The William Saroyan Theatre

IMG 0875The most visible, and certainly the largest, tribute to William Saroyan in the city of his birth has to be the William Saroyan Theatre. What better tribute to one of the nation’s true masters of dramatic writing than to name a theater after him? And though it wasn't built as a tribute to ‘The Kid from Fresno’, it has cemented itself as one of the finest he could have asked for.

Fresno had gone through a series of changes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The post-war boom had led to significant growth throughout California, but Fresno was still, at heart, an agricultural city. As the populations of California’s other major cities boomed, so did Fresno’s, its population doubling between the end of World War II and 1960. This influx of residents brought a new-found prosperity, but also a need to carve itself a distinct identity. Towards this goal, many expansion and beautification projects were undertaken. Highways were built or re-routed, requiring the razing of much of old Fresno. The city invested in itself through projects that included a major public art initiative. Even today, many of the pieces commissioned in the 1960s are still visible along Fulton street. Several building projects were launched, re-shaping Fresno's downtown. One plan that many in the city government wanted to prioritize was building a new convention center. Mayor Selland was steadfast in his belief that building a convention and event complex in downtown, not far from the Civic Center, would bring visitors and provide tax revenue to the city. The only problem - the citizens of Fresno were against it. Many felt that they had seen too much of old Fresno destroyed in the name of progress. The topic of funding a convention center was put on the ballot in June, 1962, and failed to pass.

But a politician with a dream is hard to hold back.

Selland and various community and business groups began pursuing state and federal grant money. By 1964, they had managed to put together enough capital to break ground on the project.

Even though it still wasn’t particularly popular with the populace.

Over eighteen months, the Fresno Community and Convention Center was built on M Street between Inyo and Kern streets. The three buildings where distinctly of the style that would become known as Mid-Century Modernist. 

In November, 1966, the Fresno  Community and Convention Center was dedicated. The center featured a large arena, the Selland Area named after the mayor who doggedly championed the project, an exhibition hall, and a theater.

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The theater was named “The Convention Center Theatre.”

And it remained so through 1981. During that time, the Convention Center thrived, bringing events of all kinds to the city. The arena has been home to many significant sporting events, from basketball to pro wrestling, as well as concerts and events like Ringling Brothers’ circus and the Pacific Indoor Rodeo. The theater became home to several of Fresno’s most important cultural institutions. The Fresno Ballet, Fresno Philharmonic, and Fresno Grand Opera all made the Convention Center Theatre their home. Touring concert orchestras and choral groups would play the venue as well. Major superstars like ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared at the Convention Center Theater, and it's clear why it could feature such incredible talent: the theatre is beautiful.

IMG 0882As you approach the entrance, you see a massive bronze front and door piece. Created by Fresno artist Stan Bitters, the bronze was so big he had to create a foundry near the site just to create them! The bronze piece features abstract shapes, including Bitters’ signature rondelles. At more than twenty feet tall, the piece looms over those who pass through the inset doors. The lobby wraps around the back half of the theatre, split into two portions – the North Lobby and the South Lobby.

The passing of Saroyan in 1981 was a major loss to the literary world, and to Fresno as well. His death received massive amounts of coverage, including an entire special section of the Fresno Bee. Tributes popped up around the country, and the idea of re-naming the Convention Center Theatre after him appears to have come fairly quickly. By February 1982, the theatre had been renamed the William Saroyan Theatre.

imagesThe re-branding was clear in advertisements for the events at the theatre, but three additions to the building itself made it clear that this was a theatre re-dedicated to Fresno’s greatest theatrical legend. The first and most visible is the sign. Marking the building is Saroyan’s famed signature, backlit. The letters, about four feet tall, clearly announce the importance of the namesake to the city of Fresno. The fact that Saroyan’s signature is also incredibly clear and easy to read, at least compared to other writers, probably helped in that decision.

The second is a marble ground panel in front of the doors. Here, again, we see Saroyan’s signature above a large depiction of the comedy and tragedy masks. This simple piece seems to state that while Saroyan was key, he was always about the theatre, and worked equally adeptly in both drama and comedy, usually at the same time.  

The most impressive, though, is also the most personal piece of branding – the bust of William Saroyan created by Varaz Samuelian.

Varaz Samuelian and William Saroyan had been dear friends since 1964. Born in Yerevan, Samuelian moved to Paris and studied alongside many of the most important artists of the time, including Ferdinand Leger. After World War II, and a stint in the French Underground, he came to Northern California to be near his brother, and found work as a sign painter. Eventually, he relocated to Fresno, where he would become one of the best-known California sculptors of the day.

In 1970, Samuelian created a twenty-eight-foot-high statue of Armenian folk hero David of Sassoun. Located on M street, just a couple of blocks away from the theater, it is a massive, wild piece of public sculpture which has become Samuelian’s best-known work. Such was their friendship that Samuelian allowed Saroyan to lay one of the stones, the only person other than Varaz to lay any part of the monument.

IMG 0893Following Saroyan’s death and the renaming of the theater, a committee was formed to deliver a memorial for the theater site. A Saroyan statue was a clear concept, and Samuelian was an obvious choice for the job. Led by Bob Der Mugrdechian, they gathered dozens of donors to fund the creation of a full-body statue of Saroyan: a book in one hand, the handlebars of a bicycle clutched in the other. While they had set a 50,000 dollar goal, they had only managed to raise about half of the needed funds for the larger piece, so the memorial was scaled back to a four-foot-high bust and a beautiful black marble pedestal.

The bust of Saroyan shows Varaz’s style to perfection, though perhaps more restrained than many of his pieces. The expression on Saroyan’s face is wide-eyed, as if looking across the street, and perhaps evokes the sense of optimism that his stories inspired.

The bust was unveiled on January 8th, 1984 at a brief ceremony. Mayor Daniel Whitehurst, the primary speaker, declared, “This is a sign of the very special feeling we have here in Fresno for Saroyan.”

Varaz also spoke, first in English, then in the language he and his dear friend Willy would converse it – Armenian.

The William Saroyan Theatre is still a center for Fresno’s cultural life. Even through remodels and upgrades, it remains one of the finest theatres in California’s Central Valley, and a fitting tribute to the man whose name it bears.

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