The Start of Act Two

After more than 31 years of quiet, the Fox Theatre comes back to life New Year's Eve

As Herb Stratford walks around the Fox Theatre--dodging the various construction workers bustling around to make sure the old building is ready for the start of its second act--he seems surprisingly businesslike and serious, considering the fact that he's nearing the end of a six-year journey that at times, to be frank, has been a major pain in the ass.

There's no hit of giddiness in his voice, nor is there even a glint of joy. But when I ask him later how he's feeling about the fact that his baby on New Year's Eve is again going to be alive and functioning, after a 31-year slumber, his demeanor makes sense.

"I would say I am exhausted, somewhat giddy at times, and a little bit incredulous, in a way," said the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation executive director.

Exhausted? That's understandable. Giddy at times? Also understandable, though it's not apparent during this mid-December afternoon tour. But incredulous?

"As it all starts coming together, I don't think I could have imagined the way it looks," said Stratford. "The fact that it's really going to be done is almost hard to believe. It's been such an ordeal."

I'll second Stratford on that. The ordeal has included years of strenuous fundraising, a series of disasters (such as Sept. 11 and the tsunami that devastated Thailand and other areas) that hindered said fundraising, skyrocketing construction costs and, finally, some city officials publicly opining whether Stratford should be shit-canned earlier this year when they decided work on the Fox wasn't going fast enough.

I'll also second Stratford on the "I don't think I could have imagined the way it looks" part. I had never before set foot in the Fox Theatre (which is not surprising, seeing as it has been closed the entire time I've been alive), but let me say this: It looks freaking amazing. It's going to become one of the nicest, most unique venues in all of Southern Arizona when Bruce Hornsby opens up the place up on Dec. 31, as part of a $250-per-person-and-up gala benefit. It will also be one of the crowning achievements of the haltingly slow process of downtown redevelopment.

Let's go back to Stratford's demeanor as he showed me around the Fox Theatre, pointing out seemingly every little detail: Yeah, he was businesslike and far from giddy. But in retrospect ... he was also bragging. Proudly. Imagine a father showing off his pride and joy--after about six years of sleep deprivation.

Stratford keeps pointing out certain details. The ceiling? It's been restored to look like it did when the Southwestern art deco-style Fox opened on April 11, 1930. The carpet? Using a scrap of the carpet and a picture, it'll look just like it did back then, too. The seat fabric? It's been re-made, too. The "Acoustone" coating on the walls? Well, only two theaters in the world featured this stuff that absorbs 52 percent of sound, Stratford said, and in order to restore the third-to-a-half of if it that was damaged, the Fox folks dug up the patent and "re-created the material exactly."

The restored Fox won't be exactly like it was in 1930. It now features robotic lights, a computerized rigging system, an orchestra pit elevator, handicap accessibility, more concession areas (thanks to the Fox taking over the building immediately west of the theatre) and more bathrooms. (Also, Stratford notes, the curtain couldn't be remade at this time, because it would have cost about $250,000, and fire codes wouldn't allow it. Slackers!)

Oh, and this Fox is a bit more pricey. The original cost $300,000 to build. This Fox cost $13 million to restore, with $5.5 million of that coming from the city in a loan that needs to be repaid.

It's that loan that was the subject of a whole bunch of controversy earlier this year. There was more than token opposition, but the city approved the loan, and that's the reason the Fox is going to be reopening now, rather than three, six, or 12 years from now.

When asked about his relationship with the city, Stratford admitted that there was a point earlier this year when he was "really scared" about what was going to happen to both him and the Fox. However, Stratford also said, in a completely earnest fashion, that they now have a great relationship, despite the problems earlier this year.

"The city's been a good partner," Stratford said. "We're part of Rio Nuevo, and the city loaned us a lot of money. ... I think it took three years of convincing the city, 'Yeah, these guys are the real deal.'

"Deep down, I think everyone early on realized the community needs the Fox. But at the same time, (the city council and city staff) needs to worry about: What if the Fox goes south? But that's their job."

He said that successful events and corporate sponsorships will be the keys to making sure the Fox pays back the city in a timely fashion.

In order to keep the Fox hopping, Stratford said the theatre foundation is looking at four tracks: showings of movies, mostly classics; children's events, including a summer program in conjunction with Flandrau Science Center; live performances; and community/corporate events. While the Fox will be promoting some of its own events, Stratford said that the bulk of goings-on will come from the outside; he hopes to have 150 or more events at the Fox in 2007.

"We're primarily a rental hall," Stratford said. "For the most part, people will be bringing shows to us."

He thinks the Fox, with a capacity of 1,200, will fit in nicely between the smaller Temple of Music and Art, and the larger Tucson Convention Center Music Hall and UA's Centennial Hall. Stratford said a handful of shows are already lined up for the Fox, including a presentation of Love Letters, starring Barbara Eden and Tony Curtis, on Feb. 10; the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation's MODA Provocateur fundraiser on Feb. 19; and two UApresents shows, including Kevin Eubanks on Feb. 18, and Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples on April 30.

But more immediately, after the extremely pricey $250 gala opening, the Fox will hold two other, more wallet-friendly grand-opening events. On Jan. 7, the Fox will open its doors for a free "Fox Fiesta!" block party, with two stages of music (one featuring youth music groups, the other featuring pro bands). Then, later that night, the Fox will show two movies, for $7 each: The Wizard of Oz at 4 p.m., and Casablanca at 8 p.m.

For his part, Stratford said he knows he has a lot of work left to do, but he noted that he's "looking forward to looking at ticket sales instead of raising the money to get it open."

After our tour of the Fox, Stratford conceded he's having a bit of a problem shifting his mindset, though.

"I'll see ads that say an event's happening at the Fox Theatre, and it's like, 'Whoa,'" he said--with maybe just a smidgeon of giddiness.