The old Bijou/Ritz Theater that has lain unused for several decades is about to get a revival that could make it the crown jewel of the Grand Avenue renewal, a transformation into a church, arts and entertainment center.
Quite a journey for a 80-year old building that was once the only theater in Escondido, and for a while was the notorious X-rated Pussycat Theater—much to the dismay of city officials. It hasn’t been open since 2003.
When Pastor Tim Spivey of the New Vintage Church talks about “The Grand” project that will hold its official groundbreaking Saturday morning at the corner of Grand & Juniper, he frames it this way: “If this is a project that the church does well by but it doesn’t help the city, I don’t see that as a success. We are doing this as an act of service to our community. What goes on there doesn’t have to be distinctly Christian. We think we can enrich all of our lives. That’s the heart behind that.”
He added, “In its prime, the Ritz was THE place to go in Escondido. After sitting dormant for many years, it will be exciting to have this theater open again. The reimagined space will serve the community well and will hopefully be the spark that ignites other creative projects in Escondido.”
The groundbreaking will be held Saturday, 11 a.m. at the site of the project, which could cost the church of about 400 members as much as $10 million.
It’s not hard to find fans of this new project. Which passed as one of the final acts of the old city council in December—but without a hint of criticism. By a vote of 4-0 (one council member recused himself out of a conflict of interest) the council enthusiastically approved a conditional-use permit, development plans and a demolition plan.
The outgoing mayor, Sam Abed, declared, “In my 14 years [on the city council] we have never had such support for a project. This is more than a business approval for us. It brings the community together under the banner of faith and under the community gathering as well.”
In his last meeting, councilman Ed Gallo said, “I’m just happy, I mean I’m not happy this is my last council meeting, but this is the last meeting that I have a vote on something and this is just awesome. It’s a great way to go out.”
Michelle Geller, who is in charge of economic development for the city, puts it this way, “Reactivating the former Ritz Theater is an exciting prospect for Downtown Escondido. That space is an important piece of history. New Vintage’s project will bring new life to that corner, and the timing is great given all the new residential units coming online nearby over the next few years.”
This week, Alex MacLachlan, president of the Downtown Business Association told The Times Advocate: “I’m really looking forward to going to the groundbreaking. I hear they are going to give tours of the old Bijou / Ritz theater, so I can’t wait to soak it in and see how many childhood memories of being in that theater come flooding back to me. The last design I saw was very attractive and an improvement over an earlier version I saw since it improved the Juniper Street side of the project and made the Grand / Juniper corner more of a focal point. City staff and Tim Spivey did a great job working together to come up with a design that is going to be a huge asset to Grand Avenue for a long time.”
Chamber of Commerce CEO Rorie Johnston added, “In its prime, the Ritz was the place to go in Escondido. After sitting dormant for many years, it will be exciting to have this theater open again. The reimagined space will serve the community well and will hopefully be the spark that ignites other creative projects in Escondido.”
The current mayor, Paul McNamara, is just as positive as the old one was: “The New Vintage Church is another positive step in the revitalization of our downtown. It offers a new way to think about how a building should be used,” he told The Times-Advocate. “Through Infill resident projects, and proposed and in-work new business endeavors for Grand Avenue we have high expectations for a robust and vibrant center city.”
The story of how New Vintage Church decided to make the move from its old location on 13th and Juniper is a story of a church congregation looking for just the right home—one that would reflect its spirit.
Several years ago, as Pastor Spivey recalls, “We were considering the idea of relocating to take the first step at a church home. We looked in Escondido, but the word on the street was that Escondido was notoriously difficult to work with.”
Then in the fall of 2016, through an almost miraculous circumstance they ended up at 13th & Juniper at what had been Hidden Valley Church—which “dissolved and tossed us the keys,” says Spivey. “That was an astounding gift free and clear.”
Then the challenge became to grow fast enough to pay the bills on the property. “The resources always showed up,” he remembers. “We were able to grow fast enough to do what the next thing was. The resources always showed up.
“We started looking, but nothing really fit. We looked at Harmony Grove. But our church is not made for suburbs. Our people are extroverted fun-loving people.” He consulted Realtors like Sabrina Covington, who suggested that he look at the Ritz Theater. It seemed to have possibilities.
Tim Spivey’s parents had brought him to Escondido many times when he was a little boy. He had often walked past the Ritz, which was usually closed. “I was always fascinated and wondered why nothing had ever been done,” he recalls.
At a Christmas party another Realtor agreed to introduce Spivey to the owner of the property, Chuck Burrough, who offered to give him a tour. “I saw some real potential there. My dad is a classic car guy and nostalgia is in my bloodstream. Getting in was a thrill!”
