A buck a head, that’s what this theater charges these days.
How do you justify spending a ton of money fixing up an old heap that doesn’t even charge full price?
Maybe you can’t, but the Act III Theaters did it anyway, and they did it because the Fox Theatre is not an old heap. It is an art-deco treasure, a downtown Spokane landmark, a place where the young Frank Sinatra sang.
It’s a grand 1931 movie palace, and now, once again, moviegoers can catch a hint of its old grandeur.
For Chuck Caraway, the Act III district manager, it was a labor of love. The Fox was Caraway’s first theater, back in the ‘80s, and he was not at all proud of the state to which it had fallen by the early ‘90s. The murals were fading, the marble work was dingy, and the huge “sunburst” light fixtures glowed dimly through the grime. Moviegoers were ripping off the etched-glass panels lining the grand staircase.
“It was getting to the place where people hesitated to set foot in the place,” says Caraway. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t even go to a movie there.”
Caraway wanted to bring it back to respectability, and he soon discovered that his higher-ups in the company felt the same way. What started out as a simple snack-bar remodel turned into a much bigger project, eventually including:
A complete exterior paint job, using colors as close to the originals as possible.
The restoration of the neon “Fox” beacon tower.
New carpet throughout the theater.
Restoration of many of the “pipe organ” light fixtures, so-called because of their tubular design.
Partial repair of the two massive “sunburst” light fixtures, one on the lobby wall and one on the lobby ceiling.
Touch-up of the painted murals and the extensive ornamental plaster work.
Caraway is hesitant to use the term “restored” to describe the work. Restored implies a return to mint condition, which would cost millions. He wouldn’t say how much the company did spend, but he did indicate it was in the six figures.
Today, with the lobby spiffed up and some of the most egregious scars repaired, Caraway is proud to take visitors on a tour of what was once one of the jewels of the Fox theater chain. Every Fox theater had an artistic theme, and the Spokane theater’s was an underwater theme.
Look around as you stand on the main floor of the lobby.
The walls are painted with fantastic seaweed shapes, waving in the ocean currents. Tentacles coil on the etched-glass panels lining the staircases.
As you walk up the steps, you break out onto the surface of the ocean. Trees appear, twining toward the sky.
And at the very top, near the entrances to the balconies, mountains appear, topped with castles that look like something out of “The Wizard of Oz” or the popular comic strip Little Nemo.
Caraway admits he can’t fix up everything. He points to the missing top of a rosy-colored marble column by the staircase.
“You don’t just run to Ernst and get one of these,” he says.
The Fox spent part of its first three decades as a live performance space, so unlike most movie theaters, it has a backstage. A four-story fly loft still towers above the main movie screen.
Dressing rooms are in various states of disrepair. Some are piled with 20 years worth of junk. It looks like a ghost theater.
But in the lobby and other public spaces, enough has been done to give observers a taste of the building’s old glory.
And glorious it was.
The Fox opened on Sept. 3, 1931, in a gala ceremony presided over by five movie stars of the day: George O’Brien, a Western star known for roles in John Ford movies; Victor McLaglen, another John Ford Western star who later won an Oscar for “The Informers”; El Brendel, “The Lovable Swede,” a Swedish character actor; Anita Page, a sexy leading lady; and child star Mitzi Green, better known as “Little Mitzi, the screen’s top moppet.”
A crowd of 20,000 stopped traffic downtown, nearly preventing the stars from getting to the theater. Lucky ticketholders got to see the theater’s first movie, “Merely Mary Ann,” with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, along with a short stage show, “About Town.”
The big attraction, however, was the building itself.
One reporter at opening night called the theater “a veritable fairyland of chased glass, gleaming aluminum, warmly colored walls, flaming sunbursts of light and shimmering mirrors.”
In the two decades following, the Fox doubled as a movie house and live performance space for touring Broadway shows, vaudeville shows, variety shows and classical concerts.
Here are some of the stars who appeared on the Fox’s stage: Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette McDonald, Tallulah Bankhead, Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Also, in November 1935, a young, unknown singer named Frank Sinatra appeared at the Fox with the Hoboken Four (“singing and dancing fools”) on a Major Bowes Amateur Hour tour.
According to a Fox manager, Sinatra got into a fight backstage. (According to a Sinatra biography, the other members of the Hoboken Four were constantly fighting with their skinny young lead singer.)
In the years before the Coliseum was built, the Fox also served as a kind of unofficial civic auditorium. When members of the Inland Empire Teachers Union had to meet, they met at the Fox. With 2,260 seats, it was almost as big as today’s Spokane Opera House.
In the 1960s, the Spokane Symphony took up residence at the Fox after some remodeling to improve acoustics. The Spokane Civic Theatre also was in residence for a time.
Yet, it was mainly a movie house, and it was the home of many of the most memorable movies of all time.
“Lost Horizon” played an exclusive, reserved-seat-only engagement in 1937. A year later, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” broke the Fox’s all-time box office record, topped soon afterward by “Gone With the Wind.” That record was toppled by “This Is the Army,” the 1943 patriotic musical, and much later by “The Exorcist” in 1974 and “Jaws” in 1975.
But in 1975 the Fox suffered what theater purists might refer to as a lobotomy. The Mann Theatres, which owned it at the time, walled off the balcony and made it into two smaller theaters.
The grand old Fox had become triplexed.
The age of movie palaces was gone. With the advent of mall theaters, moviegoers wanted choice. Classic movie palaces all over the country were either being torn down or chopped into multiplexes.
“The Fox couldn’t compete,” Caraway says. “People had stopped coming downtown to see the movies.”
So in 1989 the Fox became a bargain movie house. The price is $1 a ticket, and you can get free refills on a large popcorn. What a comedown in status - from reserved-seat showings of “Lost Horizon” to buck-a-pop showings of something starring Chris Farley.
Yet the bargain prices have helped bring in the customers.
The theater is never in danger of selling out - the main theater still seats 1,400, while the upstairs theaters seat 250 each. But enough people show up day in and day out to keep the projectors flickering.
“We’re holding our own,” says Caraway, who sees it as his job to at least keep the Fox alive.
“What I love about this place is that whenever I talk to somebody about it, they all have memories,” he says.
They remember walking wide-eyed into the theater, looking up at the fabulous sunbursts on the ceiling, marching up the grand stairways, and being led to their seats by ushers and usherettes in uniforms and gloves.
“People don’t have those kinds of memories with theaters anymore,” says Caraway.
People can still have them at the Fox, if they use their imaginations.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Six photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKING BACK AT THE FOX 1927: “Million-dollar theater” plan announced. 1931: Grand opening celebration, featuring five Hollywood stars, attracts 20,000 spectators. 1935: Frank Sinatra, member of the Hoboken Four, gets in a fight backstage. 1937: “Lost Horizon” plays in reserved-seat engagement. 1938: “Snow White” breaks box-office record. 1948: Touring company of “Oklahoma!” plays the Fox. 1953: Fox presents first 3-D film: “Bwana Devil.” 1953: Cinemascope screen installed. 1958: Hundreds of kids turned away during “cookie matinee,” a special 21-cartoon show in which admission is a cookie wrapper. 1968: New sound shell installed for Spokane Symphony. 1969: Police and prosecutors shut down “I Am Curious (Yellow)” on charges of obscenity. 1975: Fox split into three screens, grand re-opening presided over by actress Rhonda Fleming. 1989: Fox becomes bargain movie theater.