When it opened in January of 1929 the Fox Theatre was the second largest cinema palace in the world with 6,000 seats. People poured in for opening night to watch the film, Street Angels, for 50 cents. However, this is not just a beautiful theatre with exquisite architecture, it is a building with a history intertwined with the interpretation and importance of Christian belief in St. Louis.
At its inception, The Fox was designed by Howard Crane who was contracted by William Fox, the founder of the Fox movie production company. Howard Crane was well known as a movie palace architect and had a distinct style. However, an important note in the history of The Fox and its role in the Christian history is that before its construction a church had to be razed on the site in which it was built. The church was named Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church and was occupied until 1914 when the church moved to another chapel at Union and Delmar. The former church was then converted to a movie house before it was razed in 1927 to become the site of the Fox Theater in 1929. This theater with 6,000 seats and stunningly polished architecture actually has an architectural twin in Detroit which was built in 1928. While The Fox was popular for nearly half a century, it had to close its doors in 1978 until it was bought from the Arthur family and fully restored by September 1982. Since then it has undergone many other renovations but continues to host shows even today.
The Fabulous Fox theater was designed and built by C. Howard Crane in a style which is called “Siamese Byzantine.” His lavish plan for the theater made the cost to build it $5 million, but included the characteristic looks that make the Fox what it is today. These characteristics include a pair of huge golden griffons that flank the grand staircase, deep red faux marble columns ring the mezzanine level, and from every corner statuary peeks out. This architecture shows a mixture of “the salient features of Burmese, Hindoo, Persian, Indian and Chinese architecture and decoration,” according to the March 1929 issue of Union Electric Magazine. With the area surrounding being highly Catholic oriented--the Fox is just a few blocks north of Saint Louis University and about a mile east of the Cathedral Basilica--when the former Grand Avenue church was torn down, the Fox became a new “religious” type of building to go to. The interior reaches to varying religious type designs with gold colored ceiling finishes and stain glass fixtures placed inside. As written in Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, “As in so much Byzantine art, the effect of these churches was one of sumptuous elegance brilliantly and inextricably united with symbolic forms.” This is in line with descriptions of The Fox with its ornate design. Although not explicitly mentioned anywhere, the architects of The Fox seem to have been inspired in their design by the Hagia Sophia, an enormous Greek Orthodox Christian church built in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) around 500 CE. The architects of The Fox took inspiration from this, and created their own piece of classic Byzantine architecture right here in Saint Louis, communicating exotic excess to their affluent patrons. Today's visitors to the Fabulous Fox theater can visit and feel (to a degree) what it must have been like to walk through one of the most influential and famous basilicas of all time.
The Fox’s shows range from broadway productions to awards ceremonies to kids plays and more. The first ever show at The Fox was called Street Angel which was a story of a girl trying to pay her mother's medical bills due to her being extremely ill. This was a silent movie with the addition of two organs, and a showing of “Fox Movietone News.” Just like this first production at The Fox, most of the performances put on have multiple layers to them including organs, special effects, and sounds to add depth to their productions. The Fox rightfully earned the name, “the cathedral of the arts” due to their attention for detail, live organ, and beautiful interior. The organ that is played in the Fox Theater was built specifically for the theater, and is played while the performances are going on. It ties the Fox theater to religion because of the organ's typical use which is in a church setting to add dimension to choir songs. Although the productions don’t have many religious ties, it is said that the performances hold such a sacred meaning to the history of The Fox and make you feel, “As if you stepped back in time to 1929 for a beautiful performance and worldly experience.”
The Fox, as an iconic “cathedral of the arts,” has served a similar purpose to most other cathedrals. The theatre has played a huge role in orchestrating the development of the arts in general in Saint Louis, but it has also served a much greater purpose. Every week, The Fox attracts massive amounts of people to its high quality productions. Communities come together to foster relationships with their neighbors and grow together, all while enjoying themselves and experiencing art in its various forms. When it comes down to it, this is what Christianity is about. Outside of just prayer and worship, Christians are called to love one another and to develop relationships with those around them. At the same time, the Fox brings people of many different faiths, seekers, and people of no particular faith tradition together for beautiful music, stunning performances, and cultural exploration. In this sense, it is a kind of sacred space in the city that cuts across the categories that so often divide us. With this in mind, Fox Theatre could quite possibly be one of the most important sites for religion--confessional and cultural--in all of Saint Louis.
Researched and written by Jared Gill, Annie Piochiotti, and Nick Roche.
Beets, Henry. The Christian Reformed Church in North America: its history, schools, missions, creed and liturgy, distinctive principles and practices and its church government. Grand Rapids, MI: Eastern Avenue Book Store, 1924. Print.
Dutton, Richard, Alison Findlay, and Richard Wilson. Theatre and religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester U Press, 2003. Print.
Foundry, Watson Theme by The Theme. "Venue Profile: The Fabulous Fox Theater." BG - Blues And Music News. N.p., 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.
MacDonald, William L. Early Christian & Byzantine architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1962. Print.
Theatre, The Fabulous Fox. "History." The Fabulous Fox Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
"The Fabulous Fox." Union Electric Magazine Mar. 1929: n. pag. Print.
Wayman, Norbury L. "Theaters." History of St. Louis Neighborhoods. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/neighborhood-histories-norbury-wayman/midtown/index18.htm>.