The Hag literally brought the house down in Hanford.
For the last two years, Fox Theater Hanford has sat idle, or at least it appeared so from the outside. Inside, the 1920s-era movie house was being put back in pristine order. However, it wasn’t a planned remodel.
The night of March 6, 2014, outlaw county music legend Merle Haggard, father of the Bakersfield Sound and a frequent performer at the Fox, was feeling it mightily.
“The walls were really vibrating, which they do,” said theater owner Dan Humason. “I remember commenting he’s in rare form. I’ve done a lot of Merle Haggard (shows) and he was on.”
‘Inch or Two of White Dust’
A few nights later, Kenny Rogers and his band took the stage for a more reserved show. That was followed by a local production of The Wizard of Oz, after which the crew packed up and went home. When they came back, they found an ugly, frightening and maybe deadly scene.
“We came in on Thursday, and everything was just an inch or two of white dust,” Humason said. “As we shuffled around, we were stirring up dust. I just assumed it was asbestos. I thought, ‘I’m gonna die. That’s cool. At least I know how I’m gonna die.’ Come to find out asbestos was a ‘30s thing. We’re a ‘20s-thing. What we found was it was rice-hull ash. Insects hate it. Mice hate it. So do humans. You can still buy it today. It never wears out.”
Old Fix at Fault
Fox Theater Hanford (“You always go Fox first, then the town, so Fox Bakersfield, Fox Visalia, Fox Hanford,” according to Humason) was constructed in 1929, one of three Fox Theaters in the area, including Visalia’s and one in Tulare that has since been torn down. The houses were never intended to host live theater, so Humason had installed trusses for installing lights and other stage effects, and he assumed those had a hand in the historic building’s ceiling collapse. He was wrong.
“Since we hang stuff from the rafters a lot, we figured that had something to do with it,” he said, but it was a much earlier upgrade at fault. “What brought this down was the air conditioning duct that was built five years after this building was built. They just laid it. It freezes in the attic from time to time, and sometimes it is 140 degrees up there.”
For 82 years, extreme thermal differentials had pulled and pushed the old girl until she could stand no more. At least she waited until the house was empty before giving in, perhaps saving a lot of lives in the process.
“Once a little corner came down, it was easy for the rest of it to start getting pulled down, like a carpet upside down,” Humason said. “It just swung like a door. It would have cut people’s bodies in half. Look how it broke the chairs, and those are cast iron.”
‘Another 85 Years’
If it had been the rigging trusses installed by Humason at fault, instead of the AC system added in 1934, the story could have signaled the Fox’s tragic end. Instead, the theater’s insurance kicked in, paying for the entire fix. Rebuilding has inspired Humason to invest more money, energy and time into the Fox, which his family has owned since 1979.
“It went for 85 years,” he said. “Let’s go for another 85 years.”
The Fox will officially reopen on April 30 with a performance by rocker Jackson Browne. A silent movie night featuring the theater’s pipe organ is scheduled for May 7. Tickets are available at foxhanford.com.
“We’re having a soft opening, then get really going in the fall,” said Humason. “We don’t do a lot in the summer.”
Upgrades and ADA
While the theater was closed for repair, Humason took the opportunity to upgrade the lobby, removing the snack bar, another modernization from the 1930’s.
“We got a picture (of the lobby’s original condition), and if we want to now duplicate that, we can,” he said. “Everything’s on wheels. If I need to clean it up for a school or something, I can do that. This way, we’ll have a better lobby, and we can do shows in the lobby.”
An Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant unisex bathroom has also been added at a cost of more than $55,000. Two rows of seats at the top of the sloped auditorium were removed and the incline flattened to provide an area for wheelchairs. While every business is supposed to have these amenities, Fox Hanford didn’t, and the collapse of the ceiling may have saved Humason from being sued for noncompliance. A disabled individual has been suing local businesses, receiving cash settlements in the process.
“Had we been open, we very well could have been sued,” Humason said. “We treat our handicapped clients very well. They’re attended at all times, even if they come without an attendant.”
A New Look
With the removal of a small office space from the lobby, Humason was able to return one of the carved decorative beams — or rather a clever modern replacement — that give the theater its unique art deco styling.
“The beam we thought was on the ceiling, wasn’t,” Humason said. “I had the remnants under the stage since ‘82. We took it down to Burbank and had a 3D mold made.”
Fox Theaters are known for their starry ceilings, and those are in place now in Hanford, along with a modern, computer-driven addition to the lighting.
“Some of my crew were out doing Paul McCartney, and he had an LED curtain. It sounded pretty cool,” Humason said. “So, since I knew I was putting in a new ceiling, I took the opportunity to install (conduit) prior to plastering. I’m calling them ‘star ports.’ I can use them to light up the ceiling. So, what we have is a low-power Jumbotron.”
When the theater reopens, expect everything to be done right.
“We’re taking our time with this, obviously,” Humason said.