Saving a Cultural Icon and a Neighborhood 

After an excruciating period of bargaining, the Fresno City Council voted to purchase the Tower Theatre, which has been at the center of controversy and a culture-war conflict for more than a year. During that time, Adventure Church, a right-wing evangelical group, held services there and tried to buy the theater. But the deal fell through due to numerous pitfalls.

The 1930s-era art deco movie palace has for decades been a notable film and performance theater and is the centerpiece of a unique neighborhood featuring arts, entertainment and social diversity.

Jaguar Bennett is an actor and performance artist. He’s been a leader of the movement to save the iconic Tower Theatre and the character of the equally iconic neighborhood that bears its name.

Perhaps it was Bennett’s fate. Back in the 1960s, his father founded the legendary Café Midi, which was Fresno’s gathering spot for folkies and hipsters in the Tower District. And he’s been a resident there for some 15 years.

After months of tense stand-offs every Sunday with Proud Boy supporters of Adventure Church, Bennett wore a smile at the Sunday rally following the fateful decision and reflected on what had gone down.

“We are very, very pleased with this decision and with the leadership that the City Council has shown in protecting and preserving the Tower Theatre as an architectural, cultural and economic asset for the entire Central Valley.”

The path to victory was beset with complications stemming from disputes over City zoning laws. Until recently, Tower Theatre owner Lawrence Abbate insisted on selling to Adventure Church.

When that deal wasn’t completed, Abbate turned to the City for a deal. After prolonged negotiations and hours of public comment, the City Council voted narrowly to buy the theater for $6.5 million.

Adventure Church pastor Anthony Flores is threatening to file lawsuits.

But Bennett points out that the church has no standing to sue because it never owned the theater. “The City attorney has been incredibly cautious throughout this entire process in a way that I’ve actually found very frustrating.

“But in this case, the City attorney’s office…would not have stuck their necks out on this deal if they did not think it could be completed legally. So, I think we stand on very firm ground. I think this is a good step forward.

“We have some concerns about how the Tower Theatre will be managed under City ownership, but we feel that City ownership is the right step to resolving this issue and healing the Tower District community.”

Bennett says there are still issues to resolve such as how the purchase will be financed and who will manage the theater. He hopes that it will be a local nonprofit arts organization rather than a Hollywood entertainment company.

He promises that community watchdogs will continue to keep their eyes on the prize. “We want to maintain the economic and cultural vitality of this community, and we are going to continue to watch things closely.

“We will vigorously represent the interests of the community. It may not take the shape of a weekly protest that goes on forever, but we will still be here.”

The fight over the Tower Theatre brought together caring people from all over Fresno in a sustained effort to preserve and protect the values of cultural and societal diversity. Bennett suggests there is a message in this for other communities as well.

“If you can organize, you can resist. You don’t have to take the actions of fascists lying down.

“We have faced an attempt to take over our neighborhood by a radical right-wing church. We’ve had our streets endangered by radical, right-wing, fascist counter-protestors.

“We withstood it all through peaceful, democratic citizens’ action. And I think that’s the lesson here. At a time when democracy is threatened on all fronts, it is more important than ever to be an engaged citizen and to make the democratic process work.”

Beyond its communal value to Fresno, the Tower Theatre, along with the adjacent vibrant neighborhood art venues and businesses, generates employment and millions of dollars a year in revenue for the local economy and the city’s tax base.

Bennett communicates the palpable sense of relief everyone feels over its preservation and the future, “Well, the party is going to go on and on and on uninterrupted.

“We have a pride parade coming up. The theaters are presenting shows. The live music venues are presenting bands. People are eating and drinking.

“The Tower District is open for business, and we want people to come down and have a good time.”

  • Vic Bedoian is the Central Valley correspondent for KPFA News and a Community Alliance reporter specializing in natural history and environmental justice issues.

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