But he also had to consider the downsides: “Churches have children. What will we do with the kids? All the while, I’m thinking ‘It’s not zoned for this.’ We tried to get our imaginations going. I brought in an architect who used to work for Disney. It was his brain that said ‘You ought to get the corner building.’ ”
That architect was Mel McGowan, founder of Visioneering Studios, who worked for ten years for the Walt Disney Company but has also worked with a lot of churches since he started his own design firm.
When McGowan said that acquiring the corner building could be key to a superior design, Spivey walked over to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio and talked to the owners. They were amenable to relocating. Note: Arthur Murray will soon be reopening next to Kettle Coffee & Tea.
“We were able to put both buildings into escrow,” Spivey recalls. This was at the same time that they were selling the old church property to Canvas Church—which is having its own grand opening this weekend.
McGowan created the design concept and the multiple use concept, while keeping the vintage theme. They used the architectural firm of BGW for the drawings. “We knew we were getting a good conceptual design. We walked all over downtown, and saw that it was consistent with what was going on in the city and would preserve the historical significance of the Ritz,” says Spivey.
They found the horror stories of working with the city to be overblown. “I found Escondido to be fair to work with,” says Spivey. “It was not a burdensome process. It was thorough. I think we realized that for financial viability it would have to be done quickly. The city was sympahthetic and helped make the changes; so it could be a better project and something they could approve enthusiastically.”
Pastor Spivey and his church had no idea “The Grand” would be as popular as it has been. “I’m used to high levels of criticism,” he says. “Grand needed some new life. We think the different things going on there will really enrich the city.”
The original theater had 900 seats when it opened in 1938. The new theater will have 477 seats on the bottom for a total of 650 when you add the balcony. “We’re going to do films, live theater and concerts,” says Pastor Spivey. “Right now we are exploring rooftop cinema, where you would go watch movies on the roof.”
This would take advantage of the fact that the corner building will be two stories with an outdoor patio lounge on the roof that can also be used for receptions. “Up there, we will be able to screen movies from the era. You go to Cruisin’ Grand and then go to a movie on the top or see it at the Ritz,” says Spivey. “You could see Christmas movies and we could roll back the prices to a quarter or for free. When you think about the possibilities it’s really pretty breathtaking.”
So has been the support they have gotten from nearly every quarter. “Even historic folks are applauding the project,” says Pastor Spivey with wonder. “We eventually reached a consensus where everybody felt pretty good about things. We have had nearly no opposition and the endorsement of almost every civic group in the city. You don’t want to do something like this unless the community around you supports it.”
The church will hold services there on weekends, but won’t dominate its use. “We’re purchasing it, and operating it. But we won’t be the primary tenant,” says Spivey, who envisions theater groups like Patio Playhouse and Star Repertory Theater as arts partners. In fact, the latter group got its start at the original New Vintage church. “We have several theater groups lined up. The demand to get in there was staggering. We will have to take this list and vet them.”
The big picture, says Pastor Spivey, “is that it helps the church and the city take another step and helps bring life to the corner.”
The church acquired each building for just under $1 million each. Development costs will be between $6-7 million on top of that. “So it will be up to $10, depending on how much glitz,” says Spivey. “We are inviting people to participate [i.e. make donations] so that it becomes the crown jewel of Grand Avenue. We are going to try to make it place where people will find a reason to be in there.”
There will also be a café— really more of a coffee shop. “Some have expressed an interest in coming in there,” he says. “That will be the front door of that entire complex. Whoever is there will get a lot of foot traffic. That’s a pretty nice spot, but we have to be careful. We want to project kindness and welcome. You need the right kind of people there. If we can find the right tenant who is excited about that—or we might tackle that ourselves.”
This is going to be a quick building project. “We are on track to hold services for Christmas Eve of this year in the Ritz,” says Pastor Spivey. “It needs to be speedy but not at the expense of quality.” This project is challenging for 400 people in the church with a total membership of 750. “This is a pretty big nut to crack for us, but we have the financing from the previous sale.”
Speed is necessary because they can’t afford too many months paying to hold services at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.
Building will be done by Escondido-based Erickson-Hall Construction Co. “They have been great to work with. We’ve tried to hire people local. We’d like the jobs to stay pretty close to home,” says Spivey.
Pastor Spivey reemphasizes that, although “The Grand” is a project by a church, that it’s a project for the city. The church’s name won’t even be on the front of the building.
“We are building a building for the city. What I wanting our church to understand is that kind of radical philosophy is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. We feel like this is our opportunity to do something really significant and servant-oriented for our city. It will enable us to take our next step, and this is good for everybody. Everybody wins. That’s really what you want.”