Renovations planned for Glendale's Alex Theatre

Pedestrians walk past the Alex Theatre on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The public was invited to explore the Alex Theatre on Sunday, June 30, and take a last look before big changes are made to the building's south and western sides. (Roger Wilson / Staff Photographer / July 10, 2012)

History can be seen everywhere in Glendale's venerable Alex Theatre. It's in the classic terrazzo walkway before the front doors. It's in the neon of the one-hundred-foot high art deco tower, added to the building in 1946. It's in the deep carpet of the lobby, where Bing Crosby nervously paced during a preview screening of "Going My Way" in 1944 (as he agonized over whether the public would accept him as a movie priest). It's in the painted, cement-block walls of the dressing rooms below the stage, lined with framed posters of past productions including "Always…Patsy Cline," "The Phantom," "Disney's Mulan," "Forever Plaid," "Evita" and other shows.

The Alex is a rare example of a tenacious old vaudeville and movie theater that has been able to survive by adapting to the times. Were it located elsewhere, the theater probably would have been demolished decades ago. The city of Glendale, though, has long recognized the Alex's importance — and potential — as the town's cultural centerpiece, and supported it at every juncture.

The public was invited to explore the Alex Theatre last Sunday, and take a last look before big changes are made to the building's south and western sides. Four architectural renderings by the PMSM Architects firm sat on easels on the stage, showing the projected renovations.

"There will be new expansions, like the loading dock," says Glendale Arts CEO Elissa Glickman. She began as marketing director of the Alex ten years ago. "We're going to make some changes that will allow the theater to accommodate some bigger productions. We hope that will, in turn, attract some promoters whom we had to turn away, because of the building's logistical limitations."

The faux Egyptian and Greek-styled Alex opened in 1925, named for architect Claude L. Langley's son, Alexander. It boasted a $48,000 Wurlitzer organ, played by Frank Lanterman, later a 28-year California State Assemblyman. A teenager named Marion Morrison worked in a nearby soda fountain, and his pal Bob McCaskey ushered at the Alex, where he let the future John Wayne in for free, in exchange for Morrison's on-the-house sodas. First-run movies like "Gone With the Wind," "Ben-Hur" and "Star Wars" ran at the Alex.

"There are lot of new apartment buildings in downtown Glendale," Glickman says. "We've done extensive surveys to find out what the residents want to see. So we'll be mounting some new musical theater shows and bringing in more artists to play with the Glendale Pops Orchestra."

The brilliant composer/orchestrator Matt Catingub helms the Glendale Pops Orchestra at the Alex. He's demonstrated repeatedly that he can tailor programs for all kinds of musical artists — rock, country, jazz, classical — that show them off best, yet enlarges the public's perception of their capabilities.

"The Glendale Pops experience," he pointed out in 2011, "has allowed me to assemble an orchestra of some of the finest musicians from the Hollywood studios, most of whom I have long histories with. Those guys can do a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal for a show of the exact length, and play it perfectly the first time. That kind of professionalism can only be found in the studios.

"And with trumpet players like Wayne Bergeron and Rick Baptist in the band, I can suggest a little hot sauce if I like and I know they'll come up with something that will amaze even me."

The plan is for the Alex to be closed for five months and for the new building improvements to be completed in a year. "Our last twenty years have been great," Glickman crows. "We've had wonderful shows and we've presented a lot of great people. We've seen the Glendale Pops get off the ground and put some artists like Jo Dee Messina with an orchestra for the first time. We hope that after the new changes are made that the Alex Theatre will make history again."

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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