Fox Theater (Spokane)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 7/02/2008
  • Essay 8631
See Additional Media

Spokane's Fox Theater, today called the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, is a 1931 Art Deco movie theater turned modern concert hall. Located on Monroe Street between Sprague and 1st avenues, it is also one of the best-restored of the grand Fox "movie palaces." The Fox opened on September 3, 1931, in a gala event that included a number of top Fox movie stars. It immediately became the grandest and most opulent theater in the city, with huge Art Deco sunburst light fixtures, murals, and a grand staircase to the balcony. It also served as the city's main concert hall for its first three decades, hosting such stars as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, and Vladimir Horowitz. Beginning in the 1950s, the theater went into a long, slow decline. In 1975, the theater was partitioned into a triplex. In 1989, it became a discount movie house. Demolition appeared to be its fate in 2000, but the Spokane Symphony staged a massive fundraising to purchase it, and a second campaign to renovate it as a concert hall. After years of work, it reopened on November 17, 2007, and became the home of the Spokane Symphony.

The Fox Empire

The Fox Theater in Spokane was part of a vast Fox empire, built throughout he 1910s and 1920s by early movie mogul William Fox. He realized early that money could be made three ways in the movie business: Making the movies, distributing them, and owning the theaters. So Fox busily started building giant movie palaces, many with fanciful themes and elaborate artwork.

In 1927, Spokane buzzed to the news: Fox was going to build a "million-dollar movie palace" downtown. Word was out that this wasn't going to be one of Fox's small theaters -- this was going to be like the fancy ones people had heard about in the big cities, with seating for about 2,300 people.

It took a few years to fully launch this theater, probably because Fox and his empire hit hard times in the 1929 stock market crash. By 1930, he had been forced out of his own company, and by 1931 the company had been acquired by a group of bankers. The Spokane theater project became part of a merged chain called the Fox West Coast Theaters (Fox's name lives on even today, after several subsequent mergers, as 20th Century Fox and the Fox TV and news organizations).

A Veritable Fairyland

Yet as construction reached completion through the summer of 1931, on a site on Monroe Street between Sprague Avenue and 1st Avenue, it was clear that the Fox West Coast chain was building not just a theater, but what one reporter called a "veritable fairyland" (Hindley).

The company had brought in two celebrated designers. Architect Robert Reamer (1873-1938) was responsible for several previous movie palaces, including Seattle's 5th Avenue Theater and Bellingham's Mt. Baker Theater and was already famous for designing Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone Park. Artist Anthony Heinsbergen had done dozens of theater interiors throughout the country and was famous for his many murals and designs in the Beaux Arts and Art Deco styles.

By the time the theater was ready to open, Spokane seemed barely able to contain its excitement.

"The architectural style is so unusual, so bizarre and so futuristic that the casual passerby catches his breath in surprise and wonder," reported the Spokesman-Review on the day of the grand opening (Hindley).

Sunbursts and Twinkling Stars

What caused all of this breath-catching? For starters, Heinsbergen had designed a 60-foot wide sunburst light fixture, made of etched glass and plaster, in the ceiling directly above the orchestra seats.

And that was only one of many light fixtures with a sunburst or starburst design, not to mention the numerous twinkling "stars" shining down. All in all, the theater used 3,758 light bulbs.

In the lobby, Heinsbergen covered the walls with huge, fanciful murals, which on the main floor had an undersea theme of waving fronds. As patrons climbed the grand, double staircase, the murals showed waves crashing on the sea's surface. As they climbed even higher to the balconies, the scene transformed into fairy castles on hills, and finally, clouds.

It wasn't just the artwork that had Spokane agog. This theater also had some modern conveniences, including something called "washed air," that turned out to be air-conditioning. "The air conditioning plant may be viewed from the street on the First Avenue side," said the Spokesman-Review. "It is a marvel of mechanical genius. Patrons will be free to inspect it from the inside as well."

