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Returning To Movie Palace Era

The Fabulous Fox Celebrates 40 Years Since Associates Restored Theatre To Its 1929 Splendor

Forty years ago, a St. Louis “movie palace” reopened its beautiful brass doors to a new era. The Fabulous Fox supporters are celebrating its 2022-2023 season for its successes in the last four decades, as the theatre went from barely keeping those doors open for showings of Kung Fu movies, to sold-out performances of the nation’s top Broadway shows.

Hailed as one of the pioneers of the motion-picture and entertainment industry, the son of Hungarian immigrants, William Fox, built a multimillion-dollar empire in the early part of the 20th century, which included the Fox Theatre, Fox Film Corporation and Fox West Coast Theatres chain. His memory lives on as the namesake of the Fox Television Network and the 20th Century-Fox studios.

William dropped out of school when he was 11 years old, selling penny candy to support his family, before purchasing a nickelodeon in Brooklyn in 1904. He later developed Theda Bara into the first screen vamp and movie star, founded “Movietone News” — the first commercially successful sound film — and pioneered the vertical integration of the film industry.

C. Howard Crane, a leading movie palace architect of the period, designed the original Fox Theatre in St. Louis in a style known as “Siamese Byzantine” — a conglomeration of Moorish, far Eastern, Egyptian, Babylonian and Indian themes of various periods.

The original Fox Theatre opened on Jan. 31, 1929, with a showing of Street Angel. The $5 million movie palace decorated in plaster finishes, hand stenciled walls, marble bathroom fixtures, leather-lined elevators and velvet throne chairs, was billed as “St. Louis’ largest and most magnificent temple of amusement,” and anchored the city’s entertainment district along North Grand Boulevard. According to a statement from the Fox: “For 50 cents, a person could experience splendor and enchantment of regal edifice, complete with live entertainment, music from two organs, Fox Movietone News, and of course, the ‘talkie.’”

Perhaps the cofounder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Marcus Loew said it best regarding the elaborate nature of the Fox and other movie palaces of the era: “We don’t sell tickets to movies; we sell tickets to theaters.”

But time passed, and city-dwellers became suburbanites, commercial real estate prices rose and Americans bought televisions. Movieplexes and widescreens came on the scene, as did dollar shows, VHS and cable. And they all contributed to the slow demise of the movie palace era. The Fox showed its last movie in March of 1978.

Still, as they always do, times change, and the Fabulous Fox endured.

A retired senior project engineer, Carl Vogt has worked at the Fabulous Fox since its reopening 40 years ago. Today, he is a tour guide and a host in the Fox Club Luxury Box. Carl says the Fox lobby is indeed grand. “It’s 60 feet floor to ceiling. It’s 50 feet between pillars and 90 feet long. The Fox was made to impress.”

The 40th celebration began earlier this year with Saturday walking tours of the five-story theatre. A Christmas CarolRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and ELF The Musical are featured in December. The 2023 schedule includes classics such as Les Miserables, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Wicked.

For nearly 50 years, the Fox delighted millions with its awe-inspiring architecture, drawing guests in to see the top films, stage shows, concerts, radio shows, special events and world premieres. But with the expense of converting 1,100 theatres to sound equipment and the economic crisis of the 1930s, William declared bankruptcy. He served a term in prison for obstructing justice in 1942.

In 1934, producers Fanchon and Marco took a 25-year lease on the building, and Harry Arthur became the general manager of the Fox. Over the years, the Arthurs gained a controlling interest and kept the Fox in business, though they resorted to Kung Fu movies and rock concerts to do so until 1978.

Three years later, banding together as Fox Associates, Leon Strauss, Robert Baudendistel, Dennis McDaniel and Harvey Harris purchased the Fox from the Arthur family. And Mary Strauss led the group on a $2 million restoration project to bring the splendor of the 1929 movie palace back to life.

Some 7,300 yards of elephant carpet were woven to duplicate the original pattern from 1929. All 4,500 seats were removed, renovated and re-installed. Missing art glass was reproduced, and the 2,000-pound auditorium chandelier was cleaned and relamped. The stage and backstage areas were updated and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems were installed. The Fabulous Fox reopened its doors as a performing arts center with the musical Barnum on Sept. 7, 1982, to a capacity crowd of 4,500 and a standing ovation.

In 1995, the Fox completed a $2 million stage expansion, increasing its depth to 50 feet. The lobby ceiling mural was renovated in 2000, the massive faux-marble columns repainted and the theatre recarpeted.

A replica of the 1929 Fox vertical blade sign was added to the front of the building in 2008. And in 2013, the auditorium ceiling was restored.

The Fox celebrated the opening of the Fox Club in 1988; the addition of a video marquee in 2005; the opening of the Curtain Call Lounge in 2015; and the dedication of a 600-car parking garage in 2017.

To date, more than 20 million people have passed through The Fox's brass doors to see some 10,000 performances since the theatre’s reopening.

  • William Fox
  • William Fox Eve Leo and their daughers Mona and Belle Wanamaker
  • Leon and Mary Strauss

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