Before the creation of Riverfront Park and Expo ’74. Before the first Lilac Bloomsday Run and the first Hoopfest. Before “Benny & Joon” made Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle famous. Even before Spokane men and women left home to serve in World War II.
Before all of that, there was the Fox Theater.
Opened in 1931, the Fox (now called the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox) has welcomed the biggest stars of music, theater and film and has gained and lost a neighbor or two over the course of its 86-year tenure at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Monroe Street.
As time went by, the Fox continued to be a hub for entertainment, but years of cigarette smoke and popcorn grease dulled the theater’s decorative painting and many murals were painted over in an attempt to modernize the color scheme.
In 2000, threatened with demolition, advocates began a campaign to save the Fox. It was fully renovated, reopening in 2007 with restored murals, mechanical, plumbing, electrical and ADA upgrades, and more space for additional dressing rooms, catering, a ticket office, storage and an expanded lobby.
Ten years later, the renovated Fox continues to house some of the biggest names in music, art and culture, and while he’s proud of how what the theater has accomplished in the last decade, executive director Jeff vom Saal is always thinking about the future.
“I think there’s all sorts of good stuff we can continue to do and unleash our energies around,” he said during a recent meeting at The Spokesman-Review.
Currently, the Fox is used by a variety of entities, most prominently the Spokane Symphony, but also universities, for concerts and graduation ceremonies, organizations hosting meetings and even for weddings.
One area he’d like to focus on in the future is education. He hopes to continue using events like master classes with guest musicians and Music Innovates, a mentorship program for elementary and middle school musicians, to reach students.
He’d also like to reach younger audiences through new programming, including the Fox Family Series.
“B - Underwater Bubble Show” kicked off the series Oct. 13. The second event features the Peking Acrobats on Jan. 24, and the Fox Family series closes with “Rockin’ Road to Dublin” on March 10.
Looking ahead to the new Central City Line, which will connect Browne’s Addition and downtown with the University District, vom Saal also anticipates college students influencing programming.
“It’s not just entertainment,” vom Saal said. “It’s enrichment and education, and we should be thought-provoking too. We want to be an intellectual institution too.”
When considering programming, vom Saal thinks about how each event will resonate with audiences.
“We’re in the experience industry,” he said. “We offer memorable experiences that will hopefully shape their lives.”
Vom Saal said he is often asked what the Fox is doing to get new audience members assuming the answer will be “Nothing.”
But vom Saal is proud of the work the Fox does to appeal to a diverse crowd via a varied event calendar.
“I don’t know if we’re leading the way in orchestra, but we’re certainly doing our part to continue building our future audiences,” he said. “Then hopefully in time they’ll be part of the philanthropic pipeline, at some point deciding ‘Yeah, it’s worth helping these guys out a little bit.’ ”
After so much work on the interior of the Fox, vom Saal has also turned his sights to the outside of the building.
He mentioned lighting on the building that didn’t exist in previous years and has ideas to use banners and projections. One outside-the-box idea involves painting crosswalks to look like a row of piano keys.
He also hopes to upgrade some of the technology used during events at the Fox, including the sound system and projectors.
The theater has already paired up with TicketsWest to improve the ticket buying process, and he’d like to use technology to share events at the Fox with audiences outside of the theater as well, saying “I don’t want to contain our excellence.”
Looking ahead, vom Saal ultimately wants to maintain the Fox’s position as a downtown staple, available for anyone and everyone.
“Whether it’s movies or concerts or parties, I just want people to feel like the Fox is their place that they go to for interesting things and important things,” he said. “I think we’re getting there … We haven’t quite maximized that so there’s still more to do.”