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Fox closes its curtains for major renovations


Despite the wear and tear on the 1930s art deco central ceiling light fixture in the Fox Theater, it still shines bright with detail. 
 (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)
Despite the wear and tear on the 1930s art deco central ceiling light fixture in the Fox Theater, it still shines bright with detail. (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)

Nearly 350 people turned out over the weekend for a last look inside Spokane’s historic Fox Theater before a $22 million renovation begins two weeks from today.

When the theater reopens late in 2007, it will be modernized with new heating, air conditioning, seats and restrooms and an expanded lobby. But the historic integrity of the 1931 art deco theater will be preserved in what is slated to become a 1,725-seat venue for the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and other regional performing groups.

A “Light Up the Fox” fund-raising gala is set for 7 tonight, and a ground-breaking ceremony with Gov. Christine Gregoire is planned Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the theater at Sprague and Monroe.

“I think preservation counts so much in communities,” said Rita Merkel, of Bozeman, Mont., who toured the Fox on Sunday with her husband, Larry, and daughter, Marinna.

“You could not replace this with a brand-new facility,” she said.

The Merkels left the theater a little lighter in their wallets.

They arranged to buy two dozen of the original seats for their sporting goods stores in Bozeman, and Marinna was considering pieces of the Fox carpet for her bedroom.

Remaining seats are available by calling project manager Carol Darby at (509) 326-3136, extension 15. The price of each seat starts at $25.

Jim Emacio, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor, said he remembers sitting in the back rows watching movies as a child.

His grandfather, Jules Reisman, managed the theater in those days.

“It’s a beautiful work of art that needs to be saved for future generations,” Emacio said while on a tour with Fox staff member Elizabeth Thompson.

“It’s one of a kind. It’s really almost breathtaking,” Emacio said.

When the Fox opened on Sept. 3, 1931, Emacio’s father, Bob Emacio, drove to Spokane from Wallace, Jim Emacio said.

The theater was built by William Fox of Fox West Coast Studios, which later became 20th Century Fox.

There were nearly 280 Fox theaters around the country, each of which was of a different design, Thompson said. A number of Fox theaters have been renovated, including ones in Atlanta, St. Louis and Stockton, Calif., she said.

The art deco architecture and furnishings are complemented by painted murals by designer Anthony Heinsbergen. The building’s architect, Robert Reamer, also was known for designing Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park.

The Fox motif comes from a Hollywood interpretation of art deco, a style that emerged in France and migrated to the United States in a streamlined form.

Here, art deco celebrated the convenience and practicality of machines, the style and tempo of jazz and, paradoxically, the exotic romance of Egypt.

The Fox provided early theatergoers with the perfect place to escape the dreariness of the Great Depression, Thompson said. Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn and Boris Karloff took its stage. The Bolshoi Ballet made the Fox a stop on its first North American tour, Thompson said.

“It’s kind of neat to think of all the famous people who were back here,” Thompson said while showing one of the dressing rooms.

Visitors on Sunday included two former usherettes. One woman brought a group picture showing the workers in their naval-style uniforms.

The Fox has been soliciting stories from people who remember the theater in its heyday. The organization also is continuing its fund raising, which stands at about $16 million.

Volunteers are seeking to preserve mechanical elements of the building such as the massive light board at the side of the stage that was controlled by large metal switches, Thompson said.

Some light fixtures are being cataloged so they can be removed and stored during construction. The work will include cleaning all walls and light fixtures, including the large central ceiling fixture.

General contractor for the renovation is Walker Construction. Northwest Architectural Co., which worked on restoration of Lewis and Clark High School, is in charge of design.

Darby, who previously was project manager for the Alamodome in San Antonio as well as other projects, has been hired as project manager. A resident of Spokane, Darby said the Fox is her first construction project here.

 

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