Friday, January 25, 2013

Tucson's Grand Fox

"The Grand Opening of the Fox in 1930 was the biggest party little Tucson had ever seen. Congress Street was closed and waxed for dancing to the music of four bands. Some 3,000 lucky people had tickets for the first show, the MovieTone short “Chasing Rainbows” and a Mickey Mouse cartoon" (southernarizonaguide.com/the-beautifully-restored-fox-theater/). And thus began the theater's 40­-year life as the center of Tucson’s entertainment world.

The Fox Theater of today bears considerable resemblance to the Fox of 1930 thanks to two factors--a committed group of community leaders and volunteers and money.

The d├ęcor of the Fox was described as “Spanish Modernistic” by the city's newspaper. This style is now known as Southwestern Art Deco, and the Fox Tucson Theatre is the only known example of this style.

The water fountain (above), murals (below),

and light fixture (right) in the lobby represented examples of detailed restoration efforts.

But it was the ceiling and proscenium of the stage that showed the beauty of the Southwestern Art Deco style.

"Construction began on what was to be called the Tower Theatre on August 24, 1929. The theatre was to be the crown jewel in the Diamos Brothers’ Lyric Amusement chain of theatres throughout Southern Arizona. By late September of the same year, the Fox West Coast Theatre chain had acquired the property along with the others in the Lyric chain, and the Tower became the Fox.
"Designed as a dual vaudeville/movie house, the Fox featured a stage, full fly-loft, and dressing rooms beneath the stage. The combined effects of 'talkies' and the Depression limited the opportunities for live performance, and the dressing rooms were never completed.

"Competition from other venues, drive-ins and television conspired to end the run of popularity the Fox had enjoyed. Partial remodels of the theatre left it with most of its original charm, but vanishing retail and housing Downtown spelled the end in 1974. Various efforts to revive the theatre were unsuccessful, but luckily the property was spared the wrecking ball. Hidden from the view of the public for more than 26 years, the grand theatre was never forgotten by its former patrons" (foxtucsontheatre.org/ history/).
Although hidden from view, the Fox lived in the their memories, awaiting a time when Tucson would embrace their history and bring back the Fox.
"Amazingly, over the next 26 years, what had become a vacant, derelict old building providing poor shelter for homeless vagrants, was spared from demolition.
"Just as amazing, a small group of locals wanted to save the Fox, and they did. In 1999, a group of volunteers formed a public-private partnership and began the long, hard work of restoring the Fox to its former glory" (southernarizonaguide.com/the-beautifully-restored-fox-theater/).
As I read about the restoration work, I was struck by a few notable aspects of this work: the fabric on the seats, the air conditioning, and the acoustics.

While there were a few photographs of the Fox’s original seat fabric and carpet patterns, they were all in black and white. Thanks to a curious Fox volunteer, the original fabric was discovered on a balcony seat and was replicated.
Regarding the air conditioning, the Fox’s original climate control was “swamp cooled” (cooled by chilled air). In 1936, the system was converted to true air conditioning, the first commercial use of this technology in Tucson.

But the story surrounding the acoustics of the Fox was special.

"The theater’s unique acoustic treatment, called 'Acoustone,' was designed due to the advent of 'talkie' motion pictures. This change in the movies required a change in the facilities which exhibited them. Rather than dealing with a room of live musicians, or a theatre
organ accompanying a silent movie, these new films had speakers placed behind the screen projecting sound out at the audience. This change led to many different treatments from wall curtains to special plaster treatments. 'Acoustone,' was placed in only two theatres in the United States, the Fox in Tucson and the Grand in Douglas, Arizona.

“'Acoustone' is a mixture of plaster, gypsum, mica and baking soda which, when combined, 'cooks' and creates voids to absorb the sound in a room. It acts like a sponge to soak up about 52% of amplified sound. According to acoustic engineers who tested the Fox acoustics, they declared it to be more like a European opera house than a movie theatre. 'Acoustone' is ideal for most users of the Fox except an unamplified attraction like the Symphony, in those cases, an acoustic shell will be utilized to focus the sound from the stage to the audience.

"The Fox’s 'Acoustone,' following 26 years of abuse from a leaking roof, was in dire condition. Approximately 50% of the material needed to be repaired or replaced.
Following a patent search to confirm the formula, many experiments were undertaken to get the mix correct. Once the formula was finalized, molds were made and a detailed map of each piece of 'Acoustone' in the auditorium was made. Some pieces were in need of new backing material, some needed small repairs while other pieces crumbled to the touch.

"Lastly, the original color, a rose-like hue that was over-painted in the ‘50’s, was restored" (foxtucsontheatre.org/construction/indepth/acoustone).

The snack bar area (below) of the balcony and
the reception area (below) of the lower level were also given the same meticulous attention. The non-working fireplace shown here was discovered behind a wall when the restoration began.
Tucson's Fox Theater revealed the result of community pride and thanks to David Tenen, our guide one afternoon, we were able to sense that pride as he related the history of the theater's restoration.

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