The phrase "debutante with a dirty face" is often used to describe the Southern-gothic city of Savannah, but it applies just as well to Spokane's splendid but battered Fox Theater.
An art-deco mecca slated to become another downtown parking lot, the Fox was saved from the wrecking ball last year by an improbable coalition of preservationists: green-haired youths who were weaned on the dollar movies the theater screened, and blue-haired matrons who had their first kiss in the balcony when the Fox was Spokane's premier theater destination.
But it turns out that saving the Fox from demolition was just the beginning.
Now, the Spokane Symphony, the theater's new owner, is embarking on an ambitious campaign to restore the old theater, which today is cracked and crumbling, yet still retains the veneer of its original elegance.
And if saving the Fox was a grassroots effort, with nickel and dime contributions trickling in from all over the Inland Northwest, fixing the Fox will be a far more strategic and costly undertaking.
For one thing, fixing the Fox is going to cost a lot more than saving it did. And that's in a city where a prevalence of lower wage jobs can translate into less money to give to good causes.
Still, Spokane came through once for the Fox. And there are plenty of people out there who have faith that even though the stakes are higher this time, the city will do so again.
Last June, when the Spokane Symphony put out an all-points bulletin calling for donations from the community to buy the old theater, they had to work fast to raise the $1,130,000 asking price before their option to buy expired.
They reached their goal by November, with the help of 1,100 donors, including an anonymous fairy godperson who has pledged $3 million to the project.
But that $1 million was just the first hurdle. The new magic number is $15 million. That's the amount the Symphony estimates it needs to renovate the old theater, make it a suitable performance space for an orchestra and still have enough left over to endow the Fox with $2.5 million.
The "Save the Fox campaign," its orchestraters will tell you, was by necessity a nontraditional, seat-of-the-pants affair. Instead of hobnobbing with high-rollers behind closed doors, pressed-for-time fund-raisers stood on street corners and at malls, handing out brochures about the Fox's imminent demise. Local media pitched in and spread the word, and donations came from everywhere -- and, perhaps even more significantly, in large numbers from the kinds of people who weren't necessarily big-ticket givers, or even Symphony patrons.
This time, with a larger sum to collect and more time in which to do it, fund-raisers will take a more traveled road.
For starters, the Symphony will ask the state legislature to provide $6 million for the Fox. That's a tall order in today's climate of slashed budgets, but it's not an impossibility, especially considering the state's recent support of renovated theaters in Tacoma and Bellingham, and its grants for a new home for the Seattle Symphony.
Spokane Symphony Executive Director John Hancock says he plans to return again and again to Olympia before the end of the legislative session. The Symphony even has a full-time lobbyist pleading its cause. So far, signs from the capital are encouraging, Hancock says.
The Symphony will also look beyond the boundaries of Spokane to regional and national foundations like the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, and the Vancouver, Wash.-based Murdock Charitable Trust, which both have a history of support for cultural and preservationists projects.
And, Hancock says, this time around, fund-raisers will make more targeted appeals to donors in the Spokane area with a proven philanthropic track record -- a demographic that went largely untapped in the "Save the Fox" campaign because the response from the general public was so great. But the Symphony will also look again to those blue-haired matrons and green-haired rebels, campaign organizers say, because even if they don't have as much to give, their memories of the Fox are just as dear.
As soon as the Symphony raises $8 million, it will likely close the Fox to begin the 18-month-long renovation period, says Annie Matlow, the organization's director of marketing and public relations. Right now, the old theater is fraying at its elaborately decorated, ornately carved seams. While setting up for a recent production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which was, incidentally, the first live theatrical production to play the Fox in about three decades), Children's Youth Theater Executive Director Brian Pitotti observed that the theater had "no lighting, no sound, no rails that really work to rig the curtains up on."
Still, Pitotti was thrilled to be playing in the theater, which he and others said fulfilled a real need in Spokane for a mid-size venue for community productions -- the Fox is larger than The Met, but smaller than the Opera House, the area's two other primary venues for stage productions.
When the millions of dollars worth of renovations are finished, Fox boosters envision a lobby doubled in size, with a glass-walled atrium where patrons can sit, talk, eat and drink between acts or before shows. Plans call for an orchestra pit large enough to hold 65 musicians, installing a basement level, a new heating system, refurbished seating, upgraded dressing rooms, four times as many restrooms (with possibly 75 percent of new facilities set aside for women), and, perhaps most significantly, the preservation and restoration of the art-deco moldings and decorations that adorn the theater.
There will also be a new face on the Fox, with a restored marquee and outdoor lighting. The theater space will be revamped for better acoustics, and new lighting and rigging systems will be added.
The hope is that the high price tag and the extensive renovations will pay for themselves again and again, not just in revenue from the Fox, but in the revitalization of the entire neighborhood surrounding the theater, which is already billing itself as an arts district. Here, history may be on the Fox's side: Terry Demas, the executive director of the League of Historic American Theaters in Baltimore, says that the revitalization of old theaters often has a dramatic economic impact on surrounding neighborhoods. As an example, Demas cites Cleveland's Playhouse Square, where four restored theaters cluster together. Since Playhouse Square's opening, Demas says, about $300 million in investments has gone into the surrounding arts district, and rent costs per square foot in Cleveland have risen about 8 percent.
"Restored theaters can have a significant impact on the economic vitality of the downtown," Demas says. "Communities are understanding that if you create a cultural meeting place, it can add an economic engine to a community. And you can restore an old theater in a first class manner and have a far finer product than anything new."