Fox executives told reporters that the theater was the finest, most modern and most artistic of the 300 theaters in the entire Fox chain.

Grand Opening

A theater this grand needed a suitable grand opening, and Fox provided one. On September 3, 1931, they brought in five "big shots of screenland" to take part in a downtown parade and then preside over the dedication.

They were: cowboy star George O'Brien; leading man Victor McLaglen; character actor El Brendel ("The Lovable Swede"); sexy starlet Anita Page; and child star Mitzi Green ("Little Mitzi, the screens' top moppet").

So many people jammed the streets -- about 20,000 -- that the stars were prevented at first from making their way to the outdoor stage that had been set up for the dedication ceremony.

"Finally, the police made a line next to the theater on the Sprague side, with an entrance on Madison, and we got (the stars) in that way," said the Fox's first manager, Harry W. "Nick" Pierong, in a later reminiscence ("Fox Celebrates Birthday").

The stars made some remarks to the gathered crowd, which completely filled the intersection and adjoining streets. After that, the lucky few who held tickets were ushered inside to see Merely Mary Ann, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, an otherwise forgettable film.

This movie was not, by any means, the sole attraction. The evening also included a Laurel and Hardy short, live selections by Jules Buffano and the Fox Theater Orchestra, and an entire touring variety show called "About Town." This vaudeville-style show featured the dancing Sunkist Beauties, the antics of comic Ben Dova (the "Convivial Inebriate") and -- most alarming to today's sensibilities -- Ted and Al Waldman, America's "foremost blackface harmonica team."

Film and Stage Both

This mix of movies and live entertainment was not restricted to opening night; it was part of the Fox's long-range plan. "About Town" played for a week and was followed by runs of "Modern Minstrels," "Black and White," and "Stars of Yesterday," all live touring shows produced by impresarios Fanchon & Marco. This reflected the state of the entertainment world in 1931. Live vaudeville was beginning to fade; Hollywood talkies were exploding in popularity. Yet still, presenters were hedging their bets by giving audiences both in one package. Even Fox, a film company, felt the need to give people a stage show along with their movie.

So the Fox Theater was constructed with much more than a projection booth and big screen. It also had an orchestra pit, dressing rooms, a proscenium arch stage, a scenery loft, and an elaborate Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The variety shows were phased out within two years as it became clear that movies had triumphed over vaudeville. Yet for decades it remained common for the Fox to furl the movie screen for days at a time, since it continued to be Spokane's prime venue for live national touring shows.

One of those, in November 1935, featured the winning contestants on "Major Bowes' Amateur Hour," the radio equivalent to "American Idol." Among the 22 acts on the bill were the Hoboken Four, billed as "Singing and Dancing Fools," although they were by no means the headliners. They were billed below the Oklahoma Mustang Wranglers, a cowboy singing act.

Sinatra's Spokane Episode 

Yet the Hoboken Four contained a skinny, blue-eyed, 19-year-old New Jersey kid who became, in retrospect, the most famous celebrity ever to sing on the Fox stage. His name was Frank Sinatra, but he did not yet have legions of bobby-soxers screaming his name. He would not become famous for another five years.

In fact, The Spokesman-Review reported only one female fan waiting breathlessly outside the stage door -- and she was waiting for Bob Ryan, Xylophone Wizard.

According to Pierong, Sinatra did more than sing at the Fox. He also threw a punch backstage. As the story goes, Sinatra got in an argument backstage with a fellow Hoboken Four member. Fists flew. His manager, fed up, shipped Sinatra back to Hoboken before the tour ended.

Giants of Film and Music

The Fox went on to host many other touring shows with some of the biggest names in show business. Katharine Hepburn starred in Shakespeare's As You Like It in 1951; Ethel Barrymore in The Corn is Green in 1942; Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace in 1943; Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in There Shall Be No Night in 1941; Olivia de Havilland in Candida in 1951.

