Fox Trot

The effort to rescue and restore a downtown movie palace continues

The Fox Theatre was alive this month with a cacophony of clanging and clattering as a cluster of construction workers cleared yet more clutter.

This latest load of debris came as a result of recent rehab related to getting the dusty theater's lobby open for business, hopefully by February 2005.

It looks as though there's plenty of work yet to be done to restore the 75-year-old theater, which has been shuttered for three decades. The lobby is a raw display of concrete and wooden floors, stripped-down walls and open rafters, but Herb Stratford, the heart and soul of the effort to restore the Fox to its former glory, remains confident the work will be done by January.

"It looks like a lot," Stratford says, "but it's mostly cosmetic. It's the structural stuff that takes a lot of time."

When finished, the million-dollar lobby project will feature 8,000 square feet of space on three floors that will allow "people to come in and see part of the theater done, and hopefully that will inspire them to help us finish the rest of the building," Stratford says.

Finishing the rest of the building includes finally tackling the cavernous auditorium, which now sits mostly empty, save for a mammoth chandelier that rests in the middle of the room. (When Stratford plugs it in, it lights right up.)

The acoustone walls, a unique blend of plaster, gypsum, mica and baking soda, need extensive repair; up above, a colorful mural awaits a thorough scrubbing to wipe away 75 years' worth of grime and nicotine.

Stratford's love affair with the Fox began when he snuck into the theater on a "self-assignment" to take photos for an art class at the University of Arizona. A decade later, he returned with a group of people on an official tour to investigate the possibility of rescuing the theater.

The nonprofit Fox Foundation, formed in 1999, managed to acquire the theater for $250,000 one year later. But the quarter-million was just a small down payment on project, whose cost has climbed to an estimated $11 million. That figure includes not only purchasing the theater but also acquiring a neighboring restaurant, which is now being remodeled as part of the lobby project, as well buying as another historic building that once housed the offices of the Arizona Star around the corner on Granada Avenue. (Other funds paid for the rehabbing of that building, which now houses the offices of the Fox Foundation offices.)

Since acquiring the theater, Stratford and an army of volunteers have cleared away 54 Dumpsters of garbage, replaced a leaky roof and created a replica of the original Fox sign and marquee that lights up Congress Street after sunset on weekends.

Stratford has also compiled an extensive history of the theater; important dates include the start of construction on Aug. 29, 1929, and opening night on April 11, 1930--a gala celebration which included four bands, dancing, a live radio broadcast and a screening of a Mickey Mouse cartoon and short film, Chasing Rainbows.

In subsequent years, the Fox not only showed movies but also provided a venue for everything from symphony performances to the Mickey Mouse Club. Given the number of people who have shared their memories of the Fox, Stratford guesses that nearly every kid who grew up during that era in Tucson probably passed through the theater.

"They don't necessarily remember the movie, but they remember they met their wife here or they had their first date here," Stratford says.

As retailers deserted downtown, and smaller theaters opened up elsewhere, it became increasingly difficult to justify maintaining a theater that sat more than 1,300 patrons. In 1974, June 18, after a few years of showing second-run films, the Fox shut its doors.

Stratford is keenly aware that the Fox won't survive in today's DVD age by showing movies, although he hopes to have regular festivals of classics that look spectacular on the big screen. He anticipates a mix of children's programming, partnerships with performing-arts outfits such as Tucson Symphony Orchestra and UApresents, and rental for corporate and convention events.

But to complete the work, Stratford still needs to raise an estimated $5 million or so. It's likely to be the steepest part of the hill, seeing how he's already raised more than $6.5 million, mostly from public sources. The city has provided $3.5 million in funding from the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment project (although a good chunk of that won't be released until he raises matching funds); the feds have provided roughly $1.5 million; and the state recently awarded an $88,500 Heritage Fund grant of lottery dollars.

To help raise the private funds, Stratford launched the Friends of the Fox campaign earlier this year, reaching out for private contributions. A $250 contribution will get your name on the armrest of a seat in the auditorium; if you give $10,000, your name will appear on a walk of stars on the sidewalk in front of the Fox.

Stratford expresses disappointment that the entire theater won't be open for its 75th anniversary next April, but sees the lobby project is a big step.

"We're at a milestone, but we're still looking for help," says Stratford.

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