WITHOUT A TRAGIC history, the old Fox isn't really a spooky theater, but it does haunt thousands of Tucsonans.

"Nothing ever happened here that scarred the reputation of the place, so people only have good memories here--their first date, their first kiss," says Herb Stratford, executive director of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation.

Which is all well and good, but a Halloween-weekend open house might be more fun with stories of mayhem amid the Milk Duds.

Even so, Stratford doesn't expect to have much trouble attracting visitors Friday and Saturday nights when the Fox throws open its doors to the public for the first time since it was padlocked in 1975. Ever since Stratford's crew ripped down the plywood barricade, passersby have been poking their heads in, trying to see how the dowager movie house is holding up.

It's in pretty good shape for a 70-year-old building abandoned to derelicts and adventurers for a quarter-century. Now that Stratford and more than 100 volunteers have cleared out 95,000 pounds of debris, you can see why so many people are determined to restore the place to its original glory.

Opened in 1930, this was the 501st theater in the Fox chain. By then, the corporation knew how to build a movie palace. First, it had to be alluring from the street, with an entryway framed by tiled columns and sheltered by a ceiling adorned with a plaster fan frieze. (All this was covered with generic crud in 1956.)

The main lobby's drinking fountain rests in a niche lined with attractive brushed metal; originally it was tile, according to Stratford, but the metal is one improvement he thinks is worth keeping.

And then there's the auditorium itself. Huge by today's multiplex standards, it sat 1,500 people, with love seats in the loge. All the seats were originally covered in Moroccan leather, with the backrests upholstered in an orange, yellow and blue fern-leaf tapestry design. Most of this was redone in utilitarian red in 1956, but Stratford vows to bring back the original look (though not the leather).

Overhead is the theater's greatest distinction: an Art Deco ceiling painted in Southwestern red, sage and orange--the only such combination of design and color among the period's theaters.

Stratford and friends will point out these and many more details as they guide tours of 20 people at a time through the lobby and auditorium. A tremendous amount of work remains to be done before the Fox can reopen in the spring of 2003 as a venue for classic movies, corporate meetings, kids' events and stage shows ("Everything short of the Nutcracker could work here," Stratford maintains). But this weekend, you can get a sense of where the fine old theater has been--and where it's going.

Halloween Sneak-Peek at the Fox, a series of free group tours, takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. October 27 and 28 at the Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. For information, call 624-1515.

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