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Hemet Theatre / Hemet, CA

The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.)

June 26, 2011, Sunday

R; Pg. R1

RALLY ON TO SAVE FADING THEATER

By Kevin Pearson, THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

Members of the community are rallying in an effort to save the Hemet Theatre, which was damaged in a fire last year and now is in danger of being seized by the county because of a mounting tax debt.

The Riverside County treasurer-tax collectors office said this week that the theater owes $15,560.06. The taxes first became delinquent in 2004.

If the debt is not paid by June 30, the county will begin the process of putting it up for auction in March 2012. The owners would have until the day before auction to pay the back taxes and keep the property.

The theater has been in peril since a January 2010 fire in an adjacent building caused major water and smoke damage to the historic location on Florida Avenue. Since then, it has struggled to reopen on a consistent basis and its owners have seen their tax debt mount.

The theater is owned by Dave Bernal and Emerson Bixby. Bernal has not returned numerous calls for comment, and Bixby has declined to comment when visited at the theater several times.

RAISING FUNDS

The theater has hosted several fundraising events in recent months, and continued last weekend when a Beatles tribute band, The Rubber Souls, will played at the theater. Half of the gate receipts will go toward saving the facility.

Todd Frahm, who plays the role of Paul McCartney in the band, understands the importance of saving the theater.

A Hemet High graduate who now works in the city as a lawyer, Frahm spent countless Saturdays at the theater as a child and worked there for four years as a teenager.

He said he is hopeful that he can do his part to save the theater that he calls an important piece of downtown.

"I look at the town now, and so much has changed," Frahm said. "It’s just different and that’s the part that has always remained the same, and I would hate to see it go.

"To see it become a parking lot or national chain of some sort, I don’t think that’s what Hemet needs. It’s such a great place."

But it’s a place that has struggled to open its doors since it sustained damage in the fire.

On Tuesday, Frahm’s band had a scheduled rehearsal that was canceled when Bixby failed to show up to open the theater. Most days, the doors are locked, and the theater is rarely used for movies except for the occasional showing of a classic film.

For many in Hemet, the theater represents a piece of the town before it became home to big-box stores and national chains.

Opened in 1921, it was once the oldest continually run single-screen theater in the nation.

But more importantly, residents say, it is a valuable piece of Hemet’s history from its location along Florida Avenue.

"Its history is paramount for us to say we restored it and preserved another part of Hemet," said former Mayor Lori VanArsdale, who also worked at the venue as a youth. "We’ve let too many things go that are important.

"That theater is a key to a downtown turnaround."

CITY INVOLVEMENT?

But whose hands it will be in is up in the air.

The city has hired a consultant to provide an assessment of the property and has had negotiations with Bernal and Bixby to purchase the venue. If the city bought the building, it would likely be used for live performances, movies and conferences. Doing so would provide revenue streams that a movie-only theater could not offer.

But there are mixed opinions on whether the city should be involved in owning it. Hemet Councilwoman Linda Krupa said she thought the venue should be a public-private partnership and not entirely city-owned.

"I think that’s the only way it can be a money-making enterprise," Krupa said. "As wonderful as the thought of an old movie theater showing old movies is, there is no money in it.

"I’m a firm believer that just because something is old, doesn’t mean it should be saved," she said. "But that theater is one of those buildings we need to save."

And saving it, some say, is becoming increasingly important.

"You look at this now, and you have Edwards Theaters with a large mega-cinema," Frahm said. "The ones that were cool, classy California-style theaters are going under. People need to come out and support their local businesses.

"It’s definitely fallen on hard times."

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