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Forgotten Founder 

by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & e filed the lawsuit that busted Thomas Edison's monopoly over the movie business. He introduced the system for movie sound that is still used today. He was the first to film in widescreen format. His name is on one of the world's biggest TV networks, on a movie and television studio and even on a certain downtown Spokane theater that starts its latest run this week.





Meet William Fox, the most famous American you've never heard of.





It's a rags-to-riches-to-rags story any of his screenwriters would have loved to write: Hungarian Jew emigrates from Hungary to the United States, penniless; entrepreneur parlays a single Brooklyn theater into one of the largest entertainment empires in Hollywood; mogul sees it all slip away as the Great Depression descends.





"First and foremost, he was an entrepreneur who was totally, totally oblivious to risk," says Susan Fox Rosellini, William Fox's great-granddaughter. "As he built his business, the whole thing was always on the table, and his innovations helped create the media as we know it today. The sadness I have is that the world has not picked up on that and sung his praises."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & o right that historical wrong, Susan Fox Rosellini and her husband Donald spent 10 years researching and writing William Fox: A Story of Early Hollywood, 1915-1930. Rosellini points to an all-or-nothing gambit to purchase the MGM movie studio and theater chain as the turning point in 1927. Fox's bid was built on short-term debt and doomed by bad timing; in 1929, the stock market crashed. In fact, by the time the Fox opened in Spokane in 1931, William Fox was no longer the owner; mounting debts and federal anti-trust investigations forced him out in 1930. Ultimately, a smaller competitor was able to swallow Fox's empire, and thus was born 20th Century-Fox Studios. Far from penniless but out of the Hollywood game for good, Fox retired to New York and died in 1952, forgotten by the town he helped build.





Amid all the setbacks, Fox's movie studio cranked out hits; in the very first Academy Awards of 1929, Fox's studio won five Oscars for Sunrise. In 1930, Fox Pictures' The Big Trail, starring John Wayne, was the first-ever movie filmed in widescreen.





The movie business was changing quickly in the 1920s, and Spokane can be thankful for that.





"All of the moguls went into integration," says Rosellini from her home in Key Biscayne, Fla. "If they made the movie and they owned the theater, they had somewhere to show the movie. The theory was to vertically integrate."





So Fox, Paramount, Loews and others started building their own theaters; Fox owned about 1,000, about 300 of which he built. Theaters became more and more elaborate, as architects competed to make a trip to the movies an escape to a different world. An ad that ran just before the San Francisco Fox opened in 1929 read: Here in this Fox dream castle... is the utopian symphony of the beautiful, attuned to the cultural and practical... No king, no queen had ever such luxury, such varied array of singing, dancing, talking magic, such complete fulfillment of joy.





"Remember, this was a world where there's no TV, not a ton of radios in homes yet," says Rosellini. "In those days, this was the entertainment -- the theater itself and the movie."





Rosellini adds that in her research, she found that it was her great-grandmother, Eva Fox, who oversaw the interior decorating of the theaters her husband was building during his spree.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & s nice as it is to see her great-grandfather's name on Rupert Murdoch's properties, Susan Rosellini is just as proud of the theaters he built -- especially the 25 or so that have been saved. She still recalls bitterly the demise of the San Francisco Fox in 1963, and her grandmother was involved when saving the Fox in Atlanta became a major political saga in the 1970s.





"The tragedy of those theaters is that so many of the beautiful ones got knocked down," she says.





So this week, somewhere, William Fox is smiling -- but he might be turning over just a bit in his grave, too. Due to the purchase agreement the Spokane Symphony signed with the Fox's previous owners, Regal Cinemas, no movies can be shown there until 2020. Oh well, Fox would have known, that's just business.





LASTING LEGACY


Just as we're getting to know the man the Fox Theater was named for back in 1931, there's a new name associated with Spokane's grand old theater. With a $3 million gift, the Martin Woldson estate helped start the process to save the theater, and now his legacy will forever be associated with the project, as the new name is, officially, the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.





Woldson and Fox would have been kindred spirits: Like Fox, Woldson was an immigrant to America; before he was 20, Woldson was working for James Hill's Great Northern Railroad. Woldson settled in Spokane shortly after the Great Fire of 1889 and became one of the West's best-known railroad problem-solvers. He even had the audacity to create the Lewiston Grade, one of the craziest stretches of road anywhere.





Woldson passed away at the age of 94 in 1958, not long after Fox, but the fruits of his labor live on through his daughter, Myrtle, who made the gift, citing her father's love of music and the performing arts.





-- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
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