Quick Take:

The historic Fox Theater represents many things to many people in Watsonville, but has sat largely vacant for nearly 20 years. Now, a local buyer wants to revive the building as a cultural asset that enriches “the spirit of the people.” Will he pull it off?

Despite its crumbling Spanish colonial facade, sun-faded and empty marquee, and vacancy during much of the past 20 years, the old Fox Theater cinema stands as one of downtown Watsonville’s most prominent structures.

Shuttered in 2005, many younger millennials, Gen Zers and recent transplants likely cannot remember the Fox as anything but an empty building, but the theater stands as a landmark of nostalgia for many longtime residents. And people tend to be protective of their nostalgia.

Watsonville City Councilmember Vanessa Quiroz-Carter told me “many people have a lot of memories going to that theater.” In a 2019 column/plea published by the Pajaronian, then-editor Tony Nuñez urged the theater’s owner, Hank Garcia, to reopen the space, waxing romantic on how movies at the Fox not only helped him learn English, but played a formative role in his pursuit of storytelling as a profession.

“It seems to me that everybody has had an affair with the theater, everyone has a beautiful memory there,” Franco Vaca, a 34-year Watsonville resident and local business owner, told me over the phone last week. “People are hungry, people are thirsty, to have a place like that in Watsonville again. … There are many people who do the arts here, but they need a space, they need to be helped.”

For years, the Fox Theater has needed not only a savior, but a believer, someone willing to take a bet on the broader importance of the arts. Last month, Vaca pushed his chips to the center of the table. On Sept. 8, he closed on an $850,000 purchase of the Fox Theater, one day after he said he closed on the purchase of the Herrera building next door on the Main Street side. Vaca, who owns the nearby Fatima’s Fine Jewelry, and ran the now-closed El Pollero restaurant a few blocks away, said he wants the theater to fill what he considers a vacuum of cultural nourishment.

“It seems that Watsonville, in my opinion, has been banned from culture and progress and I wish to bring something that enhances the spirit of the people through arts, literature, theater, performance,” Vaca said. “Something that develops the inside of the brain or the spirit of the people. That’s the vision we have for it.”

Vaca said he will keep the Fox Theater name and wants to reopen it within “a year and a half.” He said he is working with an architect, and is figuring out how much his vision will cost. He hopes to “bring the beauty that is on the outside to the inside.” He foresees a performing arts center, with live shows, music and stand-up comedy. He said he wants to show films, but rather than “commercial movies” he wants to show something that “educates.”

“People are always craving for that, but most of the time it doesn’t fall within the corridor of business,” Vaca said. “Like, you bring a drink that is very nutritious, but it doesn’t sell — people just want sugar, energy or alcohol.”

The Fox Theater
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

When Garcia, the longtime owner who sold the Fox to Vaca, reopened the theater in 1972, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, he showed the 1956 classic film, “The Ten Commandments.” Up until the theater closed in 2005, it was known as one of the only theaters in the region showing Spanish-language films. According to the Sentinel, in 2002, it was the only theater in Northern California to premiere a Spanish version of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

The Fox hasn’t remained completely lifeless since its closure. The theater appeared to have found a savior in 2007 after Silicon Valley real estate developer Mark Calvano made an offer; however, the Sentinel reported that the purchase “fell through in escrow.” In 2008, Garcia resuscitated the theater but it was short-lived, closing in 2009 because of “the financial effects of the recession and downtown Watsonville’s ongoing struggles to attract business,” according to a 2016 report from the Sentinel. The theater hosted the 2016 Watsonville Film Festival, and, in 2019, pizza restaurant Slice Project opened inside the theater’s Main Street entrance.

Slice Project co-owner Brando Sencion grew up in Watsonville. Sencion admitted he doesn’t have many memories of the Fox Theater as a kid, and said the theater was less a sentimental choice than the most rational among the very limited storefront options for his pizzeria. The Slice Project is in the fifth year of a seven-year lease, and Sencion said Vaca sounded “supportive of what we were doing.” Earlier in the lease, he said, he had access to the entire theater. The theater needs “plenty of work,” Sencion said, but said his impression was that it’s more restoration than full renovation.

“The building is so beautiful. I think the goal is to bring some life back into it,” Sencion told me. “I think it’s a building that is loved by the community. Every time people walk into the pizzeria they want to know more about it. It seems like there is an interest to make something happen there. It’s exciting news for the people who grew up here, especially for the generation who grew up going there.”

The potential for new life in the Fox Theater comes at a time when Watsonville’s elected leaders and government officials are rethinking how its downtown of the future can be an attraction. Earlier this month, the city council unanimously approved a plan for downtown that would make room for 4,000 new housing units, narrow Main Street from four to two lanes, and redirect the commercial identity away from retail and toward entertainment and experiences. Vaca acknowledged the downtown plan and, broadly, supports it; however, he said government moves too slowly. Watsonville, he said, “needs something now, not in 20 years.”

Quiroz-Carter, whose council district surrounds the Fox, said she knew little about Vaca’s plans, but hoped “the new owners do something productive for the community there.” The city was involved in a yearslong discussion with Garcia over potentially purchasing or leasing the theater. Matt Huffaker, Watsonville’s city manager at the time, told the Pajaronian in 2021 that “the city and the Garcia family share the goal of wanting to see the Fox reactivated.” However, those plans never reached fruition.

Nuñez, who now manages communications for nonprofit Community Bridges, has been watching for movement at the Fox for years. He said the city purchasing the theater would have given the community a role in determining a vision for the theater. He told me that was a “missed opportunity” but said he hopes Vaca’s vision is one that brings the public to the table.

“Whatever he does, I hope he takes in a lot of community input,” Nuñez said. “That theater means a lot to a lot of people in Watsonville for different reasons. I hope [Vaca’s] vision aligns with what the community has in its vision, too.”

Vaca said he understands the history of fits and starts and promises over the past 20 years at the theater. He declined to have his photograph taken for this story, hesitant to get too far ahead of himself before the theater reopened. Many times during our conversation, and after, Vaca emphasized that he wanted to be careful and urged me to “write with consideration” because people are sensitive about the property.

“This type of property doesn’t belong to the business owner only, it belongs to the community, too,” Vaca told me. “People have expectations, and everybody comes with a promise. I’ll have my picture taken there, but first I want to show the community something that is done.”

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...