can’t completely ignored the rezone issue. As a resident and employee in the area, I feel betrayed by the tone deaf article. I am, highly, disappointed in The Fresno Bee printing such hogwash.

  • Pauline Sahakian

    Bravo! Keep writing about the illegal sale of the Tower! Bombard the Bee with your argument that speaks to so many of us who grew up with the Tower Theater—it’s not a church!

  • Jim Ashford

    That was an excellent response to the tone-deaf piece by Mathews. Adding insult to insult, the Bee published Mathews’ article AGAIN today in the Sunday “Insight” section. The paper should print your response—will you submit it?

  • James D. Mendez

    Thanks Don. Truth and facts.

  • Thank you for spelling out the truth, Don. I guess it’s time I dropped my subscription, not that anything will stop them from publishing one-sided arguments begging to go viral. I was shocked to see this in the publication I used to trust with its real news/opinions from you and many others.

  • Celeste DeMonte

    The Bee should be ashamed of having printed the Mathews op-ed. I do so wish your informed response would be picked up by the newspaper.


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