Then & Now Gallery: Then and Now: The Fox Theater – Jan 16, 2023

Spokane’s Fox Theater, opened Iin 1931, signaled a major change in how movies were distributed and how people saw them. The new Fox Theater made the Fox West Coast Theaters the largest theater chain in the western United States, and showed the studios’ desire to own their theaters.

The Fox was part of the new generation of studio-owned theaters. They were glitzy movie palaces with opulent, ornamented interiors, usually in art deco style, a large number of seats (2,300 in 1931) and a flashy marquee on the exterior. Such a palace changed going to the movies into an awestruck gathering where customers had a group experience with thousands of others.

The Fox was much bigger than the next two busiest local theaters, which were the Liberty Theater, (closed in 1954) and the Clemmer Theater, now the Bing Crosby Theater. Most early movie theaters were first built for live, vaudeville entertainment and had to be retro-fitted to accommodate a movie screen and a projection booth. Other theaters in that era were the Empress, Orpheum, Bandbox, Ritz, Granada, Rainbo and Post Street. Although the popularity of movies eroded the prevalence of vaudeville, which usually consisted of traveling musical, comedy or specialty acts, Spokane theaters were still mixing movie showings and vaudeville performances well into the 1940s.

The US Supreme Court handed down the Consent Decree of 1948 declaring studio ownership of theaters as a violation of antitrust laws, and studios would have to spin off their theater chains or sell them outright to separate the distribution of movies from their exhibition.

Although the Fox was Spokane’s most popular first-run theater, by the 1970s more people were watching TV instead of new movies. The venerable Fox’s glamor had also faded because of the condition of the interior. In 1976, the space was remodeled into three smaller theaters, and tickets were sold for a dollar.

The old movie house was put up for sale in 2000, and the Spokane Symphony raised enough to make the initial purchase, but still needed millions more to complete a renovation to make it a concert hall. Spokane resident Myrtle Woldson gave $3 million in the name of her father, Martin Woldson, to start the campaign and give the building a new name, the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. The new home of the symphony reopened in November 2007.

Photo captions:

1948: A Memorial Day band marches east on Sprague Avenue and passes the Fox Theater, at left, Spokane’s premier first-run movie palace, a role it served for almost 50 years. As grand movie houses were supplanted by mall multiplexes in the 1970s, the Fox was divided into three smaller theaters in 1976. In 2000, the dilapidated building was purchased by the Spokane Symphony and renovated into a concert hall, reopening in 2007. The theater had 2,300 seats in 1931 and now holds 1,600.

2023: Although much has changed at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Monroe Street, the venerable Fox Theater still stands as the renovated home of the Spokane Symphony and the premier performing arts stage in west downtown Spokane.