Preservationists are marking the passing of Erma Delucchi, 94, the Piedmont woman who 35 years ago stood in front of the Fox Theater in Oakland and bid on the long-closed building that had come up for auction.
Delucchi's husband, Mario, was circling the block, looking for parking, so the story goes, and told her to use her judgment on how high to bid.
No one topped her offer of $340,000, and the once-opulent "Jazz Age gem" was theirs. At the time, they told reporters that they had always loved the Fox, where they would go to the pictures on their early dates as high-school sweethearts.
"The Delucchis have always been heroes to me," says Patricia Dedekian, formerly the chairwoman of the nonprofit Friends of the Oakland Fox, or FOOF. "Not many people would go out on a limb like that to save a huge, dilapidated old theater that was then seen as an albatross and as a blight on the Uptown landscape."
Opened to great fanfare in 1928, the opulent Fox was a major Bay Area attraction for several decades before it was forced to close in the 1960s. Even in the heyday of elaborate movie palaces, the Fox stood out -- with its buff brick, terra cotta and colorful tile exterior featuring fanciful Moorish and Indian motifs. Inside, theatergoers were treated to even more abundant exotic touches, capped off by gargantuan twin Buddha-like figures flanking the theater stage. It's said the figures had glowing eyes and belched smoke during breaks between features.
The one-of-a-kind venue with seating for 2,800 was designed by then-prominent architecture firm Weeks and Day.
The Delucchis pledged to preserve the theater, no matter how long it took to find a way to restore it (Mario died in 1978, soon after they took ownership). In 1996, the Fox was sold to the city of Oakland. Soon after, local developer and preservationist Phil Tagami, who parents' first date was at the Fox, took up the challenge of raising funds to rehabilitate the theater and the commercial office building that enclosed it. Step one was placing the theater on the National Register of Historic Places so it would be eligible for preservation tax credits.
Dedekian was one of several community members who pledged to do their part with the effort.
"Throughout my 10 years as president of FOOF, Erma Delucchi and her daughter, Diane Goodhue, were steadfast supporters of our efforts to find a way to restore the theater. Erma was the first to step up and make the lead donation," Dedekian said. "If you look near the entrance to the Fox, you will see the commemorative plaque that she purchased, dedicated to her husband, Mario."
The theater enjoyed a grand reopening Feb. 5, 2009. "Erma and her family were there to help us cut the ribbon," Dedekian said.
To learn more about the history of the Fox, and the efforts to raise funds for its rebirth, go to www.foxoakland.org.
The Oakland Tours Program offers free walks of the Uptown District; go to www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours for dates and tour descriptions.