by Michael Bowen

During the war years, Patrice Munsel left Spokane, made good in the Big Apple and returned in triumph as a Metropolitan Opera star. Friday night, she'll make her second appearance on the stage of the Fox Theater.

A mere 59 years passed in between.

The Davenport District and the Fox may be resurgent now, but what was in the neighborhood around the Fox back in 1944?

"Oh, dear. Nothing of value," says Munsel. "It stood there more or less by itself, with some other buildings, some garages and things. I remember the Spokesman-Review Building being there. But not much else."

Munsel, an honorary co-chair (with Rep. Tom Foley) of the Fix the Fox campaign, returns from New York yet again this week to make an appearance at a season-ending Fabulous Finale bonus concert, designed to boost the renovation effort at the Spokane Symphony Orchestra's eventual new home.

Since it started two years ago, the Fix the Fox campaign has netted (in round numbers) $9 million. It needs to raise $19 million -- $14 million of that for construction costs -- in just the next eight months. How will they do it?

The Fabulous Finale concert is part of a strategy to reintroduce patrons to the hall while nudging open their pocketbooks. Plans call for construction to begin by the end of the year, with completion in time for the 2005-06 season to begin in the big barn on Sprague.

One Fox, new Fox, old Fox, due Fox: It's about time that Spokane's large-scale Art Deco theater, one of only four in the country, should be refurbished. (The others, all of them already restored to their former glory, are the Paramount in Oakland, the Wiltern in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York.)

What will nearly five years and $28 million produce? John Hancock, executive director and chief operating officer of the Spokane Symphony and the Fox Theater, has a list of responses ready at hand. Fox-fixing will involve the restoration of all those dazzling original decorative features; the removal of 12 rows of seats (nearly 500 seats in all) that lie under a sound-wave-blocking balcony; the consequent doubling of the lobby space, to be extended all the way out to Monroe St.; and various acoustical dampenings and improvements so as to stifle unwanted sounds and enhance the good ones.

Hancock notes that concert-goers on Friday will be able to glimpse how "some archaeological painting excavation" has uncovered a mural under the ceiling of the Fox's lobby, "in a floral or paisley design, which we see in the black-and-white photos of the 1940s. It was painted over with red in 1996," but restoration is underway. Perhaps even more exciting, says Hancock, there's "also a painting on the ceiling in the auditorium that's been cleaned and touched up in the style of the rest of the building, so that people will be able to see how bright and colorful it all will be."

But everyone's always raving about the acoustics at the Fox. Acoustically speaking, what's so good about the place? "What we find from nature," says Hancock, "is that a 90-foot width in a room is practically ideal. The new concert hall in Seattle, Benaroya Hall, is 90 feet wide. In Boston, Symphony Hall is about 80 feet wide, and they're saying that they think that's just a little too narrow.

"Now here in Spokane, because of the width of the street, the Fox auditorium is 90 feet wide. Whether that just happened, or they got lucky, it doesn't matter."

Much of the renovation effort is aimed at restoring the Fox as performers like Patrice Munsel remember it from the 1930s and '40s. Speaking from what is obviously an elegant Manhattan apartment, Munsel sounds younger than her 70-some years, dropping casual reminiscences about the stars of stage and screen in the '50s, about appearances on The Tonight Show and on the cover of Time, about command performances for Queen Elizabeth II and presidents Eisenhower and Johnson. Her voice, like Daisy Buchanan's in The Great Gatsby, is full of money.

That voice wanders back to her 1944 concert at the Fox. "I don't remember exactly what I sang," she says, "but I'm sure it was arias and, oh, you know, coloratura, 'kicky-ricky' songs." (This last turns out to be Munsel's private term for all the high trills and runs that are in a coloratura soprano's special-effects playbook.) "And 'Home Sweet Home,'" she adds. "I'm sure I sang that, and that became something I became known for singing a lot, both in Spokane and elsewhere."

For her, home was the South Hill. "My neighborhood was the most glorious place," Munsel remembers. "I could ride my bicycle downhill all the way for blocks and blocks, right to where the Fox was."

And riding back uphill?

"Oh, that was fine. I had good legs then. Still do."

Needing to raise millions of dollars -- and soon -- the Fox fund-raising campaign itself faces an uphill battle. Project Fix the Fox needs to have legs. Good ones.

Publication date: 05/15/03

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.