Seal Beach’s Bay Theatre has a buyer with a vision

SEAL BEACH – As a younger man, Paul Dunlap dreamed of being another Bill Graham, the late rock promoter of such groups as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

On a weekday morning standing in front of the long-closed Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, Dunlap can almost see that vision coming true. The iconic building on Main Street could be his latter-day Fillmore. Albeit a much tamer version of the famous San Francisco concert hall.

A lifelong patron of the arts and a preservationist, the Fullerton developer and founder of the Dunlap Property Group says he wants not only to bring back the Bay Theatre as a moviehouse, but can also see it serving as a space for music and art.

“I think we can create a place that’s a draw not only for the community but for the surrounding area,” said Dunlap, 61, who is in escrow for the $2.25 million building and said he expects to spend $1 million to fix it up.

On Monday, he will introduce himself to the community at a City Council meeting and lay out his ideas. He also hopes to be a part of community workshops to gain input and insights from residents and council members.

“I intend to present my vision,” he said. “From that point we’ll move forward. Ultimately it’s a community theater. I need to reflect their wishes.”

Ultimately though, he said he’d like to see the building fulfill its original mission: to bring a cultural element to the community.

Dunlap has been in real estate for 40 years and has owned Dunlap Property Group since 1991. His company specializes in investment and management of apartment complexes and commercial property as well as asset management.

He is perhaps best known for buying and redeveloping the Villa Del Sol in Fullerton, where in 1994 he turned the 1922 Spanish Colonial-style California Hotel into a hopping restaurant, retail and office complex in downtown. He was also part of the effort in Fullerton to save the historic 1925 Fox Theatre.

Although Dunlap only learned about the Bay Theatre three months ago, he moved quickly to buy it.

The Bay Theatre has been closed since 2012. It was formerly renowned for housing a massive Wurlitzer organ used for concerts and silent film screenings. The moviehouse originally had 700 seats, but that was reduced to 425 to make room for the organ. The Wurlitzer is long gone and today a For Sale sign hangs from the front and No Trespassing placards are plastered on the doors.

Also prominent is a disclaimer that says the online Bay Theater Foundation and it founders are not affiliated with the owner. There is also an informal exhibit of local artist and building caretaker Ed Allen’s “Haunted Memories” portraits, spooky photos that change depending on your angle of view.

All of this makes the theater quirkily and uniquely Seal Beach.

After the building closed, it was listed for sale for $3.3 million by owner Rena Singer. The Bay Theater Foundation was launched by a group of residents and former employees of the moviehouse whose goal was to create a nonprofit and reopen it as an art theater.

According to Councilwoman Ellery Deaton, another person interested in the building wanted to create a plain, unadorned black-box theater, sound studio and have rooftop dining. That proposal waned and Deaton said that by going into escrow, Dunlap has gone a lot farther than other would-be rescuers of the theater.

As Dunlap is talking about his visions, resident Daniel Chesnut, comes up and mentions that he has often dreamed of buying and preserving the building.

“I would keep it as an arts place,” he said. “It’s really a special space.”

In a time when many developers favor tearing down historic buildings such as the Seal Beach landmark, Dunlap says his goal is to refurbish the building to its original state.

“I’ll explore all kinds of creative ideas to make this vibrant day and night,” he said. “In real estate, places like this, we call them jewel boxes.”

Before closing escrow, Dunlap says he must continue his due diligence, which will include seeing if the city and community are receptive to his goals.

The developer said he would like a beer and wine license for the facility, but says he doesn’t want to compete with restaurants on the street. He also needs to find ways to provide parking and would like to restore two residences that were originally on the upper floors.

“Always my preference is to preserve,” Dunlap said.

That’s a magic phrase to Deaton, whose district encompasses Old Town.

“I’m so excited that someone wants to restore and preserve the Bay Theatre for its original use,” Deaton said, adding that she needs to hear more specifics about Dunlap’s vision.

Deaton said she thinks the community would support the plan, but added, “it’s not up to me to say what they want, I want to hear from the community.”

As Dunlap stands next to the theater, he admits this is the best time, when the possibilities and dreams seem virtually boundless. Art, music, film festivals, comedy, community space, all of it seems workable at the moment.

“My main thing isn’t about the money in this,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”

Leave a Reply