The Next Stage

Thanks to a city loan, the Fox Theatre moves closer to completion

Herb Stratford is standing just inches away from the ceiling of the Fox Theatre, showing off the glittering array of colors that have been cleaned up to restore the original splendor of the long-abandoned cinema.

Stratford hasn't grown to gigantic proportions. He's actually standing on top of a latticework that now fills the Fox's cavernous auditorium as workers dive into the final months of restoring the theatre.

Stratford might as well be standing on cloud nine. After more than five years of struggle, the Fox project is finally nearing completion, thanks to a $5.6 million loan from the city of Tucson as part of the Rio Nuevo revitalization effort. That's been boosted by another $2.6 million in tax credits recently issued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

By the end of the year, if all goes according to schedule, the Fox should open its doors for the first time since closing in 1974, when the 1,300-seat theater finally succumbed to competition from newer multiplexes outside downtown.

"That's the plan, pending any disaster that we're not anticipating," says Stratford, the artist who has been spearheading the Fox project since 1999. The Fox Foundation, a nonprofit organization, purchased the Fox in 2000 for a quarter-million dollars, but total rehab costs have climbed to more than $13 million.

To raise the final $7.6 million needed to finish the project, the City Council approved the loan in March, despite concerns that the Fox might not generate enough revenue to repay the money during the next 15 years. Council members agreed to the risk, because inflation was driving construction costs higher every year, making it increasingly impossible for the Fox Foundation to raise enough money to complete the project, which downtown boosters see as a vital element of the Rio Nuevo revitalization effort. As part of the agreement, city officials have taken over management of the construction project.

The city loan was predicated on the Fox Foundation getting approval for the tax-credit program, which essentially allows corporate contributors and other deep pockets to get a tax break for giving money to the Fox, which is the second historic theatre in the country to become eligible for the program.

With the financing in place, workers are now swarming through the theatre, digging out the orchestra pit and stabilizing the ceiling. The walls are getting new tiles of acoustone, the unusual sound-absorbing tiles made of plaster, gypsum, mica and baking soda. An expanded lobby, including a bar, kitchen and new restrooms, is rapidly coming together, although the space is now filled with ductwork and other construction materials.

A gem from the days when theatres were palaces, the Fox opened in April 1930 to great fanfare, including four different bands, a live radio broadcast, a Mickey Mouse short and a film, Chasing Rainbows. In the years that followed, it was a central meeting spot for Tucsonans of all ages, including members of the local Mickey Mouse club.

Once the Fox is back in business, Stratford hopes to use the theatre for live performances, convention and corporate events, the occasional film series and whatever else comes along. Earlier this week, UApresents Executive Director Natalie Bohnet announced that the arts organization would use the Fox for a concert by jazz musician Kevin Eubanks next February, with the possibility of more shows on the horizon, including Taj Mahal next April.

"This is something I've dreamed about," Stratford says. "It's cool to see it on the threshold of happening."

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