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Grand Center's Fox-y lady gets $2 million facelift

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2011 - When St. Louis natives Mary and Leon Strauss walked into the Fox Theatre in January 1981, they needed flashlights to see an interior filled with moldy carpets, bats and pigeons, windows with bullet holes and a falling grand staircase. The theater was in shambles, but support from a private partnership, led by the Strausses, called Fox Associates, was willing to commit to bringing the "fabulous" atmosphere back.

Now 30 years later, the Fabulous Fox Theatre is an anchor of the Grand Center entertainment district.

"When Leon and I saw the theater in that state in 1981, we realized that with some tender care it could be brought back to glory," Mary Strauss said. "If you have this jewel, you have to keep it first class and we want to do everything we can to continue to make it a wonderful place."

Since purchasing the theater in June 1981, Fox Associates has spent more than $8.5 million in restoration and renovation. This summer saw some of the largest renovation in the theater's history as the theater doors closed for seven weeks to complete more than $2 million worth of work. When the theater reopens Aug. 24 for the Steely Dan concert, most scaffolding will be removed and patrons will be able to see -- and feel -- the improvements.

This biggest change is the replacement of the theater's air conditioning, as workers "carved" out some of the original equipment installed in 1929. The old system had to be dismantled and pulled out of the theater through the basement and roof. The new system, costing $1.3 million, was made specially for the theater by Ameren UE.

Fox Theatre President Richard Baker approached Ameren after last summer's heat wave, which prompted a wilting 76-78 degree temperature in the theater during the four sold-out nights of "Wicked."

"For us, it is all about the audience, almost all of what we do is to bring better entertainment for the audience or make it a better environment for them," Baker said. "We realized that the temperature during the summer months was a problem and we needed to ensure that it doesn't happen again."

Ameren assessed the building's energy needs and came back to Baker with suggestions for lighting and air conditioning. Baker cited this audit as the reason for the new state-of-the-art LED lighting in several areas of the theater. This replaced 2,200 incandescent bulbs and 120 florescent fixtures; the theater is expected to reduce its wattage use by 85 percent when it is fully lit.

Since the air conditioning and lighting improvements would take a few weeks, Baker approached the ownership group with other renovation needs that could be completed while the theater was shut down for the bigger projects.

"I have never yet been told by this ownership group in my 25 years here that if it is something for the building, no, we are not going to do it," Baker said. "Like all the other times before, they stepped up and said, 'Yes, let's do it.'"

The other renovations included repairing the theater lobby, which sustained fire damage back in May, and improving the lobby concessions area and the Fox Club seating area. The most noticeable change, though, may be on the outside: new awnings and new glass storefronts as well as a balcony that will be added to the Humbolt building at the corner of Grand and Washington.

"We want to keep the Fox in the best shape it can be so it can shine," Strauss said. "We are always looking for ways to improve and we aren't afraid to commit to the theater"

Bringing Back the Luster

Strauss first fell in love with the theater when she would go to watch movies on the big screen. When Fox Associates purchased the theater, she was the director of restoration, and Strauss had one thing in mind that was essential to restore.

"I wanted to restore the feeling that you get when you walk in those doors. For me that feeling was as if I was stepping into another world, it is a wonderful feeling," Strauss said.

After closing in 1978, the theater remained vacant for three years. With the theater in disrepair, Pantheon Construction Co., owned by the late Leon Strauss, undertook a one-year renovation project costing more than $3 million. Seats were completely renovated; 7,300 yards of carpeting was rewoven; the original Wurlitzer organ was completely rebuilt; the chandelier was restored and relamped; and the stage was re-equipped with the most current technology. The theater reopened on Sept. 7, 1982, after an impressive and rapid restoration. Comparable projects could take half a decade to complete.

A crowd of 4,500 people gave the theater a standing ovation on the night of the grand reopening. For 25 years, Baker has witnessed this "wow factor" as he says he can literally see the "wow" on the mouths of patrons coming to the Fox for the first time.