Meanwhile, many of the giants of twentieth-century music performed in the Community Concerts series held at the Fox from 1934 through 1969: Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Marian Anderson, Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolph Serkin, Jascha Heifetz, Glenn Gould, Isaac Stern, and Leontyne Price.

Nelson Eddy is said to have sat on the stage, feet dangling into the orchestra pit, while warbling his romantic songs. Some of Spokane's own stars came home for triumphant appearances, including Metropolitan Opera soprano Patrice Munsel in 1943 and the city's favorite son, Bing Crosby, who hosted a national talent show there in 1937.

Meetings, Music, and Movies 

Often, the theater was put to more mundane use, befitting its status as one of the largest gathering places in the city. The Fox hosted events such as American Legion conventions, the Inland Empire Teacher's Union meetings, the annual Spokesman-Review Cooking School, and dozens of high school commencements.

From 1968 to 1974, the Fox served as the home of the Spokane Symphony, even though the building's acoustics in those days were not ideal. Yet the Fox remained, essentially, a grand movie palace. The biggest movies were huge events in themselves; in 1937 the theater booked Frank Capra's epic Lost Horizon as a "three-day road show" and sold tickets on a reserved-seat-only basis. In 1938, the Fox hosted Walt Disney's smash hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and set an all-time house record: 40,000 admissions in seven days.

In an indication that the Fox was still not exclusively a movie house, Snow White had to be moved to the State Theater after that first week. The Spokesman-Review noted that the dwarfs had been "driven from home ... by the Junior League Follies and other Fox bookings" ("Disney Fantasy").

The Snow White record lasted only until Gone With the Wind arrived for a smash engagement in 1939. And that record fell in 1943 when the patriotic musical This is the Army, starring George Murphy, Kate Smith, and Ronald Reagan, played to capacity crowds. When the stage production of South Pacific arrived in 1952, the Fox "usherettes" dressed up in sailor outfits.

Changing Times

But before long, the Fox was experiencing the same problems besetting the rest of the movie industry. Audiences were shrinking, mainly because of TV. In 1953, the Fox embarked on a series of "improvements" designed to lure crowds back: Cinemascope projection with stereophonic sound; a big screen, 60 feet across (double the old width); and 3-D equipment for showing movies such as Bwana Devil.

Then, in 1964, the Fox announced plans to show "live televised events in color," including Broadway shows and boxing matches. This strategy was doomed by the fact that people were already starting to buy color TVs for their own living rooms.

Other forces worked inexorably against giant downtown movie palaces. People were moving to the suburbs, and the economics of movies began to favor multiplex cinemas, not 2,000-plus-seat performance halls.

By 1969, the Fox was making news for a reason unimaginable a decade earlier: nudity. Police confiscated the Swedish movie I Am Curious (Yellow) and arrested the theater manager for a gross misdemeanor under the state obscenity act. When the Fox tried to show the film again the next day, the line was nearly a block long. Police confiscated it again.

Going Down

In the 1970s, the Fox continued to attract crowds to big Hollywood hits like The Exorcist in 1974 and Jaws in 1975. Yet later in 1975, the Fox went under the knife. The Mann Theatres, which owned it at the time, succumbed to the pressure to turn it into a multiplex. They walled off the balcony, divided it in half and made two smaller theaters to go with the larger theater downstairs. It was now a triplex.

If this was an attempt to save the grand old lady, it didn't work. The Fox continued to go downhill, both in audience and ambience, until it hit bottom in 1989. It became a discount movie house, showing second-run films for $1 a ticket.

Demolition, the fate of many of America's grand downtown theaters, seemed the only step left. In 2000, then-owners Regal Cinemas put the Fox up for sale. There was talk of turning it into a parking lot or parking garage.

The Symphony to the Rescue

Then an old Fox tenant, the Spokane Symphony, came riding to the rescue. The symphony had long since left the Fox for the Spokane Opera House, built during the city's World's Fair, Expo '74. Yet the symphony's management, under the leadership of then-executive director John Hancock, recognized the theater's potential as a jewel of a performance hall.

