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Arts

Fox Theatre celebrates 30 years of fabulousness restored

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2012 In the 1950s, Norma Juracsik was a star-struck, Southwest High School teenager who got her fix at The Fox.

Juracsik’s parents often dropped her and her brother off at the ornate, 5,000-plus-seat theater at 527 North Grand. There, she enjoyed the likes of John Wayne, Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor in cowboy films and movie musicals, and the pre-show live music of organist Stan Kann.

Once, at the start of a film, when a lowering mechanism apparently failed, Kann and his Wurlitzer remained in front of  the screen.

“There he was, up there when the opening credits were running, and even as the movie got going. I could tell it was really embarrassing for him,” Juracsik said.

That was just a blip in the splendor of its heyday. But by 1978, the operation had shut down and the once-grand jewel of St. Louis entertainment sat empty and silent.

By that time, Juracsik, had left the city. She’d stopped going to The Fox. So had a lot of others.

“People were moving west and doing more in the suburbs,” Juracsik said.

‘You could still see the glory’

St. Louisan Mary Strauss also wistfully recalled her youthful adventures at the iconic theater, as it sat in squalor. As an aspiring young singer, she once gazed longingly at Maureen Arthur, daughter of then-Fox owner Harry Arthur, trilling to Stan Kann’s music, and pondered the unfairness of fate. “If my parents owned the Fox — that could be me!" Strauss told herself.

In January 1981, Strauss and her husband, the late developer Leon Strauss, ventured inside the decrepit Fox armed with flashlights to augment the theater’s single working light bulb. Surrounded by the detritus of a bygone era, they felt compelled to restore the space to its original elegance.

“The place smelled, the roof had been leaking so there was plaster on floor, and the art glass had bullet holes in it,” Strauss said. “But you could still see the glory.”

With partners Robert Baudendistel, Dennis McDaniel and Harvey Harris, the couple formed Fox Associates and began a more than $3 million restoration project. Using private investments, tax-exempt bond issues and below-market-rate loans, the group forged ahead with more passion than plan.

“We didn’t do any feasibility study to find out, if you open this, will it work?” Strauss said. “We took a big risk, and it did work — we changed the entertainment scene in St. Louis.”

Grand re-opening

After a year of painstaking construction dedicated to recreating its Siamese-Byzantine style,The Fox was fabulous once more. Following a series of soft openings, the official Sept. 7, 1982 "Barnum" musical debut event — exactly 30 years ago today — drew huge crowds.

 

“It was fairly incredible,” Strauss said. “There was a lot of hoopla. People were walking in and they were awed, because nobody had really been there for many years, even though it was closed for only four.”

It would be eight more years before Norma Juracsik returned to The Fox to be wowed by the music and dramatics of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“It was so amazing, beginning when the chandelier lifts up and they’re going to bid and then when the chandelier comes crashing down,” Juracsik said. “And that was even before The Fox enlarged the stage.”

From 1994 to 1995, The Fox added 20 feet of depth to the stage, a $2 million  renovation to ready the theater for more extravagant Broadway shows. In the years to come, further improvements included a main lobby makeover and box office remodel.

The Fox, which employs 65 people on a daily basis, and up to 600 a year including seasonal workers, now attracts nearly every Broadway touring production, according to Strauss.

“The Fox helped put St. Louis on the map, entertainment-wise,” Strauss said.

Root of larger renovation

When the Fox re-opened in 1982, the St. Louis Symphony's Powell Hall was the only other significant arts institution in the area that had been recently christened Grand Center. It was always the intention of Fox Associates that the restored theater be a catalyst for area-wide resurgence.

In 1986, the Sheldon Concert Hall reopened in its present Washington Boulevard location. In 1989, the city of St. Louis paid for new sidewalks, lighting and parking areas. The Grandel Theater, home of the Black Rep, opened in 1992, followed by Jazz at the Bistro (1996), the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (2001), the Contemporary Art Museum (2003) and Kranzberg Arts Center (2008).

But only in the last few years has Grand Center emerged as a cohesive arts district. And there are still issues around the perception of safety, according to Juracsik, a retired nurse, active volunteer and backpacker. While she’s a frequent Fox-goer — she recently paid $70 for a third-row ticket to “The Lion King” and considered it a bargain — she’s afraid to linger after the curtain comes down.

Safety issues are being addressed by re-establishing a Community Improvement District. The move will fund mobile security patrols in the area, something that’s worked in the past, according to Fox Associates president Rich Baker.

Reasons for the 30-year gap between The Fox’s reopening and a substantial Grand District revitalization include the lack of a workable blueprint prior to a 5-year-old framework hammered out by leaders of area institutions, Baker said.

“Now we’re all on the same page,” Baker said. “And, it takes a while to get momentum going. You’ve got to get several projects redeveloped before people start believing.”

The work of Fox Associates continues through the efforts of original partners Mary Strauss and Robert Baudendistel, and his daughters Lisa Suntrup and Julie Noonan. Meanwhile, an already busy Strauss intends to capture the three decades after Grand Center’s rebirth in a second book. Her first publication, detailing The Fox’s history and events through 1985, is out of print.

“A new book is on the agenda, but everything else gets in the way,” Strauss said. “It will be bigger and will include the period from 1985 to 2000-and-whatever — whenever it comes out.”

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