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People in the Seats

The restored Fox Theatre celebrates its one-year anniversary with an eye toward financial security

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January is an extremely important month in recent Fox Tucson Theatre history. Two years ago in January, some Tucson City Council members sharply criticized the efforts being made to restore the downtown landmark.

The first month of 2006, however, saw the grand public re-opening of the historic venue with the showing of The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca. This January, the Fox's Herb Stratford says the theater's future programming and financial outlook are also bright.

"When I see 1,200 people in the building," Stratford exclaims of the 1930 Congress Street theater, "it's such a great thrill. Then I'll stand outside and see all these smiling faces coming out. It's a reward for all the hard work."

In its first 12 months of operation--after having been closed for more than three decades and under renovation for several years--the Fox hosted 159 events and 46,000 people on 122 days. In addition to dozens of movies, some of which drew sold-out audiences while others attracted only a handful of viewers, the theater had 12 concerts, 50 private events and even a wedding.

Stratford isn't satisfied with either the amount or mix of these attractions. He wants to decrease the number of movies while increasing concerts to at least 20, and is shooting for an eventual total of 300 events on 200 days.

"We want to do a little bit of everything for the community," he enthusiastically says. "We have a perfect market niche to do a little bit of dance, some theater and movies."

To accomplish that goal, last month, a general manager with 20 years of experience, Skip Rickert, was hired to run the day-to-day operation of the facility, allowing Stratford to focus exclusively on the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation. His task is to ensure the restored treasure meets its considerable financial obligations.

Two years ago this month, the Fox's board of directors requested the city of Tucson loan it enough money to complete renovation work on the structure. This amount came on top of $3.5 million in Rio Nuevo funds previously supplied by the city, as well as $3 million in contributions from individuals and businesses.

Both the board and Stratford were questioned at that time by some City Council members over their handling of the project. Concurrently, then-Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson cast serious doubt on the theater's ability to pay off the debt if the request was granted.

The council went ahead and loaned the Fox $5.6 million, which is to be repaid over 15 years, with the first payment due in 2010. While admitting it will be tricky, Stratford is confident the debt can be managed.

He believes the Fox has made a reasonable start at setting aside enough money to help pay off the loan, and is looking at the next few years as key in securing sufficient financial resources to accomplish that ultimate goal.

"There are lots of local sponsors for events," Stratford says, "and we're hoping to pull (some of) them in to help pay the debt service."

Stratford also wants to set up an endowment to fund future operation of the building, as well as new programming, especially events for children. One possibility he throws out is to make the Fox the Tucson home of Phoenix-based children's theater group Childsplay.

Stratford stresses that the daily operation and maintenance of the structure has not been a huge financial hurdle. "This building is not a money pit," Stratford says. "The programming (we do) can reasonably sustain the theater in the black."

Even though there was grumbling by some on the City Council at the time of the 2005 loan that it violated the Rio Nuevo policy of having the city finance only one-third of the cost of a downtown project while the developer would pay two-thirds, in retrospect, the Fox deal now looks positively stringent. With the UA asking the city to pay almost all of the construction and exhibit costs for its proposed $176 million science center, and other Rio Nuevo projects seeking similar sweetheart deals, Stratford isn't alone in wondering why the Fox was singled out for such intense criticism.

"It's a little bit odd," Stratford acknowledges diplomatically, "but it's not our place to comment on other projects."

Instead, he hopes the coming year sees even more people at the Fox. To address one of the theater's major perception problems--parking--Stratford points out its Web site (foxtucsontheatre.org) shows 5,000 spaces within three blocks.

As for programming, Stratford says a poll is now being conducted on the Web site to determine which 10 classic movies will be shown next summer. At the same time, the theater is preparing to stage several live shows, including comedian Gabriel Iglesias on Friday, Jan. 12, and musician Gordon Lightfoot on the Monday, Jan. 29. On Thursday, Feb. 8, Tucson native and I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden will appear in Love Letters.

In addition to restoring the classic theater to its original luster, the Fox project has brought many people downtown who, before or after shows, have dined at nearby restaurants.

"This was an investment in the community," Stratford says. "We've given the community back its theater, and now our No. 1 mission is to have as many activities as possible to serve the community. ... We can wear the seats out. Yeah, we can do it!"

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