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Anchorage Voters to Decide Theater's Fate

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ An opulent movie theater that has been an Anchorage icon for almost 60 years is facing what could be its final drama.

The 4th Avenue Theatre _ elegant yet strong enough to withstand North America's greatest earthquake unscathed _ is on the market and could fall victim to the wrecking ball.

Anchorage voters will decide Tuesday whether to authorize issuance of a $2 million bond to help the city pay for the $4 million sought by theater owner Robert Gottstein.

Gottstein, 51, a lifelong Alaskan who grew up watching movies there, said the 40,000-square-foot theater's survival may depend on finding a buyer.

``It's a jewel that once gone, is gone,'' Gottstein said. ``Now here's this opportunity to prevent it from being destroyed.''

If a recent poll proves true, most voters oppose footing even part of the bill.

``I really don't feel my tax dollars should be involved in renovating something that belongs in the private sector,'' said Mike Vogel, an insurance agent. ``To be perfectly honest, the fact that it's an architectural jewel doesn't really push my buttons.''

But for preservation advocates, the downtown theater _ now rented out for weddings, fundraisers, catered banquets and special events _ is more than a pretty facade.

To them, it's a pioneer of glamour and genteel magnificence brought to a disheveled young town that began as a tent camp for railroad construction crews. It's a symbol of permanence in a city with a sizable number of newcomers.

A city task force is exploring the idea of turning it into a multi-use community venue. Options being considered include movies, plays, recitals, lectures, a small museum, even leasing the vacant office space on the third floor _ while retaining the original character of the building.

``There's so much history there,'' said task force member Les Sheppard. ``It'd be really a shame to lose it.''

Brass and glass doors mark the entrance to a lush interior featuring fluted walnut, Italian marble and trim in copper, gold and brass. There are gold- and silver-leaf murals of Alaska wildlife, industries and Mount McKinley. Outside, a vertical marquee glows in pink and green neon.

When the theater was completed in 1947, the finished product was an unprecedented achievement in Alaska, according to Anthony Veerkamp with the National Trust for Historical Preservation.

``I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I really think it's the single most architecturally distinctive building in the state,'' Veerkamp said. ``I don't know of another building there that's as rich in detail.''

The building might need some upgrades, such as a new roof and carpet. But Gottstein points out that the structure is sound, undamaged by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in 1964.

``If the theater is worth saving, it's worth buying,'' he said. ``If it's not worth buying, it's not worth saving.''
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