HERB STRATFORD trains a flashlight on the painted ceiling of the dilapidated Fox Theatre at 17 W. Congress Street.
There's no electricity at all in the old movie palace, which opened in 1930 and closed in 1974, but the small beam of light does the job well enough to reveal portions of the ceiling. An art-deco fantasy still covers its expanse; a geometric mural painted in orange, maroon and teal, the ceiling art is not unlike the Southwest art deco paintings at the restored Hotel Congress up the street
The flashlight also picks out the big green 700-pound chandelier, damaged but still hanging over the dusty 1,300 red-cloth movie seats. Fluted columns line the theatre walls, though here and there their light sconces have been purloined. The mosaics around the stage are intact and a green patterned terrazzo floor still surrounds the ticket booth.
"The walls are concrete," says Stratford, the enthusiastic new director of the non-profit Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, which wants to restore the old movie palace. "The architects said, 'You are so lucky.' There's water damage" from a leaky roof "but it's only affected things cosmetically.... Nothing has come up structurally. Some engineers from Tempe said they were amazed at how good it was structurally. The steel trusses in the roof look great....We want to bring it back to what it looked like."
Stratford and his group on Wednesday, October 20, announced a plan to buy the former Tucson landmark from Reliance Development Group, a New York City commercial properties firm that's owned it since the 1980s. The purchase price is $250,000, which Stratford considers "a gift to us -- Reliance wants to see this happen." Stratford estimates the value of the building at between $750,000 and $1 million.
Reliance also will finance the mortgage, though Stratford says the group "hopes to get the money together" within six months. The low purchase price is a help, considering that estimates for the cost of restoring the building range from a low of $3.5 million to a high of $4.5 million. The group expects to get a $30,000 city grant to stabilize the place immediately and secure it from the homeless people and thrill-seekers who have found their way in over the years. The Fox also would be eligible for some Rio Nuevo South money, provided Proposition 400 is approved by the voters November 2, says John Updike, an assistant city manager. It's unclear, however, just how much the Fox would get of the $4.2 million that the bill allots to a Congress Street entertainment district. In any case, the foundation mostly wants to go the route of private fund-raising.
"The Fox Theatre has always been envisioned as a privately funded project," Stratford says, "but we'll look at other funding sources, such as grants and city funding.... We have raised some money and as soon as we go public, we think the money will start to come in....We also hope we can get in-kind support from the community," with roofers donating some labor or materials, say, or the electric company offering discounts.
A baleful city report last year predicted that a rejuvenated Fox would need an annual subsidy of $244,000, but Stratford is optimistic that a separate endowment fund will take care of unforeseen financial problems. "I wouldn't have taken it on if I didn't think it was possible."
Now almost invisible behind painted plywood, the place must be brought up to contemporary codes for sprinklers, electricity and so on. The roof has to be replaced. Bathrooms must be enlarged and about 300 theatre seats eliminated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The other seats may need to be replaced -- it's unclear if those now in the theatre are the 1930 originals -- and Stratford envisions state-of-the-art technology for tele-conferencing and for showing videos as well as movies. Once the theatre is lighted up again, there's also the little matter of cleaning up 25 years' worth of accumulated trash -- the smelly vestiges of homeless camp-outs and beer parties, and the skeletal remains of pigeons who have perished within. Stratford cheerfully says he could fill a dozen dumpsters.
Once upon a time the Fox, with its trademark 30-foot neon sign, was one of Tucson's prize attractions. The Diamos brothers, an Arizona family that owned a number of theatres in the region, began construction in September 1929, but were quickly muscled out by the big movie company Fox West Coast, which threatened to build a bigger, better theatre right across the street if the Diamoses didn't surrender theirs. Fox dazzled the little city, then with a population of 32,000 people, with a spectacular star-studded opening night on April 11, 1930, bringing in the stars of the new movie, Chasing Rainbows, and providing live music and dancing on the street. "Thousands See Outside Show," ran an Arizona Daily Star headline the next day. "Evening of Revelry Spent in Congress Street with Noise A-Plenty."
Over the years, the theatre ran such specials as a Ladies' Matinee, Bank Night and a Saturday morning Mickey Mouse Club for kids -- one of the few Fox events that wasn't racially segregated. Black theatre-goers for the most part had to sit upstairs in the balcony. A 1970 incident at the theatre -- apparently a scuffle between young white and black men -- turned into what the papers called a "race riot" and spilled out onto Congress Street, adding to the new perception of a dangerous downtown. As the city center lost its crowds, the theatre business dwindled, and the Fox dipped into pornography. It shut its doors June 19, 1974.
Stratford, 34, admits to being one of the adventurous young people who have sneaked into the empty theatre over the years. He first went in at age 20.
"As long as I can remember, I've had a thing about older buildings and architecture," says Stratford, who most recently worked at the Tucson Arts District Partnership. "Even though I'm an artist, I have a strong connection to historic buildings. Since I first saw it 14 years ago, I've wanted to bring it back."
Stratford started meeting informally with other interested people several years ago. Board members of the now incorporated Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation include architect Roy Noggle, who's also served on the Partnership board and the Tucson Arts Coalition, Stratford says, and Bob Morrison, who runs an Internet finance company and worked on the project to restore the Temple of Music and Art.
The renovated Fox won't compete with the Rialto, a 1919 theatre at the other end of Congress that primarily stages rock concerts, Stratford says, or with the Screening Room, a small independent movie theater located in between the other two. The Fox likely would show revival movies and host film festivals -- "The International Film Festival wants to be headquartered here" -- and possibly premiere movies made in Arizona.
"We consider the Fox and the Rialto and the Screening Room to be the Congress Street anchors," says Stratford. "We can do joint promotions." The Rialto's wider stage was used for vaudeville during the '20s, but the Fox came in as vaudeville was dying; its stage is only 21 feet wide. By taking out the Fox's first few rows of seats, architects might be able to extend the stage by 6 or 7 feet, Stratford says, allowing for some small-scale dance performances or even award ceremonies.
Nor would the new Fox compete with the 850-seat Temple of Music and Art or the 2,500-seat Music Hall at the Tucson Convention Center, Stratford says: at 1,000 seats, the Fox could fill a different niche.
"So much of what makes Tucson unique is still here," Stratford says. "We lost a lot earlier, when the Tucson Convention Center went into the old barrio. But there are still pieces here. If we don't take those pieces back, we'll lose our soul."