Have a little confidence, Californians.
Even if you hate the religion or politics of your local churches, you might find their congregations to be precious saviors – of your historic and threatened cinemas.
In other words, think twice before you engage in a holy war like Fresno’s against the historic Tower Theater.
The tower, inaugurated in 1939, is a Streamline Moderne arrow-shaped gem anchoring a retail, dining and art district known as the Tower District. But, like so many iconic California theaters, it struggled, especially during the pandemic. So the owner of the theater tries to sell. The owner’s preferred buyer is an evangelical church that has opposed same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ministers.
From a practical standpoint, church takeovers of old theaters make sense. Movies and live shows are often not enough to support the costly upkeep of these dilapidated palaces. Churches with growing congregations can regularly fill seats while raising funds for maintenance and improvements, and keeping space available to the community for events and screenings.
But these are polarized, impractical times. And many growing churches are non-traditional, evangelical, or politically conservative, so they don’t fit into the more secular, progressive entertainment districts where you’ll find old theaters.
In some places, churches and their neighbors transcend their differences and focus on their common interest in old buildings. Responsible churches agree to preserve and maintain the theaters they support, in exchange for neighborhoods accommodating traffic or parking problems associated with hosting a congregation. Fresno saw something like this happen when churches took over other theaters.
But at the Tower Theater, conflicts between the church, the theater owner, and the community escalated, turning a neighborhood issue into a statewide controversy.
To sum up: During the pandemic, the owner of the Tower Theater allowed Adventure Church, a largely Latin congregation elsewhere in the Tower District, to hold services there (a questionable decision given the dangers of COVID-19). The adventure loved it so much that when the owner of Tower put the property up for sale at the end of last year, the church agreed to buy it and keep it open for shows and events. non-profit.
If the neighborhood can find a savior for theater less morally problematic than Adventure, that would be wonderful. But there is reason to doubt that a relatively poor municipal government like Fresno’s, or a restaurant, could successfully operate an old and expensive theater.
But when word of the purchase contract leaked, many people in the Tower District understandably saw the move from the iconic theater to the church not only as a threat to the theater, but as an attack on the spirit of the artistic and inclusive district. A petition opposing the sale has circulated widely and weekly Sunday protests have multiplied. Local businesses have also questioned whether zoning allows for a church there, and therefore whether Adventure’s presence could create zoning or licensing issues for bars and cannabis businesses.
The anti-church protests quickly drew counter-protesters from right-wing groups, and the police erected barriers to separate them. The church or the owner of the theater – it’s unclear who – raised the political heat by displaying a tribute to the late right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, infamous for his homophobic rhetoric, on the theater marquee. California media, obsessed with culture wars, fueled controversy with their coverage.
The conflict developed from there. The tower property includes restaurants; one of them took legal action to block the sale, claiming that his own deal allowed him to buy the property. The mayor of Fresno, seeking to defuse the situation, offered the church alternative property, which Adventure refused. Other city officials pitched the idea of ââtaking the theater as a prominent area. There is also a lot of talk about other people or institutions that might want to buy the place.
If the neighborhood can find a savior for theater less problematic than Adventure, that would be wonderful. But there is reason to doubt that a relatively poor municipal government like Fresno’s, or a restaurant, could successfully operate an old and expensive theater. If so, then Adventure or another church might end up being the best option, and it might be smart for the community to stick their noses and negotiate.
Yes, I hear the screams about any compromise with an anti-gay church. But an approach of keeping your enemies close makes more sense. The adventure is already in the Tower District, whether or not it occupies the theater. And if you have to put up with such a church, why not try to take advantage of its presence, by having it restored and the Tower preserved? And if you want the church to stop spreading hatred, what better way than to engage with the church, in order to change the hearts and minds of the congregation?
I have seen this more accommodating approach pay off in two places in California. One is Redding, where the huge Bethel Church and its school of supernatural ministry have long been controversial. Bethel supported gay conversion therapy and attempts to perform miracles such as using prayer to resuscitate a dead child. Yet when the Redding Civic Auditorium was in trouble, Bethel Church and its members, even in the face of much criticism and fears from the church in the community, helped form a nonprofit, Advance Redding, to save and manage the auditorium. The deal was a civic success, with the auditorium hosting a variety of performances and the ministry’s school making rent payments to support the facility.
The other theater is literally around the corner from my San Gabriel Valley home. The historic Rialto, which played itself out in films (like the murder scene in Robert Altman’s film The player, and as a meeting place where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone watch old movies in La La Land) remained vacant and decaying for nearly a decade until Mosaic Church, a growing mega-church with congregations from Hollywood to Mexico City, moved there.
There was some resistance from the community to the arrival of the church and concerns about what the theater might become. The mosaic is not my cup of tea – I attended the services, and while I loved the young and diverse congregation, your cynical columnist cringed at the pop music and overblown positivity of the message.
But, three years later, Mosaic is undeniably a neighborhood asset. The church carefully helped repair the theater and took care to keep the place open and welcoming to the community.
Before the pandemic, Mosaic even screened films on the Rialto giant screen. One of the last films we saw before the success of COVID-19 was a Mosaic sponsored screening of Miracle on 34th Street, the classic Christmas movie about faith in people whose beliefs we don’t share.