"You watch anyone come into the Fox and you can almost see it on their face, their first word is wow," Baker said. "Everyone, even the actors on the other end, seems to have a similar reaction. You walk into that magnificent lobby, and it just hits you."

Mary Bruemmer, a St. Louis resident and 1942 graduate of Saint Louis University, still has a special feeling when she walks in the theater. Her first experience there was in 1939 when she saw the movie "Gone with the Wind."

"As long as I live, I will remember seeing that movie at the Fox," Bruemmer said. "Thank goodness for the Strauss' contribution to make it a show place again and it is just the way I remember it."

Built for Grandeur

William Fox, who founded the movie production company that carried his name, spared no expense when he built the theater in the late 1920s. At a cost of more than $6 million, the theater was second in size only to New York's Roxy when it first opened in January 1929.

"For us, the original styles were too beautiful to let go. The building has gorgeous natural detail that dates back to its original construction," Strauss said.

The theater was originally designed by C. Howard Crane, one of the leading movie palace architects of the time, who brought perspectives from across the world. The interior resembles architecture and themes from the Egyptian, Babylonian and Indian cultures during various periods and was furnished with paintings and sculptures collected by Fox's wife who traveled throughout the world. Fox called this unique architecture the "Eve Leo" style as a tribute to his wife.

With 5,060 seats, the theater was the largest and most lucrative in the region, anchoring entertainment in the Grand Center area.

"The Fox was a magnificent addition that provided a true anchor to the Grand Center area," Bruemmer said.

Shortly after its opening however, the Great Depression hit Fox hard and he eventually went bankrupt in 1932. In 1934 Franchon and Marco, one of the largest musical show producers of the time, took a 25-year lease on the theater. The theater became a showcase for stage performances, movie premieres and special events for famous entertainers.

Movies such as the "St. Louis Blues" in 1939 and "The Spirit of St. Louis" in 1957 made their world premieres at the theater. In 1953, it showed St. Louis' first 3D movie, "House of Wax," and in 1959 controlling interest went to general manager Harry Arthur. Arthur kept the theater in business in the 1970s by presenting martial arts movies and rock concerts. Ultimately in 1978, the theater closed its doors and was abandoned until the Strausses restored it.

"It had been used hard, it featured the big stars of entertainment and it was and continues to be a huge attraction for St. Louis," Bruemmer said. "I am glad to see it return to what it was as an ideal place for people to come for entertainment in St. Louis."

30 Years of Fox Renovations

Summer 1927
Construction on the theater begins. The theater opens on January 31, 1929 at a cost of $6 million, plus $700,000 for furnishings.
The Fox closes its doors in 1978 and was purchased by Fox Associates in June 1981. The theater was restored at a cost of more than $3 million and reopened on September 7, 1982.
Summer 1995
The main stage is expanded adding 20 feet of depth and 30 lines are added backstage at a cost of $2 million.
Summer 2000
The lobby ceiling mural was restored, the faux-marble columns were re-painted, new concession areas were installed and the lobby was carpeted for the first time at a cost of more than $600,000.
Summer 2005
4,500 seats were recovered, new digital marquee was installed at a cost of more than $750,000.
Fall 2008
A new exterior vertical 'Fox' sign reflecting the original 1929 look of the theater was installed at a cost of more than $126,000.
Summer 2010
The theater box office underwent a complete renovation opening up the space and windows between the box office staff and patrons. Murals of past performances are also being added to the decor of the box office at a cost of $80,000.

Summer 2011
A new, state of the art air-conditioning system designed specifically for the Fox is being installed along with new LED lighting in several areas of the theater and a Grand Boulevard facade was created along with new glass storefronts, awnings and a balcony along the font of the Theatre and its adjacent buildings. The lobby ceiling was also repaired from the fire damage it sustained in May. The total cost of these renovations was more than $2 million.
Estimated total cost of renovation since 1981: More than $8,556,000
Source: The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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