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Fabulous Fox Theatre

Midtown treasure marks 30 years since restoration

The Fabulous Fox Theatre. photo by Sam Fentress (click for larger version)
August 29, 2012
When Mary Strauss toured the dark, dilapidated Fabulous Fox Theatre with a flashlight on a cold morning in 1981, she could never have imagined all that it would become.

When she and her late husband, Leon, a prominent real estate developer in the area, toured the run-down theater with a leaky ceiling, broken-out windows and a foul stench, it tugged at her heartstrings.

"Leon and I loved the building and what a jewel it was and we had to save it," said Strauss, the Fox Theatre's co-owner and director of restoration. "It was part of my youth and I kept telling my husband, 'We have to save the Fox,' and I'm very persistent."

Save it they did.

In three decades' time, the Fox has become the premiere arts venue in St. Louis, the cornerstone of the Grand Center Arts District and a nationally-recognized presenter of concerts and Broadway touring shows and it's all a little hard for Strauss to believe.

Mary Strauss photographed alongside a sea urchin inside the seating area of The Fabulous Fox Theatre. She and her late husband, Leon, set out to restore The Fox back in 1981. photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
"In 1981, there was no way we would have ever thought this is what it would be today," she said, looking around the lobby of Fox Theatre and referring to it as ostentatiously adventure for all of us."

The Fox Theatre opened in 1929 as a movie palace in William Fox's motion picture empire, but closed nearly 50 years later in 1978. It sat vacant, deteriorating until the Strausses and their partners breathed new life into it.

As the 30th anniversary of the Fox Theatre's 1982 re-opening approaches, Strauss still remembers the moment her husband told her they had bought the theater she was at the swimming pool with her children in the summer of 1981. The day after her kids started school that fall, on Sept. 7, 1981, she set to work on restoring the Fox and hasn't stopped since.

That first year leading up to the re-opening on Sept. 7, 1982, was particularly grueling. The $3 million restoration project was immense the 4,500-plus original seats were taken out and re-done, more than 7,300 yards of carpeting were ripped out and new carpet was rewoven in the original elephant pattern, plaster molds were recreated, art glass was duplicated, the ceilings were vacuum-cleaned, the Wurlitzer organ was rebuilt, the chandelier was restored with new lamps and the stage was completely re-equipped with state-of-the-art sound, lighting and technology.

Interior of the Fox Theatre, circa 1981, prior to restoration. photo courtesy of Mary Strauss (click for larger version)
"It was a very busy year," Strauss said.

It was all worth it when Strauss and her husband were on the floor of the lobby during the opening week of "Barnum" and overheard a man say, "Big deal...big deal...it looks the same as it always had."

"That's when I knew we were a success," she said, a smile spreading across her face. "It was a restoration, not a renovation. We didn't want it to look shiny and new."

Longtime Fox patron Linnie Morgan remembers seeing one of the first concerts after the re-opening.

"It was a very exciting time and everyone was excited that the beautiful theater was re-opening," said Morgan, a Fox Club member and season ticket holder.

The Fox has never stopped striving to improve the theater and its productions. Restoration, renovation and improvement projects have included the opening of the box seat level Fox Club in 1988, a $2 million stage addition in 1995, a major lobby renovation in 2000, the addition of a state-of-the-art video marquee in 2005, the installation of a new historically accurate vertical blade sign in 2008, a major renovation of the box office in 2010, and the installation of a new energy efficient air-conditioning system, LED lighting and a new front facade in 2011.

Strauss is particularly fond of the addition of "Peacock Alley," which was created in 2008. The fourth-floor exhibit showcases the more than 1,500 shows and stars that have appeared at the Fox since 1982 with a photographic mural representing each year. Images of stars Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace and Dionne Warwick grace the murals, as do images for "Wicked," "Jersey Boys," "Hello, Dolly" and "Phantom of the Opera."

"This is who we are this is the last 30 years," Strauss said.

Mary Strauss stands in Peacock Alley. photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
A "Thank You" to St. Louis

As the building projects continued to increase, so did the number of performances and people in the seats. During the past 30 years, there have been 6,156 performances and 1,565 acts to grace the stage, and more than 16.5 million people have passed through the brass doors of the Fox to see Broadway shows, concerts, classic movies, comedy acts and more.

Strauss said the Fox has always strived to "present something for everyone and the best of everything," and she's loved bringing entertainment to St. Louis. On the 30th anniversary of the theater's re-opening, Strauss wants to say "Thank You" to St. Louis.

"I'm so grateful St. Louis has embraced us and made it all possible," she said. "I hope St. Louis considers the Fox its own it's here for them. We've continued with what William Fox said on Jan. 31, 1929: 'No longer need residents of St. Louis look beyond their own city for the finest in entertainment.' We've continued his tradition and we are proud of it."

Strauss also loves that the Fox has been part of something bigger than itself namely Grand Center, the popular Midtown St. Louis arts, entertainment and education district that includes the Fox, Powell Hall, the Sheldon Concert Hall, the Contemporary Art Museum, Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis Public Radio/90.7 KWMU, the Nine Network and more.

"To see Grand Center grow up around us...it's wonderful to see things happening that we are part and parcel of," Strauss said.

Vincent Schoemehl Jr., president and CEO of Grand Center Inc., said the Fox Theatre is responsible for all the area has become.

"If the Fox hadn't re-opened 30 years ago, there wouldn't be a Grand Center and I seriously doubt if the St. Louis Symphony would be at Powell Hall," he said.

Schoemehl said the theater created the necessary momentum to get the civic community interested in the overall development of the neighborhood around it.

"The development that has taken place over the past 20 years none of it would have happened if Leon and Mary and their partners had not re-opened the Fox in 1982," he said. "That was really the critical moment."

The Fox also made St. Louisians feel good, Schoemehl said.

"The impact on the city and the region at large was more than can actually be measured in numbers," he said. "It has to do with the psychological impact on the community. I remember talking to Leon in the early '80s and there was this sense among people like, 'What did we do to deserve this kind of entertainment and national talent coming to St. Louis?' It was sort of like, 'Holy cow...we're kind of like a big city.' It gave St. Louis a sort of grown-up feeling. They built it over the years and it's been a real gift to St. Louis, and specifically, the Grand Center neighborhood."

Morgan, who has been a fan of the Fox since it's re-opening, echoed that sentiment.

"The Strauss family has done St. Louis a world of good by restoring the theater," she said. "It also helped the community there. The only thing that was really there was the symphony, but now you've got the whole Grand Center and it's becoming such a vibrant area. I'm really looking forward to this season and the next 30 years."

"A Great Adventure"

As Strauss looks back over the years, the memories are endless. She remembers Liberace being the first superstar to play the Fox, doing a radio broadcast in the mouth of a giant, inflatable King Kong, expanding the stage for "Phantom of the Opera," and that it was "really something" when Diana Ross first performed there.

"We never imagined what a great adventure the Fox would be, how lucky we were to bring the Fox back, and bring so much joy to others with the theater," she said.

As Strauss sets her sights on the future, she promises St. Louis this: "To keep doing what we're doing and do it better always striving to improve."

Post your own memories of the Fox on the West End Word Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WestEndWord.

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