Goodbye, ‘Dolly’: Fontana’s Center Stage ending dinner theater
This is not a good time for fans of dinner theater. Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion closed in March after 37 years. And in August the curtain will fall on Fontana’s Center Stage Theater.
The city-owned theater (8463 Sierra Ave.) has been leased to Stargazer Productions for light Broadway entertainment, plus meals, since 2008. The exclusive lease expired in December, has been extended monthly since then and ends Aug. 31. “God bless them, they did a great job,” Phil Burum, Fontana’s deputy city manager, told me of Stargazer. “It’s been 14 years. The council wants to go in a different direction downtown.” Ah, the proverbial “different direction.” Which is? “We’re going to turn it into the premier live-music venue for the area,” Burum said. Burum added: “It’ll be the Troubadour without the smell. It’ll be the coolest venue outside the Sunset Strip.”
Give Fontana this, it aims high. Not everyone is embracing the change. Stargazer owners Todd and Jennifer Vigiletti launched a Change.org petition to try to persuade city officials to let the couple stay through the holidays. The petition, which calls Center Stage “the last remaining classic dinner theater in Southern California,” got 1,800 signatures. Some contacted City Council members directly. “I’m getting personal attacks,” Mayor Acquanetta Warren told me Wednesday in an interview at City Hall. She added concerning Phillip Cothran, the council’s youngest member: “He’s really catching it.” Hell hath no fury like a “Hello, Dolly!” fan scorned.
One old man who phoned Warren insinuated that Fontana might bring in “that kind” of music. He refused to explain himself, and Warren, who is Black, suggested that he Google her. Most of the insults, Warren said, are from out of town, and easily shrugged off. She’s focused on the needs of Fontana, where the average age is 33. “The 25- to 55-year-olds are starving for something to do,” Warren said. “We need to reflect the diversity of the community.” The July Fourth concert in the Miller Park amphitheater downtown drew 8,000 people. Dinner theater is no longer cutting it, Warren said, especially with the city’s hopes of creating a nightlife district in the sleepy downtown. The city was paying Stargazer about $250,000 a year under the lease, with Stargazer keeping all proceeds from the shows.
But Warren, who’s attended many shows at Center Stage (and just turned 66), thanked the Vigilettis for all that they did. In 2008, people had a snobby attitude about going to Fontana. “People thought we were crazy,” she said. Todd Vigiletti was conciliatory when we spoke by phone Thursday. He said the petition “kind of fell on deaf ears” and he accepts the result, even if he’d rather stay. “We definitely had a nice run,” Vigiletti said. “All good things come to an end. That’s true in business and in life. There’s no ill will or ill feelings. It’s been an honor to be a part of such a large municipality. In many ways Fontana sets the pace for the county.”
The final show is Aug. 14’s “New York City Rhythm in the Key of B,” a tribute to B-named performers Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Bette Midler, Bobby Darin and Barbra Streisand. The show was announced Wednesday and tickets were already going fast. A second performance is possible, or, Vigiletti mused, they might just stick with the one, because “it might be nice to leave with a full house.” Center Stage drew a lot of retirees, to be sure, but also families, especially for musicals like “Shrek,” Vigiletti said. The theater was closed due to the pandemic until July 2021, and the schedule has been lighter than usual since. “With the closing for now of the Candlelight Pavilion, we had a whole new influx of folks who were looking for a new dinner show opportunity,” Vigiletti said. Without Center Stage, he said, the Inland Empire won’t have any dinner theater.
He hopes to find a venue to hold Stargazer’s Christmas follies show and advises fans to watch his website or Facebook page for updates. Originally a movie theater, the Fontana opened in 1937 with an Art Deco exterior, still largely intact, that was supposedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midway Gardens in Chicago.
The Fontana’s first movie was “Easy Living” with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold. (This happens to be among my favorites.) According to the Cinema Treasures site, the 750-seat Fontana ceased showing movies in the 1950s. Among the disparate uses since then: an Elks Lodge, retail stores, a skating rink and live theater. City Hall bought the dilapidated building in 2004 for $600,000, then sunk $6.5 million into a renovation, which included a light and sound system, high definition video projection and a full kitchen. But much of that technical gear is now out of date. And the carpet is worn. “That place has got to be gutted,” Warren said.
Starting in October, the parking lot will be torn out for a 300-space parking structure. Then the theater will get an upgrade with $300,000 from San Bernardino County and $1.5 million in American Rescue Act money from Fontana City Hall. After that, the idea is to program a range of entertainment in the 350-capacity room: rock, jazz, soul and country music and live comedy. Warren tosses out another idea.
“Imagine,” the mayor said, “gospel brunch on a Sunday in Fontana.” The theater is slated to reopen Memorial Day weekend in 2023. Keep a Coke Zero cold for me.