Origin Story: The Fabulous Fox

31, January 2017
Color photo of Fox Theatre architectural renderingsMHM has quite the collection of architectural materials, including 34 of Crane's renderings for the Fox Theatre.

Although his name isn’t on the marquee, St. Louisans largely have Charles Howard Crane to thank for the Fox Theatre’s breathtaking architecture. Crane, a Connecticut native, certainly had a niche: He designed more than 250 movie theaters over the course of his career, including several so-called movie palaces.

In 1914, New York’s Mark Strand Theatre became the first movie palace to open its doors. With its unique second-floor viewing balcony and the ability to seat approximately 3,000 people, the Strand ignited a new appreciation for escapism through entertainment. For a small fee, patrons could enter a movie palace and be engulfed in the rich and exotic, immediately forgetting the drudgery of day-to-day existence.

Black-and-white photo of Fox Theatre lobbyThe Fox's foyer and grand staircase, 1929. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri History Museum.

Crane’s Fox theatres in Detroit and St. Louis fully embraced the exotic with their use of Siamese-Byzantine style, which mixed “the salient features of Burmese, Hindoo, Persian, Indian and Chinese architecture and decoration,” according to the March 1929 issue of Union Electric Magazine. Owner William Fox referred to the theatres’ décor differently, calling it “Eve Leo style” in reference to his wife’s hands-on involvement: She traveled widely to purchase furnishings for Fox’s theatres, making numerous trips from New York to Detroit to St. Louis to oversee their delivery and installation.

Black-and-white photo of Fox Theatre on opening dayCrowds lined up for the grand opening of the Fox on January 31, 1929. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri History Museum.

The two theatres are nearly identical twins, with the biggest difference visible when you observe them from the street. Because Detroit’s Fox Theatre was built in that city’s downtown, it was attached to an office building—albeit an intricately styled one. St. Louis’s Fox Theatre was built far enough from downtown that the building could have its own ornate façade, hence the elaborate arch housing a massive window that overlooks the grandiose lobby inside.

On January 31, 1929, the St. Louis Fox was ready for its debut. William Fox himself addressed the crowds, as well as Missouri governor Henry S. Caulfield and St. Louis mayor Victor J. Miller. In addition to the feature film Street Angel, which also happened to be the premiere film at the Detroit Fox’s opening, attendees were treated to a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture courtesy of the 150-person Fox Grand Orchestra; Tableaux St. Louis, “a tribute to the city’s civic pride and progressive enterprise”; and a performance of Irving Berlin’s “Roses of Yesterday” by the Fox Ballet and Choral Ensemble.

Black-and-white photo of view from Fox Theatre balconyA view from the upper balcony, 1929. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri History Museum.
Black-and-white photo of woman playing Wurlitzer organ at the FoxAn unnamed woman plays the Fox's mighty Wurlitzer organ, 1929. Photo by W. C. Persons. Missouri History Museum.

Today the Fox is home to concerts and touring Broadway performances. Although these spectacles weren’t what Crane had in mind when designing the space, the escapist nature of the venue’s entertainment remains intact thanks to towering red-and-gold columns, a powerful Wurlitzer organ, a bejeweled chandelier, and stunning staircases that lead us up and away from our daily grind—for a few hours anyway.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: Because Crane's renderings of the Fox are still under copyright, we can't show you the detail here. If you want to take a look at—and even touch!—these fabulous artifacts, simply stop by the Museum's Library and Research Center at 225 S. Skinker Blvd. during regular operating hours.

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