I have a sixth sense when it comes to identifying buildings that used to be movie theaters. Decommissioned churches are marked by their steeples and stained glass; but theaters that have become warehouses, boutiques, sporting goods stores, even parking garages, have their own traits: broad low porticos, with perhaps a marquee or the remains of it, ticket windows, balcony fire escapes at the back or on the side of the building. One other thing theaters, especially palaces, often exhibit is ornate decorative effects that refer in some way to the theatrical.
So it was, one Sunday, as we walked up Broadway in Manhattan, headed for 175th Street and the United Palace of Cultural Arts, that we happened on an interesting building at 165th St.
There, on the East side of the street, was a fascinating structure, 3940 Broadway, with an arched inset depicting in great detail Neptune, god of the sea riding a magnificent oared ship. The facade is a mix of oxide green and teal, set in beige tiles. Decorative work surrounding the arch over the entryway features lyres and comic/tragic faces. Oddly, given all the sea imagery, faces of foxes line many of the windows. Foxes? Of course. We paused to admire what we later identified as Thomas Lamb’s Fox Audubon Theatre, commissioned by none other than William Fox himself, in 1912, three years before he founded Fox Film Corporation in those bad old days when moguls both built and owned theaters and the movies shown in them.
You may already know that my interest in — and ability to recognize — old theaters comes from the time I spent obsessed with one, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, which for one fateful year, 1976, I had a hand in running. The St. George has, like the Audubon Fox, worn a variety of hats (in the case of the St George: flea market, roller rink, church). But the Audubon, functioning now as a multi-use facility under the aegis of Columbia University, is famous or notorious in a whole other respect.
Built with both an auditorium and an upstairs ballroom, it’s where, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot, and its life and uses after that event reflect, in part, that notoriousness.
There were so many Foxes. Wikipedia lists around ninety theaters, some built by William Fox himself, others joining the chain when Fox West Coast merged with the original Fox Films. The Audubon appears to be the only one of the Foxes known as the site of an assassination, but in the Fox family there have been some pretty interesting alternate uses of houses, ornate and otherwise.
The Kingsport (Tennessee) Fox Theatre a small neighborhood house, celebrated its opening on August 22, 1940. According to local journalist Vince Staten the Fox first featured the film “...Alias the Deacon on screen, starring Bob Burns as a ‘hillbilly deacon who is actually a cardsharp in disguise’... The Fox was the first Kingsport movie theater to show movies on Sunday...” (and was subsequently raided for – what else? — showing movies on Sunday). The theater survived as a single-screen house until 1963 when plans were laid to convert it to some kind of off-premises cafeteria for the new high school. As it was determined that students would not be allowed to leave the school, renovation was subsequently halted, giving a local barber the opportunity to set up shop in the lobby. Eventually, the theater became a country music recording studio, lasting at that trade until the early nineties. Rumor has it these days it’s morphed into a beauty parlor.
The Bunkie Louisiana Fox is the kind of storefront I’d spot and instantly know as a former theater, if I passed it by. Hideous though the black and white aluminum siding on its front may be, you can see that the black is disguising what once was a facade/marquee. The de-bunked Bunkie currently serves as, on the right, City Hall Annex/ Court and, on the left, as the local Bunkie library.
These previous two are humble country Foxes, but there are some famous ones.
Arguably, the “Super Foxes,” all palaces built before William Fox’s empire crumbled are: The St Louis Fox (aka “The Fabulous Fox”), The Detroit Fox (aka “The Magnificent Fox”), the tragically demolished San Francisco Fox, and the marvelously resurrected Atlanta Fox.
The St. Louis and Detroit Foxes are said to be “twins,” built in Siamese/Byzantine style, whatever that is, and seating 4,500 people. Here’s a brief description of the lobby of the St. Louis house, clipped, I freely admit, from Cinema Treasures:
In the lobby, a pair of huge golden griffons flanked the grand staircase, and deep red faux marble columns ringed the mezzanine level. From every corner statuary peeked out—including a group of large gilt maharajahs. The cavernous auditorium was spectacular in scope, dramatic in its lighting and swirling decor, and when the Governor of Missouri appeared on its stage on opening night to dedicate it, he was nearly at a loss for words.
Both the SL and the Detroit remained theaters all their days, though they suffered steep declines in the dark times of the seventies.The Detroit, slightly larger, by 500 seats, continued, showing Martial Arts and Blaxploitation films, and was landmarked and revitalized in the eighties.
The Atlanta Fox, was reputedly inspired by a combination of the Alhambra in Spain and Egypt’s Temple of Kharnak. It was begun by the Shriners organization in the late twenties, who were intent on building the most opulent temple possible, then (lack of funds) leased the half-finished structure to William Fox, who finished the job, opening in 1929 with a premier of Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse. As is usually the case with movie palace big beauties, the theater was saved by a local group starting in the mid-seventies, and brags that it has the only full-time restoration staff of any current saved theater.
The San Francisco Fox, completed in that fateful year, 1929, is the only one of the four Super Foxes not to survive a wrecker’s ball. At 4,651 seats, it’s a near twin to the (smaller) Los Angeles Theatre, 1932 by S. Charles Lee, who imitated many of its design features. By 1963, the powers that be in SF saw to its demolishment, with a gilded demolition ball. Here is the saddest description you can imagine of its final moments as a standing hall:
The steel wrecking ball, painted a lackluster gold for the occasion, crashed through the west wall of the opulent Market Street movie palace at 10:33 a.m. high above some 200 generally disinterested bystanders. Inside, on the abandoned third floor, a wall-length mirror shattered in the cavernous ladies’ lounge. A stained glass sign, made in 1929 by Tiffany’s, swung violently in a corridor lined with faded red satin.
When the Fox opened June 28, 1929, at 1350 Market St., it was the largest theater west of Chicago.
In a general sense, the story of the altered lives of Fox theaters is the story of what became of palaces and smaller neighborhood theaters nationwide, which have managed to stand for second and even third lives.
Sometimes they return to their roots, like our own St. George, not a Fox, but grand enough, becoming a mixed house, showing, perhaps, some movies, welcoming magicians, local dance and theatrical troupes, comedians, solitary but still-famous rock musicians, you name it — and even the occasional major act. I even read in last week’s New Yorker, an account by David Sedaris of a reading/book signing — now that he’s back on the road:
I had forgotten about the ups and downs of life on tour. One night you’re at Symphony Hall and the next in a worn-out, once grand movie theatre that is now overrun by mice. “Can you believe they wanted to tear this place down?” the house manager invariably asks, fondly looking up at a gold plaster cherub with one arm missing.
“Um, yes, as a matter of fact.”
Oh well. I love Sedaris, and so forgive him this lapse in enthusiasm for surviving movie palaces. His descriptions of post-Pandemic squalor in deserted airports, hostile hotels and elsewhere, make a mouse-infested theater seem, well, almost homey.
The Audubon, which, as I noted, contains the now-infamous Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was shot, has had an interesting journey from movie theater and meeting place/union hall to its current incarnation as, among other things, the Shabazz Center. Recognize the name? Betty Shabazz was Malcolm X’s widow and fought hard to revitalize the building and memorialize her husband. She didn’t live to see the completion of this project, but it did finally come to fruition.
Interestingly enough, the facade of what was once the Audubon Fox, with its amazing depiction of Neptune in the prow of a trireme (ancient Greek ship), shows to better effect, now that it doesn’t have to fight with a marquee and blade sign, which utterly obscured it when it was actually a theater.