Two massive roadblocks stood in the way. First, the symphony would have to raise about $1.25 million just to buy the building.  Then it would need to raise far more ($31 million total, as it turned out) to thoroughly renovate the old, decrepit building. Not only was the building's infrastructure outdated -- that old "washed air" system was entirely inadequate -- but also the acoustics would have to be brought up to concert hall level. On top of everything else, the Art Deco embellishments had to be restored to their original condition.

The first goal was accomplished in a matter of months. More than 1,000 community donors pitched in to the "Save the Fox" campaign. The symphony bought the Fox in June 2000, just ahead of the wrecking ball.

The Fox screened its last movie, Gladiator with Russell Crowe, on September 21, 2000. The symphony took over ownership and embarked on its daunting second goal -- raising $31 million to restore the carved-up and beaten-down Fox to its 1931 glory.

At several points, it appeared the fundraising drive might fall short. Two important milestones occurred which put the project over the top. First, Spokane resident Myrtle Woldson donated a total of $3 million to the Fox project, in the name of her father, Martin Woldson, a music lover.

Second, the symphony was able to secure important and timely funding amounting to about $7 million through two federal tax-credit programs: the Historic Tax Credits, for restoring historic buildings, and the New Market Tax Credits, for urban renewal projects in low-income neighborhoods. That area of downtown Spokane, filled with low-rent hotels, easily qualified. The acquisition of the tax credits also loosened up state funding, which eventually totaled $6 million. Spokane Symphony executive director Brenda Nienhouse said the tax credits "made the difference between the project happening or not happening."

These tax credits enabled work to begin in earnest at the end of 2005. The project called for reducing the number of seats from the original 2,300 to around 1,700 for reasons of acoustic quality.  This meant eliminating many of the seats at the back and turning that space into an additional lobby area. It also called for bringing in teams of artisans to clean up, restore and in some cases, replicate the original Art Deco stained-glass fixtures, etched glass panels, and murals.

Sometimes, the restoration experts got lucky. One of the original light fixtures had ended up in private hands; the owners returned it back the Fox. Other fixtures were painstakingly cleaned and restored to their original colors.

Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox

On November 17, 2007, the Fox, newly renamed the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, was re-opened in a gala concert featuring the Spokane Symphony and guest artist Frederica von Stade. Symphony conductor and music director Eckart Preu turned to the audience and said. "Every musician seeks the best instrument, such as a Stradivarius. This building, right here, is our Strad" ("Power of Two").

In addition to being the home of the Spokane Symphony, the theater is being used for a variety of other shows. In its first year after reopening, it hosted trumpeter Doc Severinsen, baritone Thomas Hampson, and comedian Lily Tomlin.

Once more, the magnificent theater has become what a reporter called it in 1931: "The theatrical center of the Inland Empire" (Hindley).

Sources: Wilbur W. Hindley, "Fox Theater Is Last Word In Beauty and Efficiency," Spokesman-Review, September 3, 1931; "Fanchon and Marco's First Bill Is 'About Town' Idea," Ibid., September 3, 1931; "Big Shots of Screenland Here In Person Open Fox," Ibid., September 3, 1931; "Disney Fantasy Movie Moves to State," Ibid., March 17, 1938; "Fox Theater Celebrates 18th Birthday This Week," Ibid., September 18, 1949; "Suppressed Film On Screen Again," Ibid., September 5, 1969; "Fox Converting to 3-in-1 House," Ibid., August 9, 1975; "Refurbishing the Fox After a State of Disrepair," Ibid.,  December 8, 1996; "Welcome Back" Ibid., (special section), November 11. 2007; "Power of Two," Symphony: The Magazine of the League of American Orchestras, May/June 2008; Jim Kershner interview with Brenda Nienhouse, December 27, 2007; Ephraim Katz, "William Fox," The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Thomas Crowell Publishers, 1979).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You