by Aaron Porter
In 2014 Buddy Guy will once again be part of the wildly popular Experience Hendrix tour. On March 13th they’ll be shaking the pillars and rocking the foundations of the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis. As with many of the venues we’ve reviewed, the Fox has a long, rich (sometimes infamous) history dating back to the 1920’s.
WILLIAM FOX and the FOX EMPIRE
William Fox was a pioneer of the theater and motion picture industry. Born in Hungary in 1879 to German Jewish immigrants, William proved his business sense from an early age. He worked first as a paper boy, then in the fur and garment industry, until he was able to purchase his own nickelodeon.
Fast forward to the early 1900’s. We find Fox fighting the monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as the Edison Trust) and their restrictive policies regarding equipment used in shooting motion pictures. Eventually Carl Laemmle, Fox, Hary E. Aitken, and Adolph Zukor would win their lawsuit against the monopoly, and in 1918 the MPPC was dissolved.
In 1929 William Fox suffered a terrible car accident. While he was hospitalized the stock market crashed, causing Fox tremendous losses both financially and professionally. In 1930 he lost control of the Fox Film Corporation by hostile takeover while at the same time battling bankruptcy. Some estimates have it that the stock market crash cost him $91,000,000.
From there it just got worse. In 1936 at his bankruptcy hearing, William was found liable for perjury and attempting to bribe a judge, landing him 6 months in jail. After his release he left the movie industry, with only his name as a reminder of his legacy.
In 1952 Fox died at the age of 73 in New York City.
CONSTRUCTION AND RESTORATION
Construction for The Fabulous Fox Theater began in 1921 and finished 2 years later. The construction involved an enormous crew, typical for buildings by architect C. Howard Crane. Crane established himself in Detroit in the early 1900’s, specializing in the design of North American movie places. The designs were often sweeping mishmashes of wonder encompassing Asian, Indian, Persian and Moorish influences.
In addition to his masterpieces the Fabulous Fox Theater and the Detroit Fox Theater, Crane was also the architect of the Olympia Stadium, former home of the Detroit Red Wings. He was also the genius behind the beautiful Le Vegue Tower in Columbus, Ohio. By 1929 Crane moved to London where he continued his work, though in a much more reserved style.
Not only was there a large construction crew, but the Fabulous Fox was also worked on by the Winkle Terra Cotta Company who handled the ornamental façade. Architectural sculptor Victor Berlendis supervised the creation and fabrication of the decorative interior plasters.
The theater was eventually restored by the Pantheon Construction Company, owned by St. Louis local Leon Strauss. Strauss was well known for the rehabilitation of run down or blighted areas throughout the city.
In 1929, opening night at the Fox was the highest profile event of any St. Louis drama or stage performance. It grossed over $50,000 over the weekend, which would be over $660,000 in today’s dollars – a very impressive showing. Sadly for the Fox, that run of fortune would not last. The stock market crashed, Fox lost a fortune, then the theater. By 1931 it fell into receivership.
It was then leased from the bondholders as part of the Fox St. Louis Properties, run by Fanchon and Marco who took a 25-year lease. Harry Auther became the general manager of the Fox and other properties owned by the Fanchon / Marco duo and eventually started to gain control over the Fox St. Louis Properties. Auther, despite his best efforts by holding rock concerts and showing kung fu movies was not able to keep the doors open beyond 1978. It would seem that the theater was doomed.
That was until 1981, when the theater was purchased by The Fox Associates. Led by Mary and Leon Strauss and the small group of Robert Baudendistel, Dennis McDaniel and Harvey Harris, The Fox Associates began a 3 million dollar restoration project that took a year and a half and changed the face of St. Louis entertainment.
The theater had a Wurtzer pipe organ that was played by Tom Terry from 1929 to 1935. From 1935 to 1952 the organ was not played for the public, but in 1952 Stan Khann was named resident organist. He remained so for 22 years and became a